South Koreans seem relatively untroubled by North Korea's impending nuclear test, even as they worry about the safety of ageing nuclear reactors here. "It seems that only the government, media and some politicians are taking the nuclear test seriously, while the ordinary public is not that interested," said a senior government official here Thursday.
Even when minor problems are detected at existing nuclear power plants, some civic groups vehemently call for their closure.
"We're seeing a bizarre phenomenon where people are reacting very sensitively to even the slightest malfunction at one of our nuclear power plants, which are relatively safe, while there is not much awareness about the risks of North Korean nuclear facilities, which pose a far greater threat," said Shin Beom-chul at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
Experts believe the reason is that South Koreans have over the last two decades grown used to seeing the North Korean nuclear threat as an issue that only involves the U.S. and the North, while the South has been largely passive.
Conservatives are miffed. "The so-called leaders of progressive groups vehemently oppose the use of nuclear energy and condemn domestic nuclear power plants citing environmental concerns, but they are silent when it comes to North Korean nuclear facilities," said Yun Duk-min at Korea National Diplomatic Academy. "By allowing this to happen, we ended up fostering indifference about the North Korean nuclear problem."
North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, which is just 250 km away from Seoul, poses a major safety risk. In addition to uranium enrichment facilities, the site houses a 5 MW reactor and facilities to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods.
If U.S. safety standards are applied, the radioactive contamination at the Yongbyon nuclear facility would warrant immediate closure, said Victor Cha at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Government officials here believe North Korea did not follow safety regulations in construction.
Seoul is partially at fault, according to one government official here. "The government has been unable to bring home the seriousness of the situation because it worries that it would be accused of scaremongering for political ends," said the official.