Korean prosecutors investigate early closure of Wolsong 1

10 November 2020

Korean prosecutors on 5 November raided the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and two state-run energy firms over allegations that they had undervalued the economic viability of the now-decommissioned Wolsong 1 nuclear reactor to ensure the plant’s early closure, Yonhap reported.

Tens of prosecutors and investigators from the Daejeon District Prosecutors’ Office were dispatched to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in the Government Complex in Sejong to confiscate data used in the decision to shut down Wolsong 1  in 2019, three years ahead of its scheduled closure. The raids took place in several departments of the ministry, which oversaw the process in 2017 and 2018.

Prosecutors and investigators from the Dajeon District Prosecutors Office simultaneously raided Korea Gas Corp (KOGAS) in Daegu and the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) in Gyeongju to secure relevant documents and computer files.

The raids followed a report from South Korea’s state auditor, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI), which concluded that the industry ministry and KHNP unreasonably undervalued the economic viability of Wolsong 1 – Korea’s second-oldest nuclear reactor. The 2019 closure of the 661MW reactor has been controversial since President Moon Jae-in decided in 2017 to decommission the reactor earlier than scheduled in line with his nuclear phase-out policy.

For more than a year, BAI reviewed whether the shutdown decision by KHNP was based on independent research, or was predetermined or politically influenced by the administration. BAI on 20 October announced that the KHNP had decided in 2018 to shut down the reactor due to an incorrect assessment that deliberately underestimated the economic advantage of keeping it going. BAI said employees of the Ministry had deleted at least 444 records to obstruct its investigation, adding that it faced unprecedented resistance to its one-year audit.

The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) subsequently filed a criminal complaint asking for an investigation of 12 people including former Energy Minister Baek Woon-kyu for abuse of power and evidence destruction. BAI formally asked for a criminal investigation on 28 October. 

The Wolsong I reactor stopped operating in 2012 after its original 30-year lifespan ended. In 2015, the Park Geun-hye administration decided to spend KRW700 billion ($616 million) to extend its life until November 2022 and the plant resumed operation. In June 2018, the KHNP reversed the plan, prompting speculation from opposition politicians that it was a political decision to accommodate President Moon Jae-in’s nuclear phase-out policy. The government permanently shut the reactor in December 2019.

Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Young-min has rejected BAI’s conclusion. "It was unprecedented, nonsensical" that the BAI had evaluated energy policy only based on economic efficiency, Noh said. He added that the government considered other factors such as safety and public sentiment before deciding to shut the reactor.

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