BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – One of the key issues in Sunday’s Lower House election is the future of Japan’s 50 commercial nuclear reactors, all but two of which remain off line in light of the Fukushima disaster.
But few voters are aware that six reactors are operating in the South Korean cities of Busan and nearby Ulsan sit only 200 km from Fukuoka. Both nuclear plants are situated on the country’s southeast coast, and their safety situation closely resembles the Fukushima No. 1 plant before it had three core meltdowns in March 2011.
And work has almost finished on two new reactors at the Ulsan facility.
As awareness grows of the dangers of nuclear power, around 450 Japanese and an equal number of South Koreans took part in a nine-day cruise tour from Dec. 1 organized by nongovernmental organizations, visiting atomic plants in both nations and debating the risks and economic issues both countries face.
“If there is a crisis at a nuclear power station in either country, it would threaten the lives of people in both Japan and South Korea,” said Tatsuya Yoshioka, a representative of the Tokyo-based Peace Boat NGO, which helped arrange the tour.
During visits to the four-reactor Kori nuclear plant in the industrial powerhouse of Busan and the two-unit Shin Kori atomic complex in Ulsan, another large metropolis, an employee of the museum built by the operator of the plants explained their safety features to guard against earthquakes, touting the robustness of the reactor buildings’ 1.5-meter-thick walls.
“The structures can bear pressure from major temblors and other natural disasters. We believe it is safest to evacuate into the buildings (rather than flee the area) in the event of an earthquake,” the employee said.
However, the reactors have suffered minor accidents in the past. In February, the entire power supply to one of the units at the Kori facility was cut for 12 minutes before workers rerouted electricity from the other reactors.
Yet local residents weren’t informed of the incident until a month later, according to Gu Tae Hee of Busan’s Democracy Park NGO.
Locals also fear that a disaster similar to the Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns could occur in their own backyard, and that hundreds of thousands of people might be forced to evacuate due to massive radioactive fallout, just like residents in Fukushima Prefecture did last year.
“I am concerned about (a possible) crisis at the two power stations because the area is densely populated,” said Hwa Duck Hun, an assemblyman of Busan’s Haeundae Ward, which is located just 20 km from each plant and has some 430,000 residents.
The fact that one of the Kori plant’s reactors was manufactured by a U.S. company in 1977, just two years before a unit at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown in the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, makes Hwa all the more uneasy.
The narrow roads in small villages such as Shinri, which is situated extremely near to both power stations, could prove a major problem in a catastrophe because they would become jammed with people fleeing for their lives.
The village has asked authorities to widen existing roads, Shinri Mayor Shon Bok Lark said, adding local officials have also started holding nuclear disaster preparedness drills.
Displaying a photo of a crammed road near the Fukushima No. 1 plant immediately after the crisis was spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Kenichi Shimomura, one of the tour members and a former anchorman of a TBS news program, explained the importance of widening roads near the plants as a key precaution.
“Roads in the vicinity of the Kori and Shin Kori nuclear complexes are narrow and similar to those that residents in Fukushima used to escape. But because they are narrow, the residents could move at a speed of only 12 meters per hour,” Shimomura noted.
“I wonder whether you are considering how to evacuate in case of a critical nuclear accident,” he told Mayor Shon.
But the truth is, Shon explained, the construction of nuclear plants is a national project, and villagers were left with no choice but to agree to host the Kori and Shin Kori facilities.
Atomic energy is a hot-button topic in South Korea’s Dec. 19 presidential election, as 23 reactors are currently churning out electricity for the nation. Park Geun Hye, tapped by the ruling Grand National Party as South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s successor, is a strong advocate of nuclear power, but her main rival, the opposition camp’s Moon Jae In, wants to completely phase out atomic plants.
“The election could (fundamentally) change South Korea’s energy policy,” said Choi Yul, head of the Korean Green Foundation, the tour’s co-organizer.
The South Korean government plans to increase the ratio of nuclear power in the country’s electricity supply to 48.5 percent by 2024 from 31.4 percent, the figure for 2010.
However, the safety of nuclear plants remains unresolved, according to Yun Sun Jin, an environmental studies professor at Seoul National University who pointed out the risk of a disaster occurring in the megalopolis of Busan, population 3.6 million, as well as at the five-reactor Wolsong atomic complex that lies a little farther north along the coast.
After learning about South Korea’s nuclear plants, tour participant Daisuke Makise was struck by the parallels in the two countries: In each case, the central government has pressured municipalities in dire need of jobs to host nuclear complexes in exchange for an economic boost.
As a result, the economies of these communities have become hugely dependent on the nuclear energy industry, said Makise, a 25-year-old graduate student at Kagoshima University.
“Unless there are other industries (regional economies can rely on), we cannot easily say stop nuclear power,” Makise said.
But for Sayaka Taira, another tour member, the difficult and complex situation residents face in South Korea has only reinforced her conviction that nuclear plants are not something she wants Japan to continue depending on in the future.
A 28-year-old employee at the Tama Culture Center in western Tokyo, Taira said she will vote in Sunday’s election for a party seeking to completely eliminate atomic energy.
“Although they may not be able to propose details for the abolition of nuclear power, I support parties that (promise to) do their best to shut down atomic plants and reconstruct industries in areas hosting them,” Taira said.