News / Asia

Reactor Shutdown in South Korea Raises Blackout Fears

An employee of the Korea Power Exchange, a state company to check the country's flow of electricity, watches a huge screen monitoring power supply during power outages in Seoul, September 15, 2011.
An employee of the Korea Power Exchange, a state company to check the country's flow of electricity, watches a huge screen monitoring power supply during power outages in Seoul, September 15, 2011.
SEOUL — As northern India suffers another problem with widespread power outages affecting hundreds of millions of people, there are concerns South Korea that it could also face blackouts in the coming weeks. 

South Korea is warning of the possibility of power shortages in mid-August. That is when the vacation period ends and demand is expected to peak. At that time, four of the country's 23 nuclear reactors are likely still to be out of commission.

The country depends on atomic plants to generate more than one-third of its electricity.

The latest setback occurred Monday, when the No. 6 reactor at the Yeonggwang nuclear power plant in South Jeolla province, 330 kilometers south of Seoul failed. Officials say an alert signal for protection of the reactor triggered an automatic shutdown.

The reactor has had previous problems with its fuel rods, but there has been no announcement on the source or severity of this latest trouble.

Real-time data from monitoring stations at and surrounding the plant, posted on the Internet show no unusual levels of radiation. 

It is not known how long the reactor - capable of producing one million kilowatts of electricity - will be offline.

Also out of commission is South Korea's longest-running power reactor, Gori-1, which has also been plagued with problems in its 34 year history.

Roh Dong-seok, a senior nuclear power policy researcher at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, says it is important to make a distinction between malfunctions and accidents at reactors.

Roh says, just like an automobile with problems, malfunctioning equipment can be fixed and things can easily get moving again. But in South Korea, malfunctions at nuclear plants are erroneously described as accidents, giving people the impression that there has been serious damage.

Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power corporation, which runs both of the reactors now offline, declined comment, Tuesday.

Government ministries and agencies overseeing nuclear power in the country have turned down repeated recent requests by VOA  to visit the Gori plant.

Scrutiny of South Korea's nuclear power system has increased since last year's calamity in neighboring Japan which, like South Korea, is poor in natural resources.

Japan, with a population of more than 120 million people, is the world's third largest economy. South Korea, with 50 million people, is the 15th largest.

A meltdown of three reactors at Japan's Fukushima-1 plant was triggered by a magnitude nine earthquake and huge tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Radiation forced the evacuation of numerous communities in the prefecture, contaminating rice fields and forcing a halt in sales of seafood caught off the Fukushima coast.

The disaster compelled Japan to temporarily shut down all its nuclear plants for safety checks, which ended last month.

Lee Boung-hee, the secretary-general of a group, Anti-Nuclear Plant Development Committee, in Samcheok, opposing a proposed nuclear power plant there, says, if a Fukushima-type accident occurs in his community, it will destroy half of the country. He contends South Korea is too small to safely host nuclear plants and its resource needs should instead be met by alternative and what he calls cheaper energy sources.

Researcher Roh Dong-seok at the Korea Energy Economics Institute says the solution is not that simple.

Roh says renewables, such as solar or wind power, are clean and easy to secure, but to call them cheaper is misleading. The development costs are very expensive.  Roh explains that, at present, nuclear power's wholesale cost is about three cents per kilowatt hour while, for alternative sources, it is 18 cents - six times as expensive.

In a joint report released last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are predicting that, despite the Fukushima disaster, the East Asia region will more than double its nuclear capacity in the next two decades. Huge growth for the atomic power industry is expected in China, which is facing a lack of its own energy resources to fuel its booming economy.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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