SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea plans to select a site for permanent storage of its high level radioactive waste by 2028, and will also consider storing spent nuclear fuel overseas, the government said on Monday.
In the meantime it plans to expand temporary storage facilities at the country's 25 nuclear plants, with some existing sites likely to start to fill up from 2019.
South Korea is the world's fifth-biggest user of nuclear power, which accounts about a third of the country's electricity, but it has yet to find a permanent solution for its spent nuclear fuel.
A government advisory body said last year the government should build a temporary facility to store spent fuel from 2030 and consider permanent storage deep underground from 2050.
Seoul will select a site over the next 12 years for a permanent disposal facility that would include an underground research laboratory that would conduct safety checks, the country's energy ministry said in a statement on Monday.
The facility was likely to start operations from 2053, an energy ministry official told Reuters.
The government would also consider trying to secure permanent international storage facilities, based on economics and safety, the statement said.
Until then, storage facilities at nuclear power plants would be expanded through the use of dry storage, sealed casks that can hold spent fuel once it has been cooled in deep pools, freeing up space in the pools.
"We will be sure to put public safety first and communicate with people as we push ahead with spent fuel-related policies to carry out the plan smoothly," Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said in the statement.
Nuclear energy has been a subject fraught with controversy in Seoul after a 2012 scandal over the supply of faulty reactor parts with forged documents and Japan's 2011 Fukushima crisis.
After the announcement, an anti-nuclear power group said the government should scrap its plan for building a high level radioactive waste facility, because it did not take public opinion into account.
"The government should shift its policy to lower or cut its reliance on nuclear power rather to maintain and expand," said Lee Heon-seok, a representative of the Energy Justice Action group.
Asia's fourth-largest economy has plans to build 11 more nuclear reactors by 2029, putting it under pressure to come up with measures to handle mounting nuclear wastes. Its reactors currently produce around 750 tonnes of spent fuel a year.
Under a civil nuclear pact with the United States, South Korea is unable to reprocess spent fuel, although an agreement with Washington last year opened the way for easier movement of spent fuel to a third country for disposal.
Last year, South Korea opened a permanent underground storage site for low-to-medium level radioactive waste such as contaminated tools and clothes in the city of Gyeongju, 250 (155 miles) southeast of Seoul.
(Reporting By Jane Chung; Editing by Richard Pullin and Tom Hogue)