The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission discussed closing Unit 1 of the Wolsong nuclear power plant permanently in its meeting Friday, but failed to reach a conclusion.
It is unclear if it will discuss the agenda again in the next meeting on Oct. 25.
It effectively took into consideration the possibility of the Board of Audit and Inspection releasing audit results against the shutdown of the reactor in North Gyeongsang Province.
The power plant has been suspended following a decision by the state-owned Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. in June last year to close it early.
If the commission approves the KHNP decision, Wolsong Unit 1 will be the nation’s second nuclear reactor to be shut down for good after Unit 1 of the Kori atomic power plant in Busan.
Two recently appointed members of the commission who brought up problems about retiring Wolsong Unit 1 argued it must decide on its permanent closure after looking at the BAI’s audit report.
On Sept. 30, the National Assembly approved a request by opposition parties for the BAI to audit the “uncertain economic viability” of Wolsong Unit 1, which the KHNP cited as the basis for its decision.
It is sensible to put off approval of the shutdown until the board wraps up its audit. There is no need to shut down a nuclear reactor rashly before doubts about it are clarified.
There are some doubtful aspects to the process leading up to the KHNP’s decision for Wolsong Unit 1.
The reactor began operations in 1983 and was taken offline when its 30-year operating license expired in 2012.
But the KHNP spent 700 billion won ($590 million) to refurbish and update the reactor to obtain approval of a 10-year license extension to 2022. Extending its operation was a rational judgment as its safety was reinforced. The power plant restarted in June 2015.
But the situation changed after the inauguration of the administration of President Moon Jae-in, who vowed to close all of the nation’s nuclear power plants and focus on renewable energies.
In a ceremony to declare the permanent shutdown of Kori Unit 1 in June 2017, Moon pledged to close Wolsong Unit 1 as early as possible.
Then in sync with his policy shift, the board of KHNP decided to close the unit permanently in a meeting on June 15 last year and suspended its operations.
They cited the economic viability of the reactor, not safety issues. Because the commission had already ruled the refurbished Wolsong Unit 1 safe, KHNP needed other grounds to shut it down prior to the expiration of its extended license.
But the economic viability problem it pointed out looked like an improvised sham. Reportedly, KHNP did not even provide concrete data on the economic viability to its directors. It rushed to hold a meeting of directors on just one day’s notice. KHNP was criticized for ramming through the proposal for the perpetual closure of Wolsong Unit 1. Opposition lawmakers questioned if KHNP followed proper procedures to call the meeting.
KHNP is also suspected of having lowered the operation rate of the reactor to the 50 percent level apparently to show it was not economically viable. The average operation rate of Wolsong Unit 1 since it became operational in 1983 was 78.3 percent.
The figure once fell to 40.6 percent in 2017 because of maintenance in the wake of an earthquake that shook Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in 2016. KHNP highlighted this unusual case as a pretext to push for a permanent shutdown. This is absurd.
KHNP rushed through the plan regardless, and in February requested the commission’s final approval.
Refurbished with new facilities, Wolsong Unit 1 can generate electricity safely at least until the expiry of its extended licensing period. Nuclear power plants are important state assets. They should not be scrapped hastily based on doubtful decisions.
The BAI will begin auditing the KHNP decision soon. It must find out if there were data fabrications in calculating economic viability and violations of regulations related to the rash convocation of the board meeting. Those involved in illegalities must be punished for wasting taxpayers’ money and damaging the national economy. But considering Moon appointed its chairman, it is questionable if the BAI will get to the bottom of suspicions and release a report opposing his policy.