Scandal in South Korea over revelations of corruption in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants

Like Japan, resource-poor South Korea has long relied on nuclear power to provide the cheap electricity that helped build its miracle economy. For years, it met one-third of its electricity needs with nuclear power, similar to Japan’s level of dependence before the 2011 disaster at its Fukushima plant.

Now, a snowballing scandal in South Korea about bribery and faked safety tests for critical plant equipment has highlighted yet another similarity: experts say both countries’ nuclear programs suffer from a culture of collusion that has undermined their safety. Weeks of revelations about the close ties between South Korea’s nuclear power companies, their suppliers and testing companies have led the prime minister to liken the industry to a mafia.

The scandal started after an anonymous tip in April prompted an official investigation. Prosecutors have indicted some officials at a testing company on charges of faking safety tests on parts for the plants. Some officials at the state-financed company that designs nuclear power plants were also indicted on charges of taking bribes from testing company officials in return for accepting those substandard parts.

Worse yet, investigators discovered that the questionable components are installed in 14 of South Korea’s 23 nuclear power plants. The country has already shuttered three of those reactors temporarily because the questionable parts used there were important, and more closings could follow as investigators wade through more than 120,000 test certificates filed over the past decade to see if more may have been falsified…

With each new revelation, South Koreans — who, like the Japanese, had grown to believe their leaders’ soothing claims about nuclear safety — have become more jittery. Safety is the biggest concern, but the scandals have also caused economic worries. At a time of slowing growth, the government had loudly promoted its plans to become a major builder of nuclear power plants abroad…

The nuclear industry, they say, was built around the notion that South Korea’s industries needed inexpensive power, leading Kepco to build plants quickly and operate them cheaply.

“South Koreans have guzzled cheap electricity while turning a blind eye to the safety concerns of their nuclear power plants,” said Yang Lee Won-young, a leader at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement. “They may end up paying dearly.”

Our history in the United States is almost the opposite in terms of economics. Back in the day – when I worked in a corner of the industry supplying components for nuclear powerplant construction – they were treated as the world’s newest, biggest cash cow. Frankly, I doubt that’s changed much. Which is one of the reasons I support the political battle for solar farms, wind farms, over nuclear power plants, nowadays.

Not only does the cost per nuclear megawatt continue to increase – in the United States. The opposite is happening in the other alternative sources. The economies of scale in the production of components is still driving installed costs down for wind and solar.

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