Wed, May 03, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Power supply a draining issue

Before we discuss the fourth nuclear power plant let us get one thing straight: Taiwan is an advanced industrialized economy with extensive power needs. Retreating to some pre-industrial rural idyll is, for this society, not an option. That said, and the need for large quantities of electricity acknowledged, how is this need to be met?

The conventional way to see this argument is to pose a choice between fossil fuel and nuclear-generated power. Alternative, renewable energy sources are so far only at the experimental stage in Taiwan and can do little to narrow the already dangerously thin margin between the country's power needs and its total generating capacity -- only 25 percent of the margin that most developed economies see as adequate.

The arguments against nuclear power are well rehearsed -- plants cost a lot to build and run, produce highly toxic, dangerous waste that is almost impossible to dispose of and become a huge disposal problem themselves when, as is inevitable, they are decommissioned. What is more -- an important point in democratic countries -- voters generally detest the things. Nuclear plants' unpopularity and the problems they create have led to the virtual abandonment of further nuclear plant construction in the West.

Nuclear power has found favor in Taiwan, however, for strategic reasons. China poses an ever-present threat to Taiwan's ability to supply itself with essential commodities by sea -- a good reason, therefore, to reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports as much as possible.

The obvious counter to this is that it is hard to see a blockade not turning into a hotter kind of war rather quickly, and nuclear power plants are the last thing you want in the way of China's M-9s and M-11s when the time comes.

Also it has been argued that Taiwan will not meet targets for CO2 emissions set by the Kyoto accord without relying more on non-fossil fuel-generated electricity. To which one riposte is that, since Taiwan is not a signatory to the protocol, it doesn't have to abide by it -- though this hardly goes far to lift Taiwan's reputation as a good global citizen. An alternative answer might be that Western Europe faces exactly the same problem and Taiwan will adopt a solution when the Europeans find one.

We dismiss the question of the money that will have been wasted if the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project is stopped now, considerable though that sum might be. That burden on Taiwan's tax payer is the price they have to pay for electing a government prepared to steam ahead with the project against all advice to the contrary and ignoring suggestions as to viable alternatives.

There is, however, another way to look at the power issue and that is to ask whether the power that Taiwan now consumes is used efficiently. The answer is, as environmentalist have long argued, that it is not. The government's economic development polices, in particular the provision of cheap electricity, have distorted Taiwan's energy usage patterns, promoting the development of absurdly energy-intensive smokestack industries -- steel-making, petroleum refining -- on an island devoid of natural energy resources.

Yesterday the Ministry of Economic Affairs recommended raising the price of electricity to encourage conservation. We fully endorse this move, painful though it may be. But more needs to be done: better advice from the government on power conservation and an industrial policy that reverses decades of squandering. Even so, the benefits of such a move will take time to appear, but they might buy Taiwan enough breathing space to work out a sensible energy policy. It is unfortunate that a decision might have to be taken on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant before such a policy is in place.

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