Tritium at high level in power plant reignites nuclear debate in South Korea

The revelations, Friday January 8, on the presence of tritium at levels higher than the standards on the site of the plant Wolseong nuclear, in southeastern South Korea, rekindle debates over the atomic exit policy of President Moon Jae-in, whose symbol is the shutdown of Wolseong Reactor 1, closed in 2018 while it was to operate until 2022.

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The Democratic Party, in power, demanded in mid-January the opening of a parliamentary inquiry into the issue of tritium, which shows, according to its chairman, Lee Nak-yon, that he was “Inevitable to shut down the reactor earlier than expected due to its deterioration”. The People’s Power Party, the main opposition party, responded by denouncing an attempt to divert public attention from an investigation into alleged pressure by the presidency to shut down Reactor 1. Monday January 25, investigators summoned Paik Un-gyu, Minister of Industry at the time of the decision to shut down the reactor.

The presence of tritium in the perimeter of the power station was revealed on January 8 by the MBC channel. An activity of 713,000 becquerels (Bq) of tritium was detected in a sump near spent fuel storage tanks. The information was then confirmed by Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP, national nuclear operator).

“Insignificant” activity

Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen produced primarily by nuclear power plants and explosions. According to the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), its toxicity for the environment is limited “To its low-energy pure beta-type radioactive emissions”. But its ionizing radiations “Can cause various DNA damage” with, for the exposed organism, risks “Physiological effects”.

No environmental contamination was observed around the Wolseong power plant and the incident would not present a danger, assure the South Korean nuclear authorities. The 713,000 Bqs were detected at one point. The water flowing through the sump has an activity of about 13.2 Bq per liter, “Insignificant compared to the standard set at 40,000 Bq / L”, says KHNP.

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The level of tritium would have started to rise in 2017, following the earthquakes of magnitude 5.1 and 5.8 that occurred in September 2016. Located 28 kilometers from the epicenter, the plant had been shut down as a precaution. KHNP says it reported the increase in tritium levels to authorities and residents’ organizations in April 2019.

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