The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Improve safety standards

Deadly fire at Hwaseong plant rings alarm
over lax safety at lithium battery plants

By Korea Herald

Published : June 26, 2024 - 05:31

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A massive fire broke out at a lithium battery plant in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, Monday, leaving 23 people dead and eight injured. As one of the worst chemical plant accidents in South Korea, it raises questions about the cause of the fire and the lack of safety measures.

All the deceased victims were found on the second floor of the gutted warehouse at the plant of lithium battery maker Aricell, where the fire started at 10:31 a.m. Monday. Firefighters rushed to the three-story, reinforced concrete building and brought the blaze under control by around 3:10 p.m.

Of the 23 dead, 17 of the victims were Chinese nationals, five were Korean nationals and one was a Laotian national, police said. Seventeen were women and six were men.

Most of the foreign nationals were day laborers, according to Gyeonggi-do Fire Services head Cho Seon-ho.

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday visited the site of the fire and ordered government officials to draw up measures to prevent any recurrence of similar accidents. He also expressed condolences to the victims and their families.

The Foreign Ministry said it will closely cooperate with diplomatic missions of related countries to support the victims and their families.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo called for providing special care to the families of the 18 workers of foreign nationality who were killed in the deadly fire in Hwaseong.

Also on Tuesday, Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming said he was “deeply saddened” by the loss of 17 Chinese nationals in the battery plant fire.

Unlike other such fires, emergency responders reportedly had difficulties completely putting out the blaze. One reason is that conventional fire extinguishing methods do not work for burning lithium batteries.

Although the exact cause of the fire is being investigated, one of the workers who escaped told the Hwaseong Fire Station that there had been an explosion in a battery cell at the time of the fire. Authorities said that the initial combustion may have triggered a series of explosions of battery cells, leading to difficulties in search and rescue efforts. At least 35,000 batteries are reported to be inside the plant.

The deadly fire comes as a particular shock for the public, since lithium batteries are widely used in everyday life, ranging from mobile phones to laptop computers to electric vehicles.

The primary cell batteries in the Hwaseong plant, which are supposed to be disposed of after a single use, are known to have less risk of fire than lithium-ion batteries that are rechargeable. Under certain conditions, however, even primary cell batteries -- highly reactive to air and heat -- can catch fire and spread rapidly to other batteries in a way that generates a massive blaze.

Experts said that such fire risks are mounting due to the wider use of lithium batteries, but current fire and safety standards do not have a specific category for a fire linked to battery cells. There is no separate response manual, either, as cells are categorized as “general chemical materials.”

Also worrisome is that secondary lithium-ion batteries are particularly deadly in the case of fire, because they set off thermal runaway, in which one overheated cell starts a lethal cycle that increases its temperature uncontrollably.

In addition to lax safety standards over lithium batteries, the government must also thoroughly inspect and strengthen fire safety and prevention measures regarding chemical plants considering similar accidents in recent years. Chemical plants, often located inside industrial complexes nationwide, continue to be the sites of industrial accidents despite regular safety inspections by the government.

To prevent similar fire disasters, the government must carry out a thorough investigation to find the exact cause of the Hwaseong plant fire and come up with strict safety standards for battery plants in concert with related state agencies.