Three years after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, the Taiwanese government is still convinced it is doing the right thing with nuclear power stations although, of all the countries in the world, Taiwan’s situation is the most similar to Japan’s. The government has chosen to ignore domestic opinion and international warnings.
A look at international reports pointing to Taiwan’s nuclear risks shows that German media outlets have issued repeated warnings, and that warnings also have come from publications that are better known in Taiwan such as the British journal Nature and the Independent newspaper, the French newspaper Le Monde and the Wall Street Journal in the US.
The various international reports on Taiwan’s nuclear power stations have pointed out several reasons nuclear power is particularly risky in Taiwan.
First is the proximity of nuclear plants to densely populated areas. It is always difficult to come up with a “safe” distance between nuclear power stations and cities, and the only real factor here is the potential effect a disaster could have. For example, at one stage, the nuclear fallout that occurred as a result of the Chernobyl disaster traveled as far as 1,000km and reached most of Europe.
When the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster happened, the US embassy in Tokyo recommended that US nationals evacuate to 80km from the plant. The most conservative distance recommended internationally is 30km. However, 5.5 million people live within 30km of Taiwan’s second plant and 4.7 million people live within 30km of the first plant. This ranks second and third in the world respectively, after only the Karachi nuclear power plant in Pakistan, where 8.2 million people live within the 30km limit.
However, do not for a second think that just because Taiwan is not first on the list that there is reason to rejoice.
The scale of a nuclear power plant, including the number of reactors, also adds risk. Just 170,000 people lived within 30km of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, but it is a large plant with six reactors. In the Fukushima disaster, four of those units exploded. The Karachi plant has only a single reactor and a low output of 125 megawatts, although further units are planned to be built by China. Comparatively, Taiwan’s first and second plants have a total of four reactors with a combined output of 3,141 megawatts, more than 25 times that of Karachi.
Furthermore, of Pakistan’s population of more than 180 million, just 5 percent reside near the Karachi plant. As such, an accident there would not spell the end of Pakistan.
However, almost one-quarter of Taiwan’s population lives near the nation’s second plant. Without including the potential number of people who could suffer from a disaster at the first or fourth plants, this means the nation ranks first in the world for this saddening statistic.
Furthermore, the Karachi plant is about 1,000km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, so a disaster would not cripple the central government’s relief effort. In contrast, Taiwan’s first, second and fourth nuclear power plants are in Greater Taipei so, unfortunately, the nation is a world leader in terms of the proximity of nuclear power plants to its capital city.
The age of a plant also influences the risk it represents. While this is not absolute, generally speaking, the newest and oldest nuclear power plants represent the highest risk. For newer plants, the risks lie in incomplete testing and inexperienced technicians. For example, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in the US occurred after just three months of operation and Chernobyl’s happened after just two years in service.