The Wolsong Nuclear Power plant's reactors in Gyeongju city, South Korea. Activity at the facility was temporarily paused for a safety check after overnight earthquakes. Photo: EPA

South Korea’s biggest earthquake triggers nuclear safety concerns


Two earthquakes that jolted South Korea on Monday night, including the largest ever recorded in the country, prompted concerns about the safety of nuclear plants clustered in the quake-prone southeast.

Korea’s Meteorological Agency said the two earthquakes, of magnitude of 5.1 and 5.8, occurred near the city of Gyeongju. They could be felt in the capital Seoul, over 300 km to the northwest.

South Korea’s lively social media was flooded with images of shattered storefront windows and people fleeing apartments in panic, some with children in their arms.

Some spent the night in shelters or in their cars.

Kakaotalk, the country’s largest mobile app, which is used by 40 million people, partially went down, the company said, as users rushed to exchange messages in the aftermath of the quake.

Television footage showed bottles falling from shelves at a store, and long cracks that had developed in a basement parking lot.

Fourteen people were injured but there were no reports of serious damage, a Ministry of Public Safety and Security official said.

A car is covered with tiles that fell from the roof of a house in the city of Ulsan after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit the historic city of Gyeongju. Photo: EPA

Nonetheless, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co shut down four nuclear reactors at the Wolsong complex in Gyeongju as a precaution.

South Korea’s reactors are designed to withstand a magnitude 6.5 or 7.0 earthquake, according to the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

Korean seismologists, who put the magnitude of the second quake at 5.8, said it was the most powerful to hit since records began in 1978.

Orders were given to nuclear operators to upgrade old reactors to that standard after the disaster at Japan’s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011.

Goods lay scattered on the floor of a supermarket after the earthquake in Gyeongju. Photo: Xinhua

“That will be completed by next year,” said Shim Eun-jung, a spokeswoman at the nuclear watchdog.

South Korea’s 25 reactors supply about one-third of its electricity and make it the world’s fifth-largest user of nuclear power. It plans to add 9 more nuclear plants by 2027, according to the nuclear watchdog.

As in many countries, nuclear power is controversial in South Korea, especially after a 2012 scandal over parts being supplied with fake certificates prompted shutdowns.

Park Jong-kwon, head of an anti-nuclear civic group in South Gyeongsang Province, said no more nuclear reactors should be built in southeastern cities like Ulsan and Gyeongju as they are close to an active fault line.

“Even though nuclear reactors are designed to withstand an earthquake of a magnitude 7.0, if they are hit by 4.5 and 5.8 magnitude earthquakes several times, they can be knocked down by a real 7.0 magnitude earthquake at a single blow,” Park said.

A man inspects the partially damaged roof of his house in Gyeongju. Photo: AFP

About 70 per cent of South Korea’s nuclear reactors are in the southeast, partly to locate them further away from North Korea, with which the country remains technically at war.

Greenpeace Korea filed a lawsuit against the nuclear watchdog on Monday, before the earthquakes, urging it to scrap a plan to add two more reactors in Ulsan.

Koreans living near the nuclear power plant in Gyeongju city also voiced anxiety.

“When I heard the news, the first thing that came to my mind was that a Fukushima-like accident could happen,” Byun Woo-hee, a 59-year-old professor, said.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: quake stokes nuclear fears