By Meeyoung Cho
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea hopes to win sufficient community support to open a long-delayed storage facility for low and medium level radioactive waste early next year, the head of the country's nuclear safety body said on Tuesday.
The facility in the southeastern city of Gyeongju to store contaminated clothing and tools has been delayed for years, and the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission postponed a start-up earlier this month due to the concerns of residents.
"As experts we consider it safe, but we cannot push our view by over-ruling opponents so we are evaluating the case thoroughly," commission Chairman and Chief Regulatory Officer Lee Un-chul, told Reuters.
"We hope to persuade people by around next month, as some residents still misunderstand. We want to go smoothly."
Public trust in nuclear power in South Korea, the world's fifth-largest user of the energy source, has been undermined by a 2012 safety scandal over the supply of reactor parts with fake security certificates, along with the 2011 Fukushima crisis in neighboring Japan.
Following an inquiry into the scandal, the body that certifies firms will be monitored by a separate entity, while penalties relating to faked documents and parts will be hiked 100 times to up to 5 billion won ($4.6 million).
Lee said public trust in the country's nuclear safety body has improved since the 2012 crisis as it ensures details of every nuclear incident are disclosed and consults more broadly with the community, although it still falls short.
"If self-evaluated, our score is only in the fifties, compared with that in the thirties last year ... we are making headway as we can correct even the government if it does wrong," he said.
In January, Seoul formally adopted a lower target for nuclear power as a proportion of its energy mix, but still plans to add 11 more nuclear reactors by 2024 to the 23 that currently supply a third of the country's power. Last week the nuclear watchdog approved a new reactor.
Also on Tuesday, a government advisory group said the country should aim to build a permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel by around 2055.
Asia's fourth-largest economy has around 70 percent, or nearly 9,000 metric tons (1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons), of its used fuel stacked in temporary storage pools with some sites due to fill by the end of 2016.
(Reporting by Meeyoung Cho; Editing by Richard Pullin)