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Impasse over lifetime extension of Wolseong unit 1 drags on

Civic groups, progressive politicians push to shut down aging nuclear power reactors

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Published : 2014-08-31 20:57
Updated : 2014-08-31 20:57

The future of Wolseong nuclear power plant unit 1, which has been preparing for a 10-year license renewal for the past few years, is unclear as civic groups and some politicians are speaking out against extending the operations of the country’s aging nuclear power plants.

The 700-megawatt Wolseong unit 1 in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, started commercial operations in 1983 as the nation’s first pressurized heavy-water reactor. Its 30-year-long initial design lifespan ended on Dec. 20, 2012.

Under the current law, an aging reactor whose initial design lifespan ends can have its operations extended every 10 years after passing a feasibility evaluation by the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

The Gori nuclear power plant unit 1, the nation’s first reactor, located between Busan and Ulsan, was the first reactor in Korea to receive a lifetime extension, receiving a 10-year license renewal in 2007.

“We are hoping to renew the license of Wolseong unit 1 by year-end,” said Lee Kyu-chan, public relations head for the Wolseong Nuclear Power Complex, run by the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corp.

Industry watchers, however, are skeptical about the timeline as the KHNP, which operates the nation’s 23 reactors, has yet to submit a renewal application to the NSSC. 
A man fishes near unit 1 (left) of the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant Complex in Gyeongju. The reactor stopped power generation on Dec. 20, 2012, as its initial design lifespan expired. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corp. is pushing for a license renewal by year-end. (Bloomberg)

The KHNP began preparing for the license renewal of Wolseong unit 1 on Dec. 30, 2009, in order to run the reactor without a hiatus.

Despite its efforts, Wolseong unit 1 stopped generating power for over a year. Strengthened safety measures after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused the delay, as they added additional steps to the application.

The government ordered the KHNP to conduct European “stress tests” on Wolseong unit 1 for improvements in safety. Stress tests, developed by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, are aimed at examining safety margins of nuclear power plants.

According to the KHNP, stress tests for Wolseong unit 1 were in the final stages as of Aug. 23.

Additionally, growing resistance from civic groups and progressive politicians who support a nuclear power-free energy policy is adding to the difficulties of extending the lifespan of Wolseong unit 1.

“We oppose the life extension of any aging nuclear power plant, based not only on safety concerns but also on economic factors. It is time for the government to set up a plan to phase out nuclear reactors by choosing to shut down aging reactors,” said Lee Heon-seok, head of Energy Justice Actions, a civic group that seeks a nuclear-free energy policy.

Besides lingering safety concerns over nuclear power plants, Lee and progressive politicians have recently pressed the government to shift to a nuclear power-free energy policy, pointing out that nuclear power is no longer a cheap energy source.

“Aging reactors are not a viable option, considering the costs required to upgrade them and to manage nuclear waste,” Rep. Kim Je-nam from the Progressive Justice Party said.

The KHNP, in turn, claimed nuclear power is much cheaper than other energy sources.

“For instance, when nuclear power is replaced with gas, the unit cost for power generation would triple, resulting in a hike in utility prices,” a KHNP official said.

“As the construction of a new nuclear power plant is a multibillion won project, extending the life of aging reactors is an economically viable option when they are proven to be safe for continued operation.’’

Industry watchers predict the impasse over the lifetime extension of Wolseong unit 1 will drag on amid the widening gap between the KHNP and civic groups over the renewal of aging reactors.

“Making matters worse, a growing number of residents living near reactors are raising their voices against nuclear power based on safety concerns,” an industry source said.

By Seo Jee-yeon (jyseo@heraldcorp.com)

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