By Meeyoung Cho
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea needs to rebuild public trust in nuclear power by boosting transparency and improving regulation, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Friday, after safety scares have closed reactors and threaten to trigger blackouts over winter.
Asia's fourth-largest economy lacks its own energy resources and depends heavily on oil and gas imports while 23 nuclear reactors usually supply a third of its power. The country plans to add 11 more by 2024.
But the nuclear sector has suffered a big blow after an investigation into fake safety documents for parts led to two reactors being shut and after an extended shutdown of another reactor where microscopic cracks were found.
Unveiling a report on South Korea's energy policies, the IEA backed the country's nuclear programme, but said more needed to be done to restore faith in a sector also facing greater global scrutiny after last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
"Given the growing demand for energy and Korea's lack of indigenous energy resources, this is a logical policy," Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA's executive director, said in a statement.
"Nonetheless, recent incidents at Korean nuclear facilities should serve as a timely reminder to the government that the nuclear regulatory authority must maintain an enhanced profile, be well-resourced and able to take independent decisions."
The IEA, which advises industrialized nations and represents 28 oil importing countries, last released a report in South Korea in 2006.
There is a lot at stake for South Korea, which also wants to play a growing role in the global nuclear industry, and aims to export 80 nuclear reactors by 2030, which could be worth a total of $300 billion, according to government plans. A $20 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates has already been signed.
Van der Hoeven said the government needed to openly deal with concerns of local communities hosting nuclear facilities.
The South Korean government has been criticized for a lack of transparency over safety in its nuclear programme and for the dual supervisory and promotion roles of its regulators.
The country's public is traditionally seen as pro-nuclear, although an opposition lawmaker has pressed the government to resume publishing polls on nuclear safety after a loss of public confidence in the sector in the wake of Fukushima.
MORE COMPETITION FOR POWER, GAS
Highlighting the vulnerability of its energy sector, South Korea has warned it may have to bring in rolling power blackouts during the harsh Korean winter due to a lack of nuclear power.
Six reactors are currently offline, with one restarting earlier this week, according to government data.
Van der Hoeven said the country needed to increase competition in its power and gas markets.
"The lack of a clear, long-term vision for electricity and natural gas markets is one of the greatest energy-policy challenges facing the Korean government," she said.
"The IEA strongly urges the Korean government to establish a framework that allows the development of effective competition in the electricity and natural gas markets."
South Korea is the world's fifth-largest crude oil importer and second-largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) buyer.
More consumers should be given the choice of buying gas at market prices from other sources and not just from state-run Korea Gas Corp (KOGAS), the world's largest corporate buyer of LNG and the country's sole gas wholesaler, South Korea's economy ministry quoted the IEA's full report as saying.
"Energy markets are dominated by incumbents and have been slow to open up to competition while consumers face the threat of electricity supply shortfalls."
Another state-run utility, Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO), is the sole electricity transmitter and distributor, buying from six fully-owned power generators.
Both KOGAS and KEPCO are suffering billions of dollars of losses as the government tries to hold down power charges to curb inflation.
(Additional reporting by Somang Yang and Jane Chung; Editing by Anthony Barker and Ed Davies)