South Korea’s nuclear regulator may decide as soon as today whether to extend the operating license for the Wolsong No. 1 nuclear reactor, the first to come up for renewal since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in neighboring Japan.
The 679-megawatt reactor, South Korea’s second-oldest, has been offline since its original 30-year license expired in 2012. Operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. has already spent 560 billion won ($520 million) to refit the reactor as it seeks approval to extend its operating life to 2022.
While approval was essentially a foregone conclusion when regulators last faced this issue in 2007, since then the triple meltdown at Fukushima, a domestic scandal over forged safety documents and a hacking attack on Korea Hydro’s computer network have galvanized the country’s anti-nuclear movement. Even if money already spent tips the Wolsong decision in its favor this time, mounting public opposition means the state-run operator can no longer be guaranteed to get its own way.
“The government will probably try to push to restart the reactor, but there are risks for Korea Hydro both in terms of safety concerns as well as the public perception of nuclear power,” Suh Kune-yull, a nuclear engineering professor at Seoul National University, said Wednesday by phone. “There’s a flaw in how the system is set up. They’ve been replacing parts since 2009, which leaves the government no choice but to seek ways to extend the license.”
The Wolsong nuclear plant, about 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Seoul in the town of Yangnam, is a focal point for all aspects of the anti-nuclear movement. It’s one of two atomic clusters in the country’s southwest, where almost 4 million people live within 30 km of 11 operating reactors. A twelfth, Shin-Wolsong No. 2, is scheduled to come online in July.
Wolsong has been embroiled in much of the recent scandal involving South Korea’s nuclear industry. The government ordered the replacement of control cables at both Shin-Wolsong No. 1 and No. 2 in 2013 after they were found to be using components whose safety certificates were faked.
In December, blueprints for the Wolsong No. 1 reactor pipe installation, a photo of its water supply and condensation system and a control program manual for both Wolsong No. 1 and No. 2 were leaked online with other Korea Hydro documents. The perpetrator also demanded that Wolsong No. 2, Kori No. 3 and Kori No. 1, South Korea’s oldest reactor, be taken offline.
The same month, 1,336 people including 301 thyroid cancer patients, 46 of whom live near the Wolsong plant, filed a class-action suit against Korea Hydro, claiming a direct link between radioactive materials from reactors and villagers’ cancer. The operator has denied any link.
Opponents of the license extension have also used overseas precedent to bolster their case. Wolsong Nos. 1 to 4 are the only South Korean reactors using Canadian heavy water technology, so Hydro-Quebec’s 2012 decision to close its same-technology Gentilly-2 reactor, rather than extend its life past a planned 30 years, has been central to the debate.
Hydro-Quebec said at the time its decision hinged on unfavorable market conditions that didn’t support spiraling refurbishment costs.
In Korea Hydro’s case, the danger of sunk costs may prove to be an advantage with Wolsong No. 1. The nuclear operator isn’t to blame for a system that requires upgrade work to happen before gaining a license extension, and Korea Hydro expects a “positive” response from the regulator, spokeswoman Choi Eun-jung said.
“They will extend the lifespan of Wolsong No. 1 because they’ve already spent too much money,” Lee Heon-seok, a representative at anti-nuclear group Energy Justice Actions, said by phone. “The government is trying to get the upper hand in this game without a rational reason because all this time, they have been saying nuclear reactors are safe. If they withdraw their stance now, it just proves they were wrong.”
A negative ruling may also have implications for Kori No. 1, which was commissioned by current President Park Geun-hye’s father, the military ruler Park Chung-hee, and began operations in 1978. It and Wolsong No. 1 are the only reactors in South Korea that were built with 30-year licenses — all subsequent ones can operate for 40 years before seeking renewal.
Whereas Kori No. 1 gained a new 10-year license in time to prevent interruption after its original service time expired in 2007, the process has been harder for Korea Hydro with Wolsong No. 1. The operator originally applied for extension in 2009, in preparation for the 2012 expiry.
More stringent tests introduced since Fukushima, as well as pledges from Park while campaigning and in office to tighten regulations, have made the extension process tougher, according to an official at the regulator’s office, who asked not to be identified citing official policy.
Surveys show nuclear power is becoming increasingly unpopular in South Korea, even as the government plans to build more reactors to raise the country’s nuclear reliance to 29 percent of power generation capacity by 2035, from 23.8 percent as of the end of 2013, according to the energy ministry.
Sixty-four percent of respondents to a May survey by the Korea Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency said they consider domestic reactors unsafe. That compared with 56 percent in March 2013.
With public opposition mounting, Korea Hydro faces a further loss of credibility if Wolsong No. 1 has issues following restart, which are to be expected after a reactor has been offline for so long, Suh at Seoul National University said.
“Shutting the reactor down permanently may be a wiser decision, since there’s a lot that Korea Hydro needs to deal with once it’s restarted,” he said.