When rain fell last week, workers at some potable water reservoirs were busy covering their large facilities with vinyl sheets to prevent “radioactive” rainwater from being mixed with the drinking water. Cynics remarked, “Why don’t we cover the whole Han River?” This reveals the great psychological impact Korea had from the natural disaster that hit Japan a month ago.
The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and 12-meter-high tsunami which tore into Japan on March 11 brought home to Koreans that their country is not at all safe from the wrath of Mother Nature, despite being on a different earth plate. As the television showed the scenes of destruction again and again, Koreans felt as if they were in the middle of the tragedy.
Then came the radioactivity scare. Initially, scientists and weather experts pointed to the seasonal westerly winds as fortunately driving the contaminated air from the Fukushima nuclear power plants to the Pacific. But soon afterwards, observatories across the country began reporting the detection of iodine and cesium from the air with explanation that the air current traveled in a course different from what had been expected.
Disappointment grew as it was reported that the state-run Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety is poorly equipped with radioactivity detection devices. Its present assets consist of only one machine capable of detecting xenon, four plutonium detectors, 22 stationary sets for iodine and cesium, and three portable gadgets for these elements.
Awareness of insufficiency in material provisions led to general skepticism about the authorities’ assurances that the radioactive materials in the air over Korea poses no harm to human health. Internet users spread various unfounded claims that the real figures were approaching the danger levels while contradicting assessments made by Japanese and overseas institutes helped cause confusions here.
The Korea Food and Drug Administration came under fire from the public for its slow countermeasures. The agency started radioactivity testing for all food items imported from Japan from March 19. If this measure was considered adequate, its decision to ban imports from the four affected prefectures in Japan was made on March 25, four days after the Japanese government halted overseas shipments of vegetables from these areas. Korean officials are known to have taken the measure only after they confirmed the U.S. FDA’s import ban.
Beyond immediate actions to address public anxieties, the authorities have been forced to take steps to review the nation’s energy programs amidst calls from environmentalist groups for a phase-out of nuclear power. Yet, the steady rise of oil prices with further destabilizing factors resulting from the current political unrests in the Middle East are likely to influence policy makers more strongly than the threat of another Chernobyl looming in the quake-hit Fukushima.
Korean energy authorities need to examine the long-term power programs in the most cautious manner, desirably with greater contributions from scientists. A study has been published concerning the disposal of spent nuclear fuel from the 20 reactors which account for 40 percent of the nation’s electricity supply.
A research consortium established by the Korean Nuclear Society decided to extend its activity because of the Fukushima developments, with interim recommendation that the maximum storage period of spent fuel at power plants be extended by five to 13 years. This is to give enough time for the construction of permanent storage facilities with perfect safety provisions.
Koreans shared compassion with the people of the neighboring Japan and we should also share the lessons from the tragedy that befell them.