SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's government should resume publishing polls on nuclear safety after a loss of public confidence in the sector in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, an opposition South Korean lawmaker said on Tuesday.
The call came as South Korea, whose public is traditionally seen as pro-nuclear, investigated fake safety documents for parts used in nuclear plants led to two of the country's 23 reactors being shut down last week and has raised the prospect of power shortages in the harsh Korean winter.
Woo Yoon-geun, an opposition legislator in South Korea's parliament, said that the government had deliberately suppressed the polls in a bid to ensure support for plans to construct new nuclear power stations, a charge denied by the state agency that runs the polling.
"They should disclose the result to the public as it is and conduct the official regular survey," Woo said by telephone on Tuesday.
The polls were conducted by an industry body that promotes nuclear power which is run by The Ministry of the Knowledge Economy, a ministry which is also responsible for nuclear oversight, domestic nuclear expansion and South Korea's ambitious export plans, worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Until 2011, the polls were published annually, but since the March 2011 Fukushima accident, the world's second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl, no survey has been published.
Opposition legislators say that the ministry cannot be trusted with running the nuclear programme and oversight.
"It's like letting a cat run a fish market," said Kang Chang-il, an opposition legislator who is chairman of parliament's Commerce and Energy Committee.
"There is a major structural problem in the way the nuclear industry operates as officials and experts have worked in the same jobs for decades and they have been able to keep outsiders out."
Woo revealed in October in parliament that the proportion of people who thought nuclear was safe fell to 34 percent this March from 53.3 percent in 2010, before the Fukishima accident, in regular polls conducted by the Korean Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency (KONEPA).
The March poll has not been published and the promotion agency said it has shifted to monthly polls as annual polls no longer reflected the true state of public opinion. However, none of the monthly polls have been published since.
The most recent poll from September, also unpublished but again revealed by Woo, showed 53.3 percent thought nuclear power plants are safe against 41.5 percent who did not.
KONEPA said in a statement emailed to Reuters that its 2011 annual survey was not disclosed because it was a rough survey.
"It was difficult to grasp accurate public opinions through a regular survey because perceptions toward nuclear power plants were very confusing," it said.
There is a lot at stake for South Korea. It plans to build another six nuclear reactors in a cluster in the southeast corner of the country by 2024 so as to lessen its dependence on imported oil, coal and liquefied natural gas.
South Korea 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.
While South Korea imports 82 percent of the energy it uses, it charges its vast industries producing cars, steel, ships and electronics just half the average price of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development group of rich industrial nations.
State electricity company Korea Electric Power Corp (KEPCO) covers a little more than 80 percent of its costs from the price of electricity and made an operating loss of 2.99 trillion Korean won ($2.75 billion) last year. The gap is plugged by borrowing which is underwritten effectively by the government.
KEPCO's wholly owned subsidiary, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, is in charge of running the country's nuclear plants and also overseeing equipment safety issues and approved the thousands of parts with fake certification.
Since news of the forged safety certificates emerged, the head of KEPCO has resigned and the head of Korea Hydro, appointed only in June, has offered to resign.
Domestic opposition to new plants has been muted and the government says most people here still believe in nuclear power.
"Uncovering the incidents is expected to provide the momentum to develop a healthier nuclear industry. Everything has been disclosed, which will help the industry raising transparency and safety," Lee Kwan-sup, deputy minister in the Ministry of the Knowledge, told Reuters after the closures.
The industry has reported nine accidents so far this year after seven in 2011 and two in 2010.
In one of the incidents this year, workers including the head of Kori nuclear plant sought to cover up a stoppage and failure to operate emergency generators.
Post-Fukushima protests attracted a few hundred people at most, despite the fact that the stricken reactor was just 1,200 km (740 miles) by air from the South Korean capital of Seoul.
A weekly religious mass and candlelight protest against the construction of a new plant near to the town of Samcheok in the south east of the country drew just 25 people last Wednesday.
There are plans to construct at least four 1,500 megawatt nuclear reactors close to the struggling town.
A campaign group called "Fight against the Samcheok Nuclear Plant" tried last month to impeach the town's pro-nuclear mayor, but failed to muster enough support.
Many in Samcheok appeared to support the government view, contrasting its economic malaise with the boom in nearby Uljin which is already home to six reactors.
"Samcheok's population is 70,000 but Uljin with just 50,000 people has all kinds of brand-name shops such as Kumkang Shoes (a leading Korean brand) that Samcheok doesn't have," said Chun Sung-il, 46, a leading light in a local pro-nuclear group who runs a kindergarten and English language school in the town.
The reactors will cost an estimated 24 trillion won ($22.06 billion) and pro-nuclear activists in the town say the municipality's coffers will benefit to the tune of 6.2 trillion won during the plant's construction and operational life, breathing life back into the economically strapped community.
Despite the dwindling numbers at the protests, the Catholic priest who leads the Wednesday vigil will keep up the pressure.
"When the trials come again, we will stand up and walk in God's way, the anti-nuclear way," Park Hong-pyo told his flock.
"A decisive factor that has allowed South Korean governments to keep pursuing nuclear energy is that there are people who live on nuclear plants -- the large conglomerates and the bureaucrats. They are connected in a food chain," Park told Reuters after the vigil.
($1 = 1087.7500 Korean won)
Additional reporting by Somang Yang and Jumin Park; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Ed Davies and Simon Webb