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Korea to halt old reactor for security check

Nuclear reactor stoppages raise controversy over life extension of aged power plants


State-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. said Wednesday that it had decided to temporarily halt the operation of a nuclear reactor in Busan which experienced a power failure last week.

“We decided to carry out a thorough safety check on the Gori-1 unit and resume its operation after its safety has been confirmed,” KHNP chief executive Kim Jong-shin said.

Kim noted that no specific date had yet been set for the facility to resume operation, as it depends on the results of the inspection which will be led by Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

The shutdown decision came as doubts were raised that the accident was not caused by a circuit breaker malfunction but by more fundamental safety issues.

The operation halts at two aged nuclear reactors at the Gori nuclear power plant are spurring concerns over the life span extension of the country’s atomic facilities.

In a separate event, the government and ruling Grand National Party agreed to launch a presidential body to coordinate different nuclear agencies to prepare nuclear energy policies and handle emergency situations, officials said.

An electrical system failure on Tuesday caused the Gori-4 reactor to experience a problem with power cables that bring in outside electricity to run key systems.

The KHNP said that due to the problem at around 2 p.m., a backup diesel generator was used for 90 minutes to keep the 950-megawatt reactor online.

“The Gori-4 unit is currently generating power as usual and all primary electrical systems have been restored with the backup generator turned off,” KHNP officials said.

The firm explained that the power failure occurred due to a problem at the nearby Gori-3 reactor, which shares the same electrical lines with the facility. The Gori-3 unit has been shut down since April 4 for regular maintenance and thus had no damage, it added.

Yet the accident is spurring controversy over prolonging the lives of old nuclear facilities in the country, as it follows the temporary shutoff of the Gori-1 reactor located at the same plant on April 12.

The Gori-1, the oldest among 21 commercial reactors currently in operation in the country, was approved by the government to extend its operational life for 10 years in 2008. The 587-megawatt power unit started operations in April 1978.

Despite the government’s claim that the Gori plant is safe enough to operate longer than its original life span, environmentalists and nearby communities have been calling for its closure, citing safety reasons.

Similar calls have been made for Wolseong plant in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, whose life cycle expires in 2013.

The fear of nuclear power in Korea has been stirred by the nuclear disaster in Japan which resulted from the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 12.

Japanese nuclear regulatory officials raised the severity rating at the plant to the highest level by international standards on April 11, which equals the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union.

Experts said that the government is seeking to prolong the life span of atomic facilities mainly for cost reasons.

The closure of Gori and Wolseong plants would cost over 1 trillion won annually, which would levy an additional electricity bill of 50,000 won for every household in the country, state-run Korea Energy Economics Institute said in a report.

The international sentiment for nuclear power and extension of nuclear facilities’ life span has also deteriorated in the U.S., Europe and even China, since the Japan disaster.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month put on hold the government’s plans to prolong the lifespan of the country’s nuclear power plants, pending the outcome of an inquiry into reactor safety following the disaster in Japan.

European Union member-states agreed to revisit safety at their 143 nuclear reactors. The so-called “stress-tests” should lead to the closure of plants that fail them.

By Koh Young-aah (youngaah@heraldcorp.com)
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