The government and the ruling Grand National Party have agreed to upgrade the Nuclear Safety Commission, now under the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, to an independent, ministerial-level agency by July this year.
The decision, announced on Friday, is a welcome move as it would help address concerns about the safety of nuclear plants in Korea caused by the radiation leak at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.
One question that remains in the minds of many Koreans who have been transfixed by the still unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan is that if a country as developed and technology-savvy as Japan cannot ensure the safety of nuclear plants, can Korea do it?
To this question, the government’s answer is that Korean nuclear power plants are much safer than those in Japan since they are equipped with a fourfold safety mechanism. It is questionable, however, whether people will be reassured by this explanation.
Hence, one of the primary jobs that the new NSC has to do is to open safety information to the public. The operator of the Fukushima power plant is widely distrusted by the Japanese public due to its poor record in keeping them informed of safety problems at its facilities.
The commission should learn a lesson from this. It needs to win credibility from the public by providing accurate and transparent information based on independent regulatory activities.
Currently, the NSC has difficulty raising its voice because the regulatory authority lies in the Education Ministry. But the ministry cannot always put safety before anything else because it is also responsible for promoting the nuclear industry. Industrial considerations can trump safety concerns.
The decision to separate the commission from the Education Ministry and make it a ministerial-level agency is intended to guarantee its independence. This institutional arrangement will help. But what is more important is how the commission is actually operated by its members. In this respect, it is necessary to induce the general public to participate in the establishment of a safety policy to ensure that the commission maintains independence and openness.