Public participation in the selection of major national technologies should be based on accurate and complete information. This should be a matter of common sense when it comes to making science and technology policies in a democracy. The controversy over the nuclear power issue has been raging for more than 30 years in Taiwan. The problem lies in the frequent failures of the government, Taiwan Power Co and nuclear experts to provide accurate information about anything nuclear. Unfortunately, although the government has initiated a referendum on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), this situation remains unchanged.
On Wednesday last week, TVBS broadcast a talk show discussing the nuclear power issue. When some of the guests argued over whether there was an appropriate site for the final storage of nuclear waste, National Tsing Hua University nuclear engineering professor Lee Min (李敏) said that US President Barack Obama terminated the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project in Nevada for political reasons. According to Lee, the project was terminated because of the great influence of US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada. Lee said the termination of the project was purely a political decision, and not a matter of the US being unable to find a proper site for the final disposal of nuclear waste.
However, on March 5, 2009, the New York Times ran a story titled “Future Dim for Nuclear Waste Repository,” reporting that the site for the repository had not been selected through a scientific process of elimination.
Instead, “it was selected from a list in 1987 by Congress, which declared it dry and remote enough ... Scientific concerns have since emerged, including the realization that water flows through Yucca Mountain a lot faster than initially believed. That raises the prospect that the nuclear waste would leach over time, polluting the water table,” the paper said.
In other words, the information provided by Lee was not complete, and it left the impression that the Obama administration’s decision to close the nuclear waste site was based purely on political reasons, rather than scientific ones.
The newspaper also reported that “the scientific merit of the site has not been established by independent judges.”
This is not to imply that Lee is lying. Indeed, in light of the strong opposition to the site among Yucca Mountain residents, Obama’s decision might well help him attract votes in Nevada. Still, let us not forget that there are no nuclear power plants in Nevada. The plan to build a nuclear waste repository there is similar to Taiwan’s disposal of nuclear waste on Lanyu (蘭嶼), where there also are no nuclear power plants.
We can learn two lessons from this. First, when scientific experts who are interested parties in the issue at hand blame an issue on political distortions of science and technology, the public needs to review all the related information with caution to avoid being misled.
The second lesson is that decisionmakers and scientific experts must remember that one important reason why nuclear power has lost public credibility in Taiwan is that supporters of nuclear power frequently provide incomplete, unclear and even inaccurate information.
Nevertheless, using information that is readily available in today’s Internet age, one-sided information can be easily exposed and rebutted.