By Meeyoung Cho
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea needs to quickly find additional space where it can store its spent nuclear fuel because some of its temporary storage capacity will be full by 2016, an independent body that advises the government on nuclear issues said on Monday.
The country has 23 nuclear reactors supplying about a third of its power. Seoul has been under pressure to cut its reliance on nuclear power since late 2012 when safety scandals led to the temporary shutdown of reactors to replace parts supplied with fake certificates.
At the end of last year, 13,254 tonnes of spent fuel was being held in temporary storage at nuclear plants, according to data from the commission, mostly in water tanks but some in concrete containers.
Public disquiet over nuclear power and the disposal of spent fuel has also risen because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Spent fuel was stored in water at the Fukushima plant, too.
As at most nuclear plants in Japan, spent fuel is stored on site at the Fukushima station high above the ground in reactor buildings.
In South Korea, a Public Engagement Commission grouping 13 nuclear experts, professors, city council members and an official from a private environmental watchdog was formally set up in October 2013 to take account of public opinion on spent nuclear fuel issues and feed into policy decisions.
Commission Chairman Hong Doo-seung, who has been working on this topic for 25 years, told Reuters in an interview it was now urgent to find more storage sites for spent fuel.
"We will have to stop nuclear power generation if we fail to find additional temporary space, which would be the second-best option," Hong said.
Efforts to store spent fuel more densely in the temporary storage would simply earn time and could not be the ultimate solution, Hong added.
Nuclear plants in the Kori area of Busan city, just over 300 km (190 miles) southeast of Seoul, are forecast to start running out of storage space from 2016. The country's reactors produce around 750 tonnes of spent fuel each year.
A permanent disposal site for low- to medium-level radioactive waste was completed in the city of Gyeongju, 250 km (155 miles) southeast of Seoul, in June. However, the government has delayed its start-up for six months pending approval by a nuclear watchdog.
Hong's commission is due to produce a report on management options for spent nuclear fuel by the end of this year.
"We are making the utmost effort to conclude by the year-end but we won't rush it if we find the work is not satisfactory," said Hong, a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co Ltd, fully owned by state-run utility Korea Electric Power Corp, operates the nuclear power plants.
In January, South Korea formally adopted a lower target for the proportion of power to be supplied by nuclear plants, but it still plans to double its nuclear capacity over the next two decades.
On Friday, President Park Geun-hye called for the creation of a nuclear safety consultative group in Northeast Asia, given the high number of nuclear power plants in the region and public concerns over safety.
(Reporting by Meeyoung Cho; Editing by Alan Raybould)