BUSAN -- No longer appeased by a hot springs resort and special taxes paid to their county, residents living right next to the troubled Kori nuclear power plant here are demanding that they be moved en masse to a safer location.
Their concerns were fueled by revelations that the recent temporary loss of electric power to the plant had been covered up. The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last year has also raised their awareness about the dangers of nuclear power plants.
On April 4, about 350 residents living within a five-kilometer radius of the Kori nuclear power plant, the oldest in South Korea, demonstrated in front of the plant, shouting slogans such as, "Do you want to repeat the Fukushima accident?" and "We want to live. Decommission the No. 1 reactor now."
One of the participants, Kim Myung-bok, 51, is a representative of the Gilcheon-ri hamlet that is the closest to the Kori plant.
"The nuclear plant is always visible to us," Kim said. "Every time I see it I become concerned."
About 3,000 people living in about 930 households make up Gilcheon-ri, which spreads out along the border of the grounds of the nuclear plant.
The residents have begun a movement against the plant operator, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co., seeking the move of all residents as soon as possible. Depending on the company's response, residents are prepared to begin demonstrations and sit-in protests.
The whole controversy began when a Busan city assembly member accidentally overheard insiders talk about what was happening at the Kori plant.
On Feb. 9, the No. 1 reactor lost all electrical power for about 12 minutes and the temperature of the coolant water in the reactor rose by about 20 degrees.
The matter came to light after the city assembly member made further inquiries.
On April 4, the central government's Nuclear Safety and Security Commission filed a complaint against three individuals, including the head of the Kori plant, who gave instructions to cover up the accident.
On April 11, South Korea will hold a parliamentary election. The entire electoral district in which the Kori plant is located lies within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant. Almost all the candidates in the district are calling for the immediate decommissioning of the No. 1 reactor.
The Busan municipal assembly is also calling on the office of the president and central government to decommission the No. 1 reactor immediately.
However, resumption of operations does not require the approval of local governments.
"We will allow operations after we confirm there are no safety problems," said Kang Chang-sun, the chairman of the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.
While Gijang county, which Gilcheon-ri belongs to, receives about 20 billion won (about 1.5 billion yen, or $18.2 million) a year in government assistance and special taxes, the alleys of Gilcheon-ri remain narrow and the community center has not been renovated.
Very few residents work at the nuclear plant, with most employees living in central Busan or a company dormitory on higher ground.
Once upon a time, Gilcheon-ri was a much more tranquil fishing community, where white sand beaches and pine trees were found. Residents harvested oysters, abalone and turban snails.
That lifestyle changed when President Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea with an iron fist. In the late 1960s, land reclamation work began to prepare for the construction of a nuclear power plant. Opposition by local residents was suppressed by force, and in 1978 South Korea's first commercial nuclear plant began operations just meters from the hamlet.
When additional reactors were built and plant grounds expanded, some residents whose homes were located on the site of the planned expansion moved. The remaining residents were allowed to stay because the government insisted there was no safety concerns.
In 2007, the No. 1 reactor reached its design life of 30 years, but the central government approved a 10-year extension of operations.
To placate the opposition raised in Gilcheon-ri, the company operating the plant built a hot springs facility as a measure to support the local community.
However, the hamlet was forced to pick up any deficits that arose from operating the facility.
Now, along with the local concerns, there may be a threat posed across the Sea of Japan. The Kori plant is located about 50 kilometers from Japan's Tsushima island and Fukuoka is only about 200 kilometers away.
"If a major accident should occur, there are concerns about contamination of the air and oceans by radiation as with Fukushima, and those effects could reach Japan," said Lee Heon-seok, who heads the Seoul-based citizens' group Energy Justice Actions.
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