Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Nuclear Industry Scandal in South Korea

As you know, over the past year trouble has been brewing in the South Korean nuclear industry.  A recent New York Times article* provides a good current status report.  The most visible problem is the falsification of test documents for nuclear plant parts.  Executives have been fired, employees of both a testing company and the state-owned entity that inspects parts and validates their safety certificates have been indicted.

It should be no surprise that the underlying causes are rooted in the industry structure and culture.  South Korea has only one nuclear utility, state-owned Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco).  Kepco retirees go to work for parts suppliers or invest in them.  Cultural attributes include valuing personal ties over regulations, and school and hometown connections.  Bribery is used as a lubricating agent.

As a consequence,  “In the past 30 years, our nuclear energy industry has become an increasingly closed community that emphasized its specialty in dealing with nuclear materials and yet allowed little oversight and intervention,” the government’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a recent report to lawmakers. “It spawned a litany of corruption, an opaque system and a business practice replete with complacency.”

Couldn't happen here, right?  I hope not, but the U.S. nuclear industry, while not as closed a system as its Korean counterpart, is hardly an open community.  The “unique and special” mantra promotes insular thinking and encourages insiders to view outsiders with suspicion.  The secret practices of the industry's self-regulator do not inspire public confidence.  A familiar cast of NEI/INPO participants at NRC stakeholder meetings fuels concern over the degree to which the NRC has been captured by industry.  Utility business decisions that ultimately killed plants (CR3, Kewaunee, San Onofre) appear to have been made in conference rooms isolated from any informed awareness of worst-case technical/commercial consequences.  Our industry has many positive attributes but some others ask us to stop and reflect.  

*  C. Sang-Hun, “Scandal in South Korea Over Nuclear Revelations,” New York Times (Aug. 3, 2013).  Retrieved Aug. 6, 2013.

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