To silence the protests against nuclear power, the government has announced that the first reactor of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City, will be sealed after a security inspection, that work on the second reactor will be suspended and that the future of the plant will be decided after a referendum.
Although Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) stressed that construction has been suspended and not discontinued, work on the plant has stopped. Even though the government’s ambiguous approach has managed to cool antinuclear protests somewhat, the issue is still smoldering and could flare up at any moment. In the final analysis, the three-decade-long conflict over the plant will have to be settled by a referendum.
The reason the issue is so difficult to resolve is that nuclear power is a complex issue that requires an advanced level of knowledge. The situation varies between countries and every plant is different, which makes comparisons difficult. In Taiwan, the ability to access reliable information varies greatly between the government and the public: Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) has monopolized its data, making it very difficult for anyone else to get a glimpse of it.
Whether in terms of estimates of power requirement, nuclear safety data or spent fuel treatment, the government and non-governmental organizations have their own sets of numbers providing evidence for their ideas and neither is capable of convincing the other.
In its policy implementation, the government has always favored promotion over communication. Every time it has to deal with a complaint concerning the nuclear issue, it gives the standard responses: Without nuclear power, there is a risk of power rationing by 2018 and in the event of a shortage of power, industry will be prioritized; without nuclear power, electricity prices will go up by 40 percent; coal-fired power generators cause serious air pollution; nuclear power generation is the cheapest and most stable energy source.
In a situation where support for the government is high and people trust it, this might be an acceptable approach to policy implementation, but in the current situation when support for the government is low and public trust is lacking, such slogans are useless.
Prior to a nuclear referendum, the government should release relevant data to alleviate public concern by giving concrete numbers and clear explanations. Some of the questions it has to answer are:
What are the energy policies for a nuclear-free Taiwan and what are the costs of and development plans for substitute energy sources?
What are the economic development plans for the short, medium and long term and what are the industrial policies for each period? What are the estimated power requirements for the complementary measures?
Taipower’s past power estimates and development plans always included the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, but now it has to stiffen its resolve and assess how electricity prices will change without nuclear power.
A referendum on the plant will not be about emotions, and the government must be prepared for an unprecedented battle of expert knowledge. To coordinate with the referendum and the national energy conference slated for September, the government must prepare data about electric power and explain the situation, development plans and responses in schools, communities, industries, mass media and on social media, and it must accept a debate over the concerns and criticism of non-governmental organizations, experts and academics.
Even if the government is fully prepared, that does not mean that it will be able to protect the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, but it at least must make a concerted effort to win back the public’s trust.
If the government does not change its attitude to communication and honestly face public concern, it will lose power.
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