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Cracks at South Korean nuclear plant raise safety concerns

Korea counts on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its electrical power, but critics are now demanding that the government rethink plans to build more.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / November 9, 2012

Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant reactor #5 is seen in Yeonggwang, South Jeolla province, south of Seoul, Nov. 5.

Ryu Hyeong-geun/Newsis/Reuters

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SEOUL, South Korea

South Korea’s ambitious nuclear energy program is under intensive scrutiny and criticism after the discovery of microscopic cracks in the structure of a nuclear power plant and forgery of quality certificates vouching for thousands of components in at least two reactors.

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Officials in all three major agencies responsible for monitoring the program said Friday there’s no danger to nuclear safety, but the government ordered the shutdown of the two reactors with the uncertified parts. At the same time, the head of the state company overseeing the program, Korea Electric Power Corp. has resigned for what he said were personal reasons.

A sequence of problems at a nuclear power plant on the southwestern coast fueled rising doubts about a program that’s been a centerpiece of the government's energy policy since the first reactors went on line more than 30 years ago. Korea counts on nuclear energy for 30 percent of its electrical power, but critics are now demanding the government shut down some of the older plants and pull back from plans to build enough reactors to fulfill half the country’s power needs.

“I am worried about safety standards,” says Lee Chang-choon, who served as South Korea’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency during his long diplomatic career. “I do not have confidence and trust in the care of sensitive machinery operations.”

The trouble seemed to begin at the nuclear power plant at Yeonggwang where inspectors this week reported thousands of “noncore components” were installed on the basis of fraudulent quality certificates. The Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation, which operates Korea’s four nuclear power plants, including 23 reactors, promised to replace all the parts by the end of the year while asking prosecutors to investigate alleged bribery.

Compounding the difficulties at the Yeonggwang plant, the ministry also reported the discovery of microscopic cracks in passages linking control rods to one of the reactors. An official at the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Corporation said the cracks affected warning signals on control panels but not operation of the reactors.

How it will play out in the election

The concern about nuclear power plant safety standards is likely to rise to the fore in the current presidential campaign in which Park Geun-hye, the conservative candidate of the ruling Saenuri or New Frontier Party, faces two liberals who have both called for decreasing reliance on nuclear power. Ms. Park has not stated her policy on nuclear power but is believed to favor maintaining the current program with more stringent safeguards.

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