Over the past week, former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Lin I-hsiung’s (林義雄) hunger strike, which called for an end to the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City, met with a sympathetic response among Taiwanese at home and abroad.
As Lin says, even if the plant passes the safety check, there are no guarantees that it will be safe, given the possibility of human error and natural disaster. In addition, there is the as yet unresolved issue of nuclear waste treatment.
In my capacity as principal structural engineer at American Electric Power, I returned to Taiwan in 2012 and last year, to participate in several lectures and public hearings arranged by the legislature’s Economics Committee, to put an end to the construction of the Gongliao plant and help provide a possible replacement solution.
With the exception of reactors from General Electric and Westinghouse, the construction of nuclear power plants are turnkey projects provided by reputable and experienced international construction companies that provide the full design, procurement, contracting, construction, supervision and commissioning of the civil, structural, mechanical, piping, electrical, instrumentation and nuclear engineering for a whole project.
For example, the turnkey for Taiwan’s first nuclear power plant was provided by Ebasco and for the second and third plants it was provided by Bechtel.
The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant was designed by Stone & Webster, but Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) handled the turnkey.
Because the construction was not reliable, the Atomic Energy Council and the Control Yuan have on several occasions issued corrections and fines.
Taiwan and Japan are located in a seismically active region that experiences strong earthquakes and tsunamis. The first power plant was designed to withstand ground acceleration of 0.3g and the second, third and fourth to withstand 0.4g.
In comparison, the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was designed to withstand 0.6g and others, like the Hamaoka and the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plants, are designed to withstand 1.02g of ground acceleration. The Diablo Canyon Plant, the only nuclear power plant still in operation in California, is designed to withstand 0.75g despite there only being 26,000 people living within 16km of the facility. The San Onofre Plant in southern California ceased operations in 2012 and it has been announced that it will be decommissioned ahead of schedule. In the past year, five nuclear power plants have been decommissioned ahead of schedule in the US due to concerns over safety or economic efficiency.
If design or poor workmanship mean the main structure of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant cannot withstand an earthquake, the containment vessel could crack and perhaps even collapse.
If that happens, the next step in the ultimate response guide — to pump cooling water into the nuclear reactor and the spent fuel pool — would become untenable.
During my two visits to Taiwan, I went to the first, second and Fourth Power Nuclear Plant as well as the Datan Natural Gas Power Plant in Taoyuan County.
The Datan plant is a combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) generation plant with an installed capacity of 4.484 gigawatts (GW) and a thermal efficiency of 53 percent, which is quite high. Unfortunately the capacity factor was only 35 percent in 2011, only generating power for about one-third of the time, thus wasting the investment in the plant’s construction. If it could be changed into a base load power station with a capacity factor of 90 percent, it could produce 4.0GW of power, which would be enough to replace the first power plant and the Gongliao plant, which produce 1.27GW and 2.7GW respectively. It would also remove the excuse that ending construction of the fourth plant would require power to be delivered from the south of Taiwan to the north.
A liquid natural gas terminal could be built at Datan. In addition to providing gas directly to the Datan plant, it could also provide for northern Taiwan and in the future supply natural gas to the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant were it to be modified for natural gas power generation.
Since 2009, the cost in the US of shale natural gas has dropped from NT$3.73 per cubic meter. The US government has allowed exports of natural gas to Asian and European countries with which the US does not have free-trade agreements.
Also, many Japanese power companies, for example Osaka Electric Power Co, are now importing natural gas directly from the US. Taipower should import gas by itself rather than go through state-run oil refiner CPC Corp, Taiwan (CPC), where it is exploited at every turn. This would lower the current CPC price of NT$19 per cubic meter.
Until it is possible to generate large volumes of electricity through renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, consideration should also be given to turning the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant into a natural gas plant.
Between 1985 and 1990, I was involved in American Electric Power’s conversion of the 97-percent-completed Zimmer nuclear power plant into a coal-fired facility. I was also involved in the conversion of the 85-percent-completed Midland nuclear power plant into a CCGT power plant by adding a gas turbine heat recovery steam generator cycle and a generator using the original nuclear power plant’s steam turbine cycle, a condenser and power transmission equipment. Given the scale of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, my estimate is that it could be converted to a CCGT facility with a further investment of NT$65 billion (US$2.2 billion) over five years.
During their time at university, my three children participated in the International Youth Culture and Study Tour organized by Lin I-hsiung’s Chilin Foundation (慈林基金會). When I told them a few days ago of the sacrifices and contributions Lin was making to protect the nation, they said: “Dad, you should do something.” That is why I decided to share this information with my Taiwanese friends and relatives.
James Kuo is a former principal structural engineer at American Electric Power.
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