NATIONAL

Seoul ready to send planes, ships to evacuate its citizens from Japan

By Song Sangho
  • Published : Mar 18, 2011 - 19:08
  • Updated : Mar 18, 2011 - 19:08
Korea to send blankets, water; Lee orders check on Korean nuclear plants


South Korea plans to mobilize “all possible means” including military aircraft and Coast Guard vessels to pull its citizens out of Japan should the nuclear crisis in the northeast coast escalate to a dangerous level, the vice foreign minister said Friday.

The Seoul government has also advised South Koreans ― even those further than 80 kilometers from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant ― to move farther away as concerns over rising radiation levels deepen.

On Thursday, it told its citizens to stay at least 80 kilometers away from the troubled nuke plant, more than doubling the previous advisory of at least 30 kilometers.

“Taking into account numerous variables including the change of the wind direction, we are advising our citizens staying outside a radius of 80 kilometers from the nuclear complex to move farther to safer areas until the situation improves,” Second Vice Foreign Minister Min Dong-seok told reporters.

“We are advising them as there are people who feel anxious and want to evacuate to safer areas for various reasons even when they are more than 80 kilometers away from the plant.”

The Seoul government also plans to send 6,000 blankets and 100 tons of drinking water on a chartered civilian plane to Japan on Saturday to help victims of last week’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

The plane carrying the relief supplies ― which the government has gathered with support from provincial governments and local private companies ― is due to depart at around 6 p.m. for Narita airport, east of Tokyo.

In order to help South Koreans wanting to return to their home country, the government is also in talks with local air carriers to increase the number of flights to Japan and reduce flight fares

President Lee Myung-bak instructed Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan to draw up “active measures” to ensure the safety of South Korean nationals in Japan.

Lee also ordered a thorough safety check on all 21 local nuclear reactors to check whether the nuclear facilities are strong enough to withstand possible disasters such as the massive quake that crippled the Japanese nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

“We should check all of the nuclear power plants and their (safety) manuals, and see if there are things that need to be complemented,” he said.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology plans to start inspecting all of the nuclear reactors in Korea later this month and finish the process by the end of April. The government will focus on checking the nine units that have been in operation for more than two decades.

The 21 nuclear reactors are located in four locations ― Ulsan; Gyeongju and Uljin in North Gyeongsang Province; and Yeonggwang in South Jeolla Province.

Electricity generated by these reactors accounts for 34 percent of the total power supplied in South Korea. Seoul seeks to establish nine more nuclear plants by 2030 to increase the percentage to 59 percent.

To better protect its rescue team in Japan, Seoul will send a radiation expert to Japan, officials said. Chang Jai-kwon, a senior researcher at Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, will join the 107-person rescue team, which has been operating in the outskirts of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture since last Saturday.

Meanwhile, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., the state-run nuclear power company, said the process of reinforcing new reactors to enable them to better withstand massive tremors will raise design costs by at least 100 billion won ($88.76 million).

In related news, the Korean Red Cross said that the Japanese embassy in Seoul has requested that it gather relief assistance from the private sector in South Korea and direct it to its Japanese counterpart so it can be systematically and effectively handled.

The Foreign Ministry said that, as of Friday morning, a total of 231 South Koreans still remain out of contact. One South Korean fatality has so far been confirmed.

Officials said that they have had some difficulty contacting some South Koreans due to telecommunications problems, noting that there may be many South Koreans who are safe, but out of reach.

There are 11,572 South Koreans in the affected regions including Miyagi, Akita, Fukushima and Iwate Prefectures according to government data.

The ministry also said that the amount of money South Korean civic groups had collected to help the victims of the disaster in Japan as of Thursday was 34.3 billion won.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)