But after the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfurled in Japan in March 2011, she came to harbor a growing concern over the effects that nuclear power generation has on human health as she had long suffered from a feeling of listlessness.
After a medical checkup, Hwang, 67, a resident of Gyeongju, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to have immediate surgery to remove the tumor. Several other people from her village, which is the closest human settlement to the Wolseong nuclear power plant, were also diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Hwang is among an increasing number of South Koreans who live near the country's four nuclear power plants and are joining civil suits against the operator of the plants, demanding compensation for cancer and other adverse health effects.
The citizen’s legal actions were prompted by a landmark ruling by a district court last October, which ordered Korea Electric Power Corp., the government-owned operator of the nuclear plants, to pay 15 million won (1.68 million yen, or $13,500) in damages to a thyroid cancer patient.
The number of plaintiffs seeking compensation from KEPCO for health damages incurred by radioactive emissions from the plants has now swelled to more than 2,500.
Hwang joined the lawsuit late last year, encouraged by the landmark ruling by the Busan District Court.
In demanding compensation from KEPCO, she argues that radioactive emissions from the Wolseong nuclear power plant in Gyeongju, with its five reactors, have caused her thyroid cancer.
Hwang’s residence is located just 915 meters from the nuclear plant. The country’s nuclear watchdog authorized the extension of the operational life of the plant’s No. 1 reactor beyond 30 years in February.
While seeking damages through a civil trial, Hwang has also joined a local residents’ protest to demand the immediate decommissioning of aging reactors at the plant.
After she read the headlines of the landmark ruling in favor of the resident of Busan, Hwang realized that, “I’m equally a victim of a nuclear power plant.”
The 48-year-old plaintiff lived at a site located 7.7 kilometers from the Kori nuclear power plant in Busan for about two decades, and had her thyroid cancer surgically removed three years ago.
Citing a judicial precedent set by the Supreme Court in a pollution case, the Busan District Court held KEPCO responsible to pay damages unless it could prove that a nuclear power plant is safe for local residents.
The ruling brought similar civil actions among residents who live near four nuclear power plants in South Korea.
Between December and April, 545 residents living near the nuclear plants, who have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, joined lawsuits. Most of the plaintiffs live in areas within a 10-km radius from a nuclear power plant.
The total number of plaintiffs, including the family members of cancer patients, has already exceeded 2,500.
Lawyer Kim Yeong-hui, who has encouraged residents living near nuclear plants to join the litigation, said that epidemiological surveys in South Korea have shown that residents living 5 to 30 km from nuclear power plants have 1.8 times a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than people from other areas.
“The district court made the decision based on the survey results, and Japan should also conduct surveys covering residents living near all domestic reactors (to determine the health effect of nuclear energy),” the lawyer said.
At a gathering of anti-nuclear citizens in Osaka in January, Lee Jin-seop, the husband of the plaintiff who won the lawsuit at the Busan court, said that citizens from the two countries and elsewhere need to join hands in legal efforts against nuclear power.
“Even after the Fukushima disaster, South Korea has increased its number of nuclear reactors, while Japan is pushing for the restart of idled reactors,” said Lee, 51. “We need to expand the network of citizens seeking legal justice to protect our safety and health.”
Source: Asahi Shimbun