President-elect Park Geun-hye is under growing pressure to revise her nuclear energy governance plan widely criticized as weakening safety regulations and research capabilities.
Part of a sweeping government reorganization plan, the presidential transition committee proposed last month a change to the status of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.
If the plan goes ahead, the currently presidential body will be degraded into a body affiliated to a newly created super-ministry in charge of policies on science research, information communication technology and atomic energy development.
|Controversy flared up last year over resuming the operation of the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, Kori-1, in Busan. (Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power)|
The status of the commission chief will also be lowered from minister level to the vice minister level.
The announcement drew protests from scientists, environmentalists and both ruling and opposition politicians. They said the plan would seriously undermine the watchdog’s independence and weaken its safety management authority over the nation’s accident-prone nuclear plants.
Korea currently runs 23 reactors and plans to build 14 more nuclear plants by 2024, with three already under construction.
“Under this plan, the science minister will try and expedite the development process for quicker returns and at the same time, try to slow it down for closer inspection. Conflict of interest between the two functions is inevitable,” Suh Kune-yull, a professor of nuclear engineering at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.
“In addition, the NSSC will be led by a vice minister, who in reality must comply with the minister of science.”
A recent survey showed a majority of experts oppose the plan.
In a survey of 2,005 scientists conducted by the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies from Jan. 30 to Feb 3, 72.3 percent answered that the commission should remain an independent body.
The NSSC was launched under the presidential office on Oct. 26, 2011 to ensure its independence and bolster nuclear safety amid widespread public fears in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in March and a series of accidents at Korean reactors. Lax regulation
Previously the commission was a department under the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
“Lax government regulation of nuclear power is what led to the Fukushima catastrophe. The incident was triggered by a natural disaster, but lax security contributed significantly to the disaster,” Suh said.
Fukushima Daiichi plant’s fundamental problems were not addressed in advance due to Japan’s bureaucratic practice of covering up difficulties to protect the company, the Korean Nuclear Society said in a report.
Scientists say that should the transitions team’s plan pass, Korea’s nuclear governance structure may closely resemble that of Japan’s prior to the Fukushima meltdown.
Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission consisted of bureaucrats who lacked technical knowledge rather than experts, which further hindered accurate technical analysis of the situation, the report added.
The government reorganization plan is currently under review at the National Assembly. Most of the lawmakers involved in the issue are opposed to the plan and tentatively agreed Wednesday to draw up alternative options, including moving the commission to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Public Administration and Security or the Environment Ministry.
“The Saenuri Party sympathized with the Democratic United Party’s objection to the moving of the NSSC to the science ministry,” said Byun Jae-ill, policy chief of the opposition DUP after a meeting of negotiators from both parties to discuss the revamp proposal.
The commission has already been heavily criticized for lax safety management. In 2012 alone there were seven shutdowns due to malfunctions. It was revealed in November that Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., the operator of 23 nuclear reactors, had unwittingly bought and installed 7,682 substandard parts from fraudulent suppliers since 2003.
In March 2012, it was revealed that the Kori-1 reactor in Busan had lost power earlier in February, but its chief attempted to cover up the incident.
Park’s nuclear research policy is also under fire. The transition team plans to place the state-run Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute under the current Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which will be expanded and renamed to cover trade diplomacy, too.
The institute is currently affiliated to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
In the same survey by the scientists’ association, 76 percent of the participants answered that atomic R&D should be overseen by the new science ministry because it should be seen as a basic scientific field which requires long-term promotion and investment.
The scientists criticized Park aides and politicians for lacking an understanding of science and inconsistencies in related policies.
Currently, long-term atomic R&D falls under the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology while the industry and applied scientific projects are managed by the Ministry of Knowledge Economy.
Scientists worry that the planned consolidation would compromise basic research.
“Due to such drastic changes that take place with each administration, researchers find it difficult to maintain consistent research. They must realign the entire purpose of their study periodically to suit the aims of whichever department is in charge. Therefore, scientists in Korea cannot focus on their area of specialty for an extended period of time,” says Park Jae-woo, professor of Nuclear Power Safety Analysis at Jeju National University.
“This is exactly why Korea has yet to produce a Nobel laureate in the field of science, and our basic sciences are not developed. To realize a creative economy, we must create a structure that allows the scientists to dedicate themselves to extended research, even if it does not yield immediate profit,” he added.
Professor Suh said the underlying problem is that the government body for science and education changes every five years with the new president.
“These regular and exorbitant changes are found nowhere else in the world. Like the U.S. or Japan, we must keep our education and science policies consistent regardless of the administration so we can nurture those fields. Right now, scientists are too worried about their livelihoods due to frequent policy and affiliation changes to commit to their research.”
Despite the president-elect’s pledge to bolster science as an engine of new growth, there are no politicians at the moment who truly appreciate the importance of science, he charged.
Following the Fukushima incident, Japan has shut down all of its 54 nuclear reactors. It only revived two reactors in 2012 to meet climbing energy demands. Germany shut down eight of its 17 nuclear power plants immediately after Fukushima, and pledged to close the remainder by 2020.
On the other hand, President Lee Myung-bak has consistently pushed the nuclear sector as a growth driver and viable source of clean and affordable energy. Nuclear power is attractive especially for resource-poor Korea, which relies on imports for fossil fuels. Currently, nuclear power takes up 30 percent of Korea’s total electricity supply. The Lee administration also announced that it would construct 19 more reactors and boost nuclear energy to 59 percent of the total electricity supply.
By Lee Sang-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org