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[Editorial] Undue shutdown

Audit results highlight inappropriateness of reactor closure decision

In its long-overdue audit report made public Tuesday, the Board of Audit and Inspection said the economic viability of the country’s second-oldest nuclear reactor was unreasonably undervalued in determining its early closure.

The Wolsong-1 reactor in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, was shut down last year, earlier than scheduled, by the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., which cited the negative assessment on the profitability of the facility’s continual operation.

The measure, which was taken despite objections from experts and regional residents, has since remained a hot-button issue related to the relevance of President Moon Jae-in’s controversial policy to phase out South Korea’s nuclear power generation.

The audit on the reactor’s closure was commissioned by the National Assembly in September 2019. The BAI was required to submit a final report to the parliament by the end of February but was eight months overdue from the deadline due to resistance from officials involved in the shutdown decision and an internal discord over the conclusion of the audit.

The state audit watchdog said in the report it could not determine whether the reactor’s early closure was justifiably warranted or not, as its audit focused on assessing the economic aspect of the questionable decision.

Other factors considered by the KHNP’s board of directors in making the decision in June 2018, which included safety and acceptance by the local community, were excluded from the scope of the audit, according to the report.

This stance seems to show the audit agency might have felt reluctant to give the impression that it had gone against the Moon government’s energy policy.

Shortly after Moon took office in 2017, his government decided to decommission the 679-megawatt reactor earlier than scheduled in line with its effort to replace nuclear power generation with renewable energy.

The reactor’s life cycle had been extended by 10 years to November 2022 after the KHNP spent 700 billion won ($616 million) repairing it from 2009 to 2011.

Under pressure from the government, the state-run power company flip-flopped on its plan to extend the operation of the reactor. The early closure of the facility is estimated to cost it more than 565 billion won.

Though the BAI stopped short of judging whether the early shutdown was appropriate, its conclusion that the reactor’s economic viability was unreasonably undervalued could be a sufficient reason to nullify the decision.

The company’s management moved to manipulate figures to lower anticipated profits after it failed to find safety problems with regard to the extended operation of the reactor.

KHNP executives and officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, which oversees the company, should be held responsible for the misguided decision.

BAI chief Choe Jae-hyeong told lawmakers last week that the audit met with unprecedented resistance from officials involved. Some officials at the ministry were found to have even deleted related data files from their computers shortly after the parliament commissioned the audit. Those acts obstructing the audit should be punished sternly to prevent a recurrence.

The results of the audit should lead to the resumption of the operation of the Wolsong-1 reactor. The construction of two other nuclear reactors, which has been put on hold since 2017, also needs to be resumed. The scrapping of the work would make the 700 billion won already spent on it evaporate and further hurt the weakening sustainability of the local nuclear industry.

The Moon administration should give up its obsession with phasing out nuclear power generation before it is too late.

It is disappointing for the presidential office to remain mum on the outcome of the audit, with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy vowing to push for the existing energy policy.

In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, which will rely on artificial intelligence, big data marketing and other digital technologies, there will be more demand for electricity.

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions should continue to be strengthened to cope with climate change.

Under these circumstances, it would be nothing less than a self-inflicted injury to discard nuclear power as a reliable source of cheap electricity.