On June 12, a fire broke out at the Third Nuclear Power Plant (核三廠) in Hengchun (恆春), Pingtung County, triggering concern and criticism from both the public and environmental groups.
Although Taiwan Power Co (Taipower, 台灣電力公司) immediately announced the cause of the fire, its explanation kept changing and thus failed to calm concerns. This incident highlights loopholes in Taiwan’s nuclear safety system.
The nuclear safety system is in a mess. Atomic Energy Council (AEC) Chairman Tsai Chuen-horng (蔡春鴻) commented that the plant caught fire too often — this was the third fire in 29 years of operation.
This makes one wonder whether the plant’s monitoring, prevention, alert and communication mechanisms are not seriously flawed.
Despite the advantages of nuclear energy, all countries attach great importance to nuclear safety because of the potentially disastrous consequences of radiation leaks.
The confusion created by the responses from Taipower and the AEC after the fire reveal that the nuclear safety system is vulnerable both from an organizational and an operational perspective.
The existing communication mechanism is full of loopholes. From Taipower’s constantly changing explanations of the fire, we can surmise that there are problems with its procedure for issuing public statements.
This indicates that an appropriate emergency response system responsible for making unified statements to the public has not been set up.
In addition, the plant’s recent emergency fire drill involved a transformer, which was precisely where the fire occurred. I suspect that the company’s management paid little attention to the drill or the soundness of the emergency response system.
In photographs published by the media, the smoke from the scene could be seen from several kilometers away. The early warning system — including safety monitoring, prevention and disaster information transmission — were either out of order or nonexistent and that is what led to this incident. The system simply did not work.
If we can learn from this and build a complete early warning system, we will be able to detect and prevent similar fires in a timely manner.
I think that there may be serious loopholes in the nuclear safety system that has been jointly developed by Taipower and the AEC.
The operation of Taiwan’s atomic agency is falling short when it comes to nuclear safety. Maybe this is because nuclear power requires high-tech staff.
I suspect that the problem is that high-tech staff from several different fields may not be fully “integrated.” I also suspect that there is a shortage of people in the high-tech industry from the fields of humanistic or social studies, and that may be one of the reasons why it is difficult to merge nuclear power with society at large.
To sum up, in response to the latest fire, Taipower and the AEC should certainly investigate human error. But more importantly, they should strengthen Taiwan’s nuclear safety system.
Making scapegoats out of a few low-level Taipower officials is not going to help improve the nation’s nuclear safety mechanisms.
Yang Yung-nane is a professor in the Department of Political Science at National Cheng Kung University.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG