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The rise and fall of `atomic energy mafia’

Posted June. 21, 2013 07:40,   


“This is all because of the nuclear plant mafias…”

There is growing resentment over Korea’s atomic power industry, which is mainly responsible for nationwide power shortages. It is hard to understand the unique nature of the atomic power industry without properly understanding its initial history. In the first place, the atomic energy was developed as a weapon of mass destruction, rather than for power generation or medical treatment. It originated from the Manhattan Project, a nuclear weapons development program during the World War II. The project was carried out in about 30 different countries around the world including the United States, Britain and Canada. The development process was classified as top secret. Participants in the atomic bombs included world-class scholars such as Robert Oppenheimer. The secrecy and elitism in atomic power development is so very deep rooted.

As the war was over with the world witnessing the dreadful power of atomic bombs, the development of atomic energy changes its course to peaceful use.

After the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, was developed, its reactor was modified to make commercial nuclear reactors. Despite the change, the unique way of thinking by those who treat atomic energy did not change.

“The field of atomic energy [an] island of socialism in the midst of a free-enterprise economy.” The U.S. secrecy and elitism over the nuclear development are not very different from that of South Korea. However, the South has other characteristics.

A U.S. lawmaker famously argued in the 1950s that the bill (the Atomic Energy Act of August 1, 1946) made. First, unlike many other countries who atomic programs had ups and downs because of nuclear accidents and the nature of governments, South Korea’s atomic energy industry grew under the full sponsorship of previous presidents. President Rhee Syngman established the Korea Atomic Energy Institute, the country’s first state-run research agency. President Park Chung-hee even dreamed of making nuclear weapons. Rhee established Korea’s first state-run atomic research institute and Park even dreamed of developing nuclear weapons. Other successive presidents, including Lee Myung-bak, who exported Korean nuclear power plants, the former presidents showed infinite trust in atomic energy.

Second, Korea’s atomic energy industry is combined with patriotism. Stories of Korean engineered who had no knowledge about atomic energy, acquiring technologies from U.S. atomic energy company Westinghouse have become legends.

It is hard to explain such efforts just by material compensations. They were possible because of the Korean researchers’ full commitment to their duties and patriotism. The success stories of Korea’s atomic energy industry are comparable to those involving the rise of the country’s steel-making industry.

I realized the unique culture of Korea’s atomic energy industry when I looked around U.S. and Canadian nuclear power plants. In the U.S. and Canada, regulators were government people, and the operators of the nuclear power plants were just businesspeople. In Korea, scholars specializing in atomic energy, employees of nuclear power plants and even government employees in charge of regulating the atomic energy industry argue that they are devoting themselves to the nation and its people.

Third, Korea’s atomic energy industry is affected by school connections. They exist in any other field. However, as school connections are combined with professional expertise, the industry built higher entry barriers and became more closed. In Western countries, there are so many universities that no certain group of people from the same university can control the entire industry. The Manhattan Project, for example, involved scholars from many countries including the U.S., Britain, Australia and Germany.

The public trust in Korea’s atomic energy industry that was affected by the Fukushima incident in Japan has been undermined by a serious of scandals, including accident cover-ups and irregularities. Atomic industry insiders who created a league of their own and ignored communication with the outside world should bear the lion’s share of responsibility. The fact that there were whistleblowers suggests that the industry is getting divided. In a sense, it is fortunate that such structural irregularities have been uncovered now.

Safety becomes stronger after going through accidents. However, what is worrisome is the possibility that excessive discouragement of those involved in the atomic power industry could hinder safety. Students who are scolded by their teachers too much make more mistakes. In that sense, it is necessary to differentiate good atomic energy workers from the culprits who gave the industry the bad name of “mafia.” I may not be the only one wondering who is the leader of the atomic energy mafia?