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Scandal threatens South Korea nuclear-export ambitions

November 7, 2012 |  4:30 am

Koreanuclear

A scandal threatens to hamper South Korea's efforts to sell its nuclear technology around the globe as it shuts down several of its own nuclear reactors to investigate how some of their parts were approved.

South Korean officials recently discovered that safety certificates for some of their reactors' parts had been forged. The subsequent closures could put the country at risk of power shortages this winter.

Government authorities have stressed that the parts in question are “ordinary” pieces,  such as fuses and power switches, that aren't directly tied to reactor safety, the publicly funded news agency Yonhap reported Monday. The shutdown has nonetheless cast an unflattering light on the industry as South Korea tries to make its name abroad.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in nearby Japan, “they’re trying to create an image of quality and safety,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Any issue with quality assurance certificates should be seen as a big black eye for their efforts.”

Nuclear power has been an increasingly prized product for South Korea: The country won a coveted $20-billion contract to export nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates a few years ago and has marketed its technology across Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. When Benjamin Sovacool, a Vermont Law School associate professor who studies energy security, visited a South Korean plant, he noticed that its promotional video could be viewed in more than a dozen languages.

“Arabic. Bahasa. Thai,” Sovacool said.  “It was clear they considered nuclear power an export.”

Selling nuclear equipment is a point of pride for a nation that has made stunning gains in technology in a single generation. South Korea also has planned to step up nuclear power at home as a way to reduce fossil-fuel imports and burnish its green credentials. Eighteen plants are supposed to be built before 2030.

“That’s going to be in jeopardy,” said Katharine H.S. Moon, professor of political science at Wellesley College. However, “if the government can correct this efficiently and quickly and transparently, they will have a better chance of resuming their export ambitions.”

The investigation isn’t the first problem to hit the South Korean nuclear sector this year. Two reactors were temporarily shut down last month after malfunctions, and corruption charges hit employees at the state nuclear power agency earlier this year. In the latest scandal, South Korean media reported that the forged safety certificates only came to light because of an outside tip, which has added to the public unease.

"I don't think you can have confidence that the system is working until the agencies catch these things on their own," Lyman said.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Kim Kyun-Seop, chief executive of the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., South Korea's state-run operator of nuclear power plants, holds a board showing proven components (top) and unproven components (bottom) during a news conference in Gwacheon on Monday. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images / Yonhap

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