South Korea's 'nuclear mafia'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor.

In May 2012, five engineers were charged with covering up a potentially dangerous power failure at the Kori-1 reactor which led to a rapid rise in the reactor core temperature.1 The accident occurred because of a failure to follow safety procedures. A manager decided to conceal the incident and to delete records, despite a legal obligation to notify the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

Then in November 2012, a much bigger and broader scandal emerged involving fake safety certifications for reactor parts, sub-standard reactor parts, and bribery.2,3

Here's a bland summary of the scandal from the World Nuclear Association:4

"In 2012 KHNP [Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power] discovered that it had been supplied with falsely-certified non-safety-critical parts for at least five power reactors. The utility told the ministry that eight unnamed suppliers – reportedly seven domestic companies and one US company – forged some 60 quality control certificates covering 7682 components delivered between 2003 and 2012. The majority of the parts were installed at Hanbit (Yonggwang) units 5 and 6, while the rest were used at Hanbit units 3 and 4 and Hanul (Ulchin) unit 3. Hanbit units were taken offline while the parts were replaced.

"Then in May 2013 safety-related control cabling with falsified documentation was found to have been installed at four reactors. The NSSC [Nuclear Safety and Security Commission] ordered KHNP immediately to stop operation of its Shin Kori 2 and Shin Wolsong 1 units and to keep Shin Kori 1, which has been offline for scheduled maintenance, shut down. In addition, the newly-constructed Shin Wolsong 2, which was awaiting approval to start commercial operation, could not start up. All would remain closed until the cabling has been replaced, which was expected to take about four months. Shin Kori 1&2 and Shin Wolsong 1 were cleared to restart in January 2014. Completion of Shin Kori 3&4 was delayed, to 2015, due to the need to replace control cabling which failed tests. In October 2013 about 100 people were indicted for their part in the falsification of documentation."

The Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety states:5

  • A total of 2,114 test reports were falsified: 247 test reports in relation to replaced parts for 23 reactors, an additional 944 falsifications in relation to 'items' for three recently commissioned reactors, and 923 falsifications in relation to 'items' for five reactors under construction.
  • Results were 'unidentified' for an additional 3,408 test reports ‒ presumably it was impossible to assess whether or not the reports were falsified.
  • Twenty-nine of the forgeries concerned 'seismic qualification', with the legitimacy of a further 43 seismic reports 'unclear'.
  • Over 7,500 reactor parts were replaced in the aftermath of the scandal.

Safety-related equipment was installed on the basis of falsified documentation, and according to a whistleblower, equipment had actually failed under Loss-Of-Coolant-Accident conditions during at least one concealed test.6

The situation in Korea was much the same as that in Japan prior to the Fukushima disaster ‒ except that Japan's corrupt nuclear establishment is known as the 'nuclear village'7 whereas South Korea's corrupt nuclear establishment is known as the 'nuclear mafia'.8

A 2014 parliamentary audit revealed that the temporary suspension of the operations of nuclear power plants after the scandal caused the loss of 10 trillion won (US$8.9 billion).9 It also led to power shortages that contributed to growing public opposition to the nuclear industry.

Nuclear lobbyist Will Davis wrote this summary of the scandals in 2014:10

"Electing for brevity, suffice it to say that various schemes to advance the position of persons or companies in the South Korean nuclear industry have resulted in substandard parts being employed (particularly cable supplied by JS Cable, a company that is presently being liquidated), false quality assurance certificates being filed, and various collusion/bribery schemes among varied personnel at contractors and in the KHNP universe of subsidiaries ‒ with involvement reaching even to the highest (former) executives.

"While the true extent and nature of these corrupt activities began to be illuminated only at the end of 2011, in fact the activities stretched far prior; a recent article in the Korea Herald noted that JS Cable failed to obtain certification for nuclear parts for its product twice in 2004, and then somehow immediately made a sale of such equipment for a total of 5.5 billion won (US$5.06 million). That cabling was eventually found to be defective when it triggered shutdowns at two nuclear plants, in May 2013. Many corporate offices (including those of KHNP) were raided throughout the summer, and many arrests made ‒ arrests that included a former president of KHNP.

"Much more than cable from one company has been implicated; implicated parts (questionable parts, or questionable certifications, or both) were thought to possibly be in service at as many as 11 nuclear plants in South Korea. A massive program to find all such parts and associated companies and persons was launched and pressed with a vigor and aggression not normally seen in industrially related investigations."

The corruption also affected South Korea's reactor construction project in the United Arab Emirates.11 Hyundai Heavy Industries employees offered bribes to KHNP officials in charge of the supply of parts for reactors to be exported to the UAE.

The New York Times reported in August 2013 that despite the government's pledge to ban parts suppliers found to have falsified documents from bidding again for 10 years, KHNP imposed only a six-month penalty for such suppliers.12 The New York Times continued: "And nuclear opponents say that more fundamental changes are needed in the regulatory system, pointing out that one of the government’s main regulating arms, the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, gets 60 percent of its annual budget from Korea Hydro."12

Worse still, a 2014 parliamentary audit revealed that some officials fired from KEPCO E&C (Korea Electric Power Corporation Engineering and Construction) over the scandals were rehired.9

The scandal was still on the boil in 2014. Korea Times reported on 25 June 2014:8

"The government has discovered irregularities yet again that could threaten the safety of nuclear reactors. This time, the perpetrators are parts suppliers that presented fake quality certificates in the course of replacing antiquated parts used in nuclear power plants. Six state testing facilities were also found to have failed to conduct adequate tests before issuing certificates. A two-month audit of the six testing facilities by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy showed that 39 quality certificates presented by 24 companies were fabricated. ...

"Most disheartening in the latest revelation of irregularities is that the state-run certifiers failed to detect fabrications by skipping the required double-testing. ... Given the magnitude of corruption in the nuclear industry arising from its intrinsic nature of being closed, the first step toward safety should be to break the deep-seated food chain created by the so-called nuclear mafia, which will help enhance transparency ultimately. With the prosecution set to investigate the suppliers, the certifiers will face business suspension. But it's imperative to toughen penalties for them, considering that light punitive measures have stood behind the lingering corruption in the nuclear industry. "

Opposition to South Korea's corrupt 'nuclear mafia' feeds into broader concerns about corruption. Japan Times reported on 10 May 2017: "Opinion polls taken just before the election showed that the top concern for the country’s voters was “deep-rooted corruption" and a desire to promote reform; second on that list was economic revival. If Moon is to succeed in those tasks, he must tackle the chaebol, the huge industrial conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy and have outsized influence in its politics."13

Japan's corrupt 'nuclear village' survived the political fallout of the Fukushima disaster and is back in charge.14 It would be naïve to imagine that the tepid response to South Korea's scandals has done away with the nuclear mafia once and for all.


1. Nuclear Monitor #765, 1 Aug 2013, 'South Korea: Nuclear scandal widens',

2. Nuclear Monitor #771, 2 Nov 2013, 'South Korea indicts 100 people over safety scandals',

3. Nuclear Monitor #765, 1 Aug 2013, 'South Korea: Nuclear scandal widens',

4. World Nuclear Association, Feb 2017, 'Nuclear Power in South Korea',

5. Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety,

6. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., 2016, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016, or direct download:

7. Friends of the Earth, March 2012, 'Japan's Nuclear Scandals and the Fukushima Disaster',

8. Korea Times, 25 June 2016, 'Fake certificates again',

9. Se Young Jang, 8 Oct 2015, 'The Repercussions of South Korea’s Pro-Nuclear Energy Policy',

10. Will Davis, 6 Feb 2014, 'South Korea nuclear power: Are the dark times over?',

11. Choi Kyong-ae, 12 Jan 2014, 'Hyundai Heavy vows to root out corruption',

12. Choe Sang-hun, 3 Aug 2013, 'Scandal in South Korea Over Nuclear Revelations',

13. Japan Times, 10 May 2017, 'The pendulum swings in South Korea',

14. Nuclear Monitor #800, 19 March 2015, 'Japan's 'nuclear village' reasserting control',