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[Editorial] Early closure of reactor

Nuclear operator flips decision in surprise meeting, phase-out policy produces side effects

State-owned nuclear operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. held an emergency board meeting on Friday and decided to close Wolsong-1 nuclear power plant early.

Wolsong-1’s life cycle was extended for 10 years to 2022 as it was deemed “economically viable” after its 30-year operational license ended in 2012.

The extension decision was then overturned by reason of “uncertain economic viability.”

It is difficult to understand why it has turned suddenly from economically viable to nonviable.

Unlike most nuclear reactors in advanced countries that operate for more than six decades through the extension of operating licenses, Wolsong-1 faces shutdown after 36 years of operation.

The KHNP also decided to nullify the construction of four new nuclear plants, which were in the stage of design or site purchase.

Due to the decisions, 560 billion won ($505 million) spent to refurbish Wolsong-1 will go up in smoke, together with 310 billion won in sunk costs for the four new nuclear power plants.

These are great losses to the country.

In spite of deciding on this grave issue, KHNP tried to hush the related board meeting. The unscheduled meeting was held unannounced to the outside world in a Seoul hotel, not at KHNP.

At the time when it extended the operating license for Wolsong-1, it collected opinions from residents near the plant beforehand, but this time it skipped the procedure without notice.

The sudden decisions came a day after the ruling party won a landslide victory in the local elections. Have energy authorities become arrogant enough to think public opinions are no longer needed?

Residents and the KHNP union may well oppose the decisions, calling them null and void.

The Moon administration vowed to phase out the use of nuclear energy. The decision to retire Wolsong-1 early gives an impression that the government is speeding up the policy, fired up by the ruling party’s election win.

Voters did not give it the election triumph to accelerate the policy to rid the nation of nuclear power plants.

The government’s energy policy shift stemmed from Moon’s campaign pledge to protect people with safe and clean energy. But the policy has produced quite a few side effects over the past year.

Due to stricter maintenance and inspection criteria, the operating ratios of the nation’s nuclear reactors have fallen to 50 or 60 percent down from a 90 percent level.

State-run utility monopoly Korea Electric Power Corp. sustained operating losses for two successive quarters in the first quarter of this year, as it increased expensive electric power generated by liquefied natural gas and renewable energies, while decreasing cheap nuclear energy. It is the first time in more than five years for Kepco to record a deficit for two consecutive quarters.

If its deficit keeps piling up, there is no other solution than pouring taxpayer money into Kepco or raising electric bills.

It is a matter of time for burden on the people to increase.

Nevertheless, the government reiterates, “the policy to phase out nuclear energy will have little influence on electric bills. The bills will not go up by 2022 (when the current presidential term ends).”

Moon’s stubborn push to phase out nuclear energy will devastate related industry ecology, which the nation has created laboriously.

If he pushes the policy hard but the next government wants to return to nuclear energy, it will have difficulty doing so as it takes about a decade or longer to build and operate new nuclear reactors.

While the nation is being weaned off nuclear energy, a network of numerous domestic parts suppliers will crumble.

An overseas outflow of nuclear engineers will be another problem. Nuclear reactor exports will be damaged irrevocably.

It is not free to phase out nuclear energy.

The Moon administration must let the people know the social costs of its energy policy and seek their consent.