On Wednesday at 2:29 p.m., almost every mobile phone in a country where almost everyone has a mobile phone beeped feverishly in a synchronous buzz. The alert wasn’t to warn of a North Korean missile attack, nor was it an extreme weather warning. It brought news of a 5.4-magnitude earthquake that had shaken the southeastern part of South Korea in and around the city of Pohang. Aftershocks ensued, some still being felt the next day.
Following a string of man-made disasters in recent years, there is a general perception among the South Korean populace that profits and growth have come at the cost of public safety. In the midst of the country’s stunning development years, corners were cut and construction was sloppy, leading to disasters including the collapse of Seongsu Bridge in 1994 and Sampoong Department Store in 1995. More recently, in 2014, the Sewol Ferry sank, killing around 300 people — one cause of this incident, too, was the violation of safety regulations.
Issues of nuclear safety and earthquake readiness have been hotly discussed in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Are South Korea’s nuclear plants safe? Can its other buildings withstand powerful earthquakes? Have corners been cut? What would happen to the country’s tallest skyscraper, Lotte World Tower?
With the Pohang earthquake having caused significant amounts of damage to buildings, houses and even schools, talk of public safety has swamped all broadcast and paper publications on Thursday. Here’s a roundup of what the country’s nuclear plant operator and several media outlets said:
The Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP)
Nuclear plants become the object of scrutiny following earthquakes. KHNP responded to the heightened sensitivity; the public corporation issued a series statements following the first earthquake and a few other powerful aftershocks. This is their first statement, after 2:29 p.m. on Nov. 15:
“All nuclear power plants, including Wolsong Nuclear Power Plant, are currently operating normally with no interruption or reduction in power generation. An earthquake alarm was activated at Wolsong-1 reactor and the facilities are being inspected. Thus far, there have been no breakdowns in equipment or radiation leaks. We plan to release further information after detailed analysis.”
Orientation: right wing
The Chosun Ilbo posited that all of the country’s 24 nuclear plants remained in normal operation after the quake, interpreting this as a sign that South Korea’s nuclear apparatus was capable of standing firm against earthquakes. “There is no case in the world of a nuclear power plant accident caused just by an earthquake, without a tsunami. There is no need to be too anxious,” the editorial stated.
“Most nuclear power plants are designed to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 6.5, and some up to 7. In other words, a 6.5 earthquake-resistant design can withstand an earthquake up to 40 times greater that occurring yesterday, and ten times the magnitude of the Gyeongju earthquake last year.”
The editorial went on to suggest that Wednesday’s earthquake may have been caused by drilling at a geothermal power station in Pohang, and called on officials to investigate a possible link.
Orientation: center-right wing
The Dong-A Ilbo was less sanguine, writing, “The message from this earthquake is clear: The Korean Peninsula is no longer an earthquake-safe zone. After the Gyeongju earthquake last year, there were 630 aftershocks, and we should expect the same to happen in Pohang…. We are in a situation where we do not know the risks.”
The editorial painted a picture of vulnerability to earthquake damage, saying that the country’s railroads, bridges and schools were meant to be strengthened, but that progress was extremely slow.
“Comprehensive safety inspections and support measures are needed. Who would oppose the idea of using taxpayers’ money to protect people’s lives? Earthquakes are no longer a problem only in other countries.”
Orientation: left wing
South Korea’s largest left-wing newspaper pointed out that the population density in the area near the quakes presented heightened safety concerns. “Anxiety is growing due to the fact that this region is home to the world’s highest concentration of nuclear power plants. Millions of people living in this area have to go sleep at night nervous every time an earthquake occurs.”
“The KHNP of course stresses that there are no issues with its power plants. However, it is dangerous to assume that a more powerful earthquake will never happen. Japan also predicted that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake would not take place, until one actually happened in 2011. Until the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japanese nuclear authorities promised that nuclear plants were safe.”
“It is arrogant to use the term ‘absolute safety’ when it comes to nuclear power plants. It is time to review measures against earthquakes, especially for nuclear plants on the east coast.”
Cover image: (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)