South Korean nuclear waste dump vote Nuke Info Tokyo No. 109

In South Korea on November 2nd, regional voting was held on a final disposal site for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. I visited South Korea during the voting campaign to attend a citizens’ symposium from October 12th – 17th.

Stalled 20-year search
In South Korea the government has responsibility for selecting a site for the management and disposal of radioactive waste. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company (KHNP), which operates Korea’s nuclear power plants, is also required to promote the radioactive waste management project. The original plan was to select a site for the final disposal of all low- and intermediate-level waste (L&ILW), including radioactive isotopes (final capacity of 800,000 x 200 liter drums, scheduled to commence operations in 2008) and for the interim storage of high-level waste (HLW). Since South Korea does not have a reprocessing program, its HLW takes the form of spent nuclear fuel.

Effectively, all of South Korea’s radioactive waste would have been concentrated in this one site and there was a strong possibility that it would also have become the final disposal site for spent fuel. For this reason, over the last twenty years the same process has been repeated several times. First there was a call for interested sites, followed by the selection of a site by state coercion. Fierce opposition from local citizens ensued, leading to the decision being overturned. As in the case of the 2003-04 protest campaign in Buan in the west of the country, the selection process was stalled each time as a result of strong citizens’ action against the nuclear waste dump.

Four local governments volunteer
After the Buan fiasco, the government came up with one inducement after another to lure candidate sites. The major new policies are as follows:

  1. separation of the L&ILW final disposal site from the spent fuel interim storage site;
  2. regulation to ban construction of a spent fuel facility on the same site as the L&ILW site;
  3. a special subsidy (around 300 billion Wons);
  4. payments for receipt of waste shipments (5-10 billion Wons);
  5. relocation of the head office of KHNP;
  6. a special regional development system;
  7. obligation to hold a regional vote as part of the selection process;
  8. construction of a proton accelerator facility.

In addition, the following site selection procedures were adopted:

  1. establishment of a site selection committee to assess the suitability of proposed sites;
  2. application by the mayor after agreement from the local council;
  3. applications to close in August 2005 and voting to be held in October;
  4. selection of the candidate site with the highest percentage of citizens voting in favor.

Through this process regional votes were held for candidate sites in four municipalities: Gyeongju, Gunsan, Yeongdeok and Pohang.

Regional development: the case of Rokkasho
The mayors and the local councilors are under the illusion that the 300 billion Wons will promote regional development. Japan’s Rokkasho Village was trumpeted as a success story of another nuclear regional development scheme. I was invited by Korean Federation for Environment Movement (KFEM) to respond to this and, along with Erin Rogers from Texas, participated in symposia at all the four candidate sites. I told the audiences that Rokkasho Village and Aomori Prefecture are anything but regional development success stories. There has been price dumping of squid from Rokkasho, and Rokkasho’s agricultural products are sold by concealing where they are produced. I also told them how the damage from radioactivity will increase when the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant commences operations. Erin Rogers gave examples of how radioactivity is already leaking from many places at waste dumps in the US. We pointed out that there are no examples anywhere in the world of nuclear facilities leading to successful regional development.

Irregularities and illegalities
Incredible irregularities and illegalities occurred during the voting campaign, which began on October 1st. The promoters of the dump drafted large numbers of public servants and local officials to promote the dump in their region, so as to achieve the required voter turnout (one third of eligible voters) and obtain a majority in favor. They tried to maximize the absentee vote in favor by submitting absentee voter applications on behalf of other people. Absentee voting forms were piled up in bins and on sofas at the local government office, without ever being sent to the voters. On the day of the vote, local government employees told people to vote in favor. In Yeongdeok, where 60% of eligible voters are over 60 years old, aged and disabled people claimed that public servants accompanied them to the voting booth and told them to vote in favor of the dump. In all the regions where votes were held there were reports of irregularities and illegal activities, such as vote buying. There were areas where the absentee vote exceeded 50% of the overall voter turnout. The extent of irregularities and illegal practices was unprecedented in the 60 years since the end of the Japanese occupation.

The results of the vote were as follows:

  1. Gyeongju – 70.8% voter turnout, 89.5% in favor;
  2. Gunsan – 70.2% voter turnout, 84.4% in favor);
  3. Yeongdeok – 80.2% voter turnout, 79.3% in favor; and
  4. Pohang – 47.7% voter turnout, 67.5% in favor.

On this basis, the South Korean government announced that it would proceed with preparations to make Gyeongju the site of the dump. However, the reality is that the government and KHNP used their power and money to induce the local governments and their citizens to accept the dump. The South Korean democracy movement has indicated that it does not accept the result of this forced, undemocratic selection process and says it will continue to fight the dump.

Masako Sawai (CNIC)

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