Nuclear Power Plant and ‘Pandemic’
Lee Jeong-Yoon | Representative of “Nuclear Safety and Future”
2020. April 03
The reason for South Korea’s successful COVID-19 quarantine, which was reported in detail by Reuters on March 22, is impressive. First, Korea had prepared for the crisis in advance, and second, it made decisions transparently as well as quickly in an emergency situation. Third, the decision-making implementation process complemented the probabilistic flaws in the ‘experimental products’ through effective ‘cross-checking tests’ with other company products. Human beings are now on an unprecedented test-bed. The successful response of South Korea can be applied in the same way for potential threats from nuclear power plants.
Unlike viruses that spread by transmission, the nucleus spreads to radioactive contamination. The toxicity of radiation, even if not being reproduced, lasts hundreds of thousands of years, so it is important to trap it, isolate it, and prevent accidents from happening. Nuclear power plants can deal a fatal blow to safety if essential personnel such as operators are infected with the virus. This is because there is a specialty that cannot be solved only by simple quarantine. Recently, the U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt has been trying to land at the port after being virus confirmed hundreds of staff out of its 5,000 crew members. However, the ship’s reactor operator and other essential personnel might not quickly get out. This is because the reactor can turn into an emergency at any time if it is not adequately managed by the experts, whether in operation or shutdown.
Therefore, the safety of the Nuclear power plant should be considered in case of an emergency in the plant during operation, while a Pandemic situation that even essential operators would be infected. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has called on all nuclear power plants to take into account the worst-case scenario of spreading infection, despite isolating it to contain an unprecedented epidemic.
However, South Korea has no contingency plan for nuclear safety, considering the worst case. On the website of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), the chairman only posted a video conference with an affiliated agencies. It seems that NSSC just asked them to work hard for the purpose of a better economic situation, such as proper management to prevent spreading of the COVID-19 and early execution of the budget, etc., but there is no concern about the safety of nuclear power plants in case of the Pandemic situation. The contingency plan that the operator KHNP put forward on March 11 was intended to operate without stopping, not a fundamental question and measure for safety. Even if the worst-case Pandemic occurs, it should not be allowed to develop into a major accident such as the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Restricting meetings or gathering to reduce the spread of infectious diseases is desirable. However, if the regulator is loosening to monitor nuclear safety, it would be better to stop all nuclear power plant operations. When economic activity is shrinking, and the electricity reserve is also plentiful, the government should take this opportunity to examine the overall number of safety issues. A case in point is the follow-up measures to post-Fukushima accident, which were established months after the accident on March 11, 2011. For the measures, the government said it would spend 1.1 trillion won by 2015 on 24 nuclear power plants in operation, but has not been completed so far in 2020. On the other hand, Japan is in the process of receiving regional consent by suspending, conducting safety checks, and reinforcing all 50 nuclear power plants. Considering that 2 trillion won has been invested in the Ikata nuclear power plant alone, South Korea is still only dealing with a formality. However, Japan’s sincere response was also too late, so preemptive action is more important. Although belated, the government should assume the inevitability of a nuclear accident and seeks the consent of the civil society by transparently inspecting, verifying, and reinforcing the entire operational nuclear power plant.
The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) is also urgently required to supplement its early judgment and quick decision-making capabilities on nuclear plant risks, but it needs to establish a cross-monitoring system bench marking Germany and France system properly. Cross-monitoring will effectively improve our fragile nuclear safety system as if supplemented by cross-testing in the course of coping with coronavirus threat.
(Translated by Hojai Jung)
Categories: Media Reports