The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant has shaken the global nuclear power community and caused many people and national governments to engage in careful reflection on the security and possible future costs of nuclear power.
Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is vying for the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential nomination, has put forward a plan to make Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025. It is clear that the issue of nuclear power will not be possible to avoid in the next legislative and presidential elections.
Tsai’s call for a “nuclear-free homeland” is not new. The DPP has always opposed nuclear power, and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) set off a fierce clash with the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) opposition when he halted construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in 2000. Construction later resumed following a constitutional interpretation, but the then-DPP government focused on creating a “non-nuclear homeland” by unambiguously restricting the development of nuclear power in Article 23 of the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法), the first part of which reads: “The government shall establish plans to gradually achieve the goal of becoming a nuclear-free country.”
Tsai’s suggestion for a nuclear-free homeland does not call for an immediate halt to construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant or closure of the three plants that are in operation. Instead, as halting construction would be more expensive than completing it because of breach-of-contract costs, Tsai proposes that construction should be completed, but that the plant not be operated commercially after completion. Also, the three existing plants would not have their operations extended when they reach the end of their operational life by 2025.
Nuclear power is a very sensitive topic and Tsai’s proposal immediately drew both positive and negative responses. The government and Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) said that if all nuclear power were shut down, 20 percent of Taiwan’s factories would have to close. Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) said nuclear power would remain a necessary option for the next several decades and that not using it would be very costly, adding that electricity prices would shoot up and that carbon emissions would increase sharply if we were to rely on natural gas and coal power, while the cost of closing down all nuclear reactors would be NT$335.3 billion (US$11.38 billion). Even former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) has expressed doubt about how a nuclear-free country would be possible and what alternative energy sources could replace it.
Lee hit the nail on the head when he identified the problem with the nuclear-free homeland concept. Nuclear energy accounts for 20 percent of Taiwan’s electricity. What alternative energy source could replace such a shortfall? If economic development and demands for electricity keep increasing, energy use could increase in step with GNP, leading to even higher electricity prices. Taipower’s policies and the Ministry of Economic Affairs have always focused on nuclear and coal-fired power. Alternative energy sources have rarely been considered. If Tsai wants a non-nuclear homeland, she will have to come up with a new energy policy.
A nuclear-free homeland requires a set of energy saving and carbon reduction strategies to overcome the growing need for electricity, to improve the efficiency of coal-fired power and to increase the proportion of wind, water and solar-generated energy sources. It also requires public debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power. Some of the problems with nuclear power are economically related and easily addressed through quantitative analysis, while others such as safety risks and cost of human life are immeasurable. These are the crucial issues.