Fri, Jun 14, 2013 - Page 8 News List

‘Birdcage referendum’ is a farce

By Chan Shun-kuei 詹順貴

On June 2 and 3, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) went on a two-day “energy tour” of Taiwan’s electricity generation facilities, accompanied by a large number of senior figures from the media.

The remarks Ma made following the tour show clearly that his government has already adopted a firm stance in favor of nuclear energy and wants the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮) to be completed and operational.

Given that the government has already made up its mind, what is the point in going through the pretence of holding a “birdcage” referendum to determine halting construction?

Article 23 of the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法), which came into force on Dec. 11, 2002, states that: “The government shall establish plans to gradually achieve the goal of becoming a nuclear-free country.”

More than 10 years have passed since that goal was written into law.

Under the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), construction of the Gongliao plant was halted for a while, but later restarted.

Aside from that farcical episode, have the administrations headed by either the Democratic Progressive Party or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) established any plan or timetable whatsoever for achieving the goal of a nuclear-free nation?

The Basic Environment Act is not regulatory legislation and at first seems to be purely declaratory. Nevertheless, as National Taiwan University law professor Yeh Jiunn-rong (葉俊榮) says, it is still a piece of policy legislation.

In drawing up the act, lawmakers set a minimum requirement for all levels of government to meet environmental policies. Government institutions at different levels may improve their policies, but they cannot lower the basic standards set by lawmakers.

Considering the nation’s small size, dense population and the frequency of natural disasters, Taiwan’s only option is to gradually phase out its nuclear generators and stop the building of any new ones.

Article 12 of the Act on Sites for the Establishment of Low-Level Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Facilities (低放射性廢棄物最終處置設施場址設置條例) clearly states that “feedback subsidies,” or compensation, of up to NT$5 billion (US$167 million) should be shared among townships and cities near any disposal facility and the county or municipality in which it is located. This is after the residents have approved construction of such a waste disposal site through a referendum.

More than seven years have passed since this law went into effect on May 24, 2006, but not a single place has put itself forward as a candidate for hosting a low-level waste dump, despite the generous compensation.

If it is so hard to find a final storage site for low-level nuclear waste, the chance of finding one for high-level waste is even more remote.

Government officials, Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) top executives and nuclear engineering professors whose jobs depend on Taipower can only go as far as claiming that other countries have developed the technology for processing and permanently storing spent fuel rods, which are highly radioactive and have a half-life of up to 100,000 years.

To see whether this is true, consider the case of the Hanford site in southern Washington State in the US, where 200 million liters of highly radioactive nuclear waste is stored.

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