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How greed and corruption blew up South Korea’s nuclear industry via MIT Technology Review

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A small, resourcepoor nation that relied heavily on imported energy, South Korea had kick-started its nuclear program in the 1970s by buying reactors on turnkey contracts from Canada, France, and the United States. But Kepco and its nuclear affiliate, KHNP, quickly developed their own model based on an American design. The first homegrown reactor was operational by 1995, and more soon followed. Eventually South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of its total electricity generation. The Emiratis had been impressed.

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Disaster strikes

Watching Fukushima was a tremendous shock, especially because I live next to a nuclear power plant myself,” Kim Ik-joong told me when we met earlier this year at a coffee shop close to the headquarters of one of Seoul’s most renowned civic-rights groups. Activists of various stripes were gathered around us, talking animatedly, and some came over to greet him: Kim, 59, is one of the country’s best-known antinuclear campaigners. Charismatic and well-spoken, he was originally a microbiology professor at Dongguk University but has become the face of the antinuclear movement as a prolific lecturer and pundit on the evening news.

Up until the Fukushima disaster, that movement had been limited to a scattered assortment of local groups. The crisis in Japan brought things closer to home. It “just didn’t feel like someone else’s business,” says Kim.

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“An accident at just one of these plants would be far more devastating than Fukushima,” says Kim. “These reactors are dangerously close to major industrial areas, and there are four million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the Kori plant alone.” Hyundai’s auto plant in Ulsan, a city of 1.2 million, is just 20 km from the nearest nuclear power plant. Fukushima, by comparison, had only around 78,000 people living within the same distance.

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Another whistleblower
Earlier this year, at a small bakery in Seoul, I met Kim Min-kyu. A slight 44-year-old man with earnest, youthful eyes, Kim used to be a senior sales manager at Hyosung Heavy Industries, a manufacturer of reactor parts. In 2010, he was put in charge of selling to KHNP and quickly discovered that double-dealing was as routine as paperwork. 

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Some of these practices constituted serious lapses in safety. In May 2014, Kim oversaw the delivery of 11 load center transformers bound for the Hanul Nuclear Power Plant in North Gyeongsang province, only to discover that their safety licenses hadn’t been renewed. Load center transformers manage the flow of power to key emergency functions at reactors; any malfunction, Kim told me, would be “like a hurtling car suddenly stalling.”

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In 2015, fearing a Fukushima-like accident, Kim decided to report the corruption through his company’s internal whistleblowing system. The only result was that he was fired.

“How naïve I was,” he says, flashing a rueful grin. He eventually went to the country’s competition regulator, which referred the case to prosecutors. In 2018, he took his story to the media. A few months later, on the basis of tips from Kim, prosecutors charged six employees from Hyosung and co-conspirator LS Industrial Systems with collusion—an outcome that Kim believes only scratches the surface of the corruption.

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“On principle, I don’t trust anything that KHNP built,” says Kim Min-kyu, the corruption whistleblower. More and more South Koreans have developed a general mistrust of what they refer to as “the nuclear mafia”— the close-knit pro-nuclear complex spanning KHNP, academia, government, and monied interests. Meanwhile the government watchdog, the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, has been accused of revolvingdoor appointments, back-scratching, and a disregard for the safety regulations it is meant to enforce.

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