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(3rd LD) Nuclear watchdog extends operation of 32-year-old reactor

All Headlines 14:37 February 27, 2015

(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks and more details in paras 6-9, 12, 19-21)
By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's nuclear watchdog on Friday extended the operation of a 32-year-old nuclear reactor until 2022, drawing strong opposition from residents and environmental groups over its safety.

The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) made the decision in the wee hours of Friday morning after a 14-hour marathon meeting marred by intense haggling between the opposing sides. Seven government-appointed members of the commission voted in favor of an extension while the two other members boycotted the vote in protest, the commission said.

The approval cleared the way for the 678-megawatt Wolsong-1 reactor on South Korea's southeast coast to go back on line after it was turned off in November 2012, following 30 years of commercial operation. It is the first heavy-water reactor to receive a life span extension.

In October, the state-run Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety completed an inspection of South Korea's second-oldest reactor and concluded it can be operated for another 10 years. However, the NSSC had delayed its decision on mounting questions over the reactor's safety, especially after Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The state power operator, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP), welcomed the decision and vowed thorough safety inspections to put the reactor back into operation around April.

"We will conduct a 45-day inspection to assess the safety of the facility so as to resume operation in April," KHNP CEO Cho Seok said during a Seoul meeting with government officials and experts. "We will do our best to restore public trust by safely operating the Wolsong-1 reactor."

Cho said the KHNP will draw up plans to implement a re-assessment of safety at the Wolsong-1 reactor and step up communication with local residents to provide appropriate compensation.

Moon Jae-do, the vice chief of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in charge of energy policies, also pledged to prepare follow-up measures to secure safety.

"We will prepare follow-up measures to fix problems revealed in the review process and to restart the facility, putting safety as a top priority," the official said.

In contrast, residents in Gyeongju, a city 371 kilometers southeast of Seoul that hosts the reactor, and environmental groups strongly opposed the decision.

"We are very disappointed about the NSSC's unilateral decision that ignored opinions of local residents," said Lee Sang-hong, an official of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movement's Gyeongju branch. "We expect stronger opposition from the residents as they have lost their trust in the commission. We will soon be preparing future countermeasures."
An alliance of local environmental groups held a rally in downtown Seoul to urge the government to shut down the reactor, citing lingering safety problems and procedural flaws.

According to a recent survey of 1,000 adults, 60.8 percent said the Wolsong-1 should be shut down for safety reasons. Of the remainder, 30.4 said the reactor could be restarted if it passes safety tests.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) was also critical.

"It is an unacceptable decision in terms of public safety," NPAD floor leader Woo Yoon-keun said during a party meeting. "We will convene related parliamentary committee meetings to review problems related to the reactor's life extension."

The continued operation of the heavy-water reactor is expected to affect reviews of the nation's other reactors nearing retirement. There are six reactors whose operational licenses are set to end in the next decade.

In 2007, the government extended by 10 years the life span of the 580-megawatt Gori-1 light-water reactor, the country's oldest, located in the southeastern port city of Busan. It began commercial operation in 1977.

The KHNP has to submit an application for a safety inspection by June if it wants to continue to operate the Gori reactor. The law requires such a request at least two years prior to the expiration date.

Mindful of potential protests against its request for continued operation of Gori-1, however, the KHNP remained cautious over its next move.

"Nothing has been confirmed yet (about the request for the extended operation of Gori-1 reactor)," Cho said. "We are considering various measures."

On Friday, a group of anti-nuclear power activists held a rally in front of the Gori-1 power plant urging the government to shut down the aging facility and pressuring the operator not to request another life extension.

South Korea has 23 nuclear reactors in operation, from which it currently gets about 30 percent of its electricity supply, and is building several more as its industries heavily rely on imported energy sources.


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