South Korea’s nuclear power industry, ranking fifth in the world in terms of generating capacity at 20,739 megawatts, continues to be rocked by scandal and misconduct. Currently nine of the country’s 23 plants are offline, meaning the supply capacity situation is the worst the country has ever experienced. Though Japan’s power supply is also in a precarious state with only 2 of its 50 nuclear plants operating, the situation in South Korea is said to be much more severe, and many fear power outages such as those experienced in September 2011 will recur.

Most of South Korea, including Seoul, experienced unplanned power outages on September 15, 2011 when a sudden shortage of electricity, caused by increased demand resulting from unseasonably high temperatures and reduced generating capacity due to maintenance, resulted in rolling blackouts being implemented across the country. Lasting for about five hours, power was cut off to various regions for 30-minute intervals, trapping people in elevators and hampering activities at banks and hospitals nationwide.

Koreans refer to the blackouts as the 9/15 incident, and concerns are spreading that this summer will bring a reoccurrence. Like Japan prior to the Fukushima accident of March 2011, South Korea derives well over 20 percent of its total electricity production from nuclear power plants. With 14 of its 23 plants running, the country would appear to be in much better shape than Japan, where only two are online. However, according to an official from the Federation of Electric Power Companies in Japan, “The reasons the plants are shut down are totally different; the situation in South Korea is much more serious.”

“It wouldn’t be at all strange if blackouts occurred again. The situation is worse than it was two years ago,” warned a different official related to Japan’s power industry. Additionally, at a press conference at the end of May, an official from South Korea’s Industry, Trade and Resources Department said, “We cannot say with 100 percent certainty that blackouts will not occur.”

According to the Japan Electric Power Information Center, in November 2011 it was discovered that counterfeit parts were used in the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors at the Yeonggwang Nuclear Power Plant in South Jeolla Province. Subsequently, the country’s Nuclear Safety Commission instructed they be shut down indefinitely. Additionally, during regular inspections, cracks were found in the control rod tunnels and other parts of the No. 3 reactor, leading to its shut down as well.

The Japanese language version of China’s Xinhua Economic News reported that among parts procured by South Korea for nuclear plant construction over the past ten years, more than 10,900 of them are suspected to have come with forged quality assurance certificates.

On June 20, prosecutors raided the headquarters and offices of Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Company (KHNP), which operates all South Korea’s nuclear sites, on suspicion the company used substandard parts that came with forged performance certification. Additionally, on the 18th, South Korean media also reported that two KHNP employees, including a director, were detained on suspicion they colluded to falsify test certificates.

Using falsely labelled substandard parts brings into question the safety of all of South Korea’s reactors. It is said that one reactor contains more than three million parts; “As inferior parts are being used, it will be difficult to improve the situation in a short period of time. I believe it will be a long time before the shut down reactors are brought on line again,” said a person knowledgeable about the situation.

The current situation could easily lead to a power crunch. Along with its remarkable economic growth, South Korea is also experiencing ever-increasing power consumption. From 2001 to 2011 consumption increased 1.7 times from 43.13 million kilowatts to 73.14 million. At the same time, the country’s power supply reserve dropped below 10 percent in 2007, falling to 6.2 percent in 2010 and 5.5 percent in 2011. Last year is was said to have fallen into the three percent range. Caught between idled plants and economic growth, the power supply situation in South Korea is much more precarious than that of Japan.

With new nuclear power regulations taking effect from July, Japan has taken the first step toward restarting reactors that have been shut down since the earthquake of March 2011. In contrast, it will take a lot of time for South Korea, where over 10,000 substandard parts are in use, to carry out thorough inspections to ensure its reactors are 100 percent safe. Restarting by summer, when power consumption peaks due to air-conditioning and other demands, is impossible.

According to the Japan Tourism Marketing Company, approximately 202,500 Japanese tourists visited South Korea in April, a year-on-year decrease of 32 percent. One major travel agency offered this explanation for the drop: “A large part of the decline is due to the fact that last year was a very favorable year; however, with North Korea threatening to fire missiles, people are also starting to perceive South Korea as being a dangerous place.”

Additionally, with the threat of summer blackouts, the agency representative added, “The tourism situation won’t improve until after summer; nobody wants to go if there is the possibility of unannounced blackouts like two years ago.”

Source: MSN News
Image: Wiki Commons