Much of the discussion about the power outage on Tuesday last week centers around whether it could have been avoided if the nation relied more on nuclear power.
This argument is clearly meant to highlight nuclear power as a solution to future energy problems. However, would having more nuclear power truly prevent power outages triggered by a safety power cutoff mechanism?
A major power plant cannot afford to have even one incidence of power failure due to the triggering of a safety mechanism. Last week’s power disruption was caused by a human error that triggered a safety power cutoff and shut down not only six generators at the Datan Natural Gas Power Plant, but also the fifth generator at the coal-fired Taichung Power Plant, eliminating 4.7 gigawatts (GW) from the power supply.
The safety mechanism, designed to prevent the power distribution system from breaking down, is automatically activated when there is a sudden drop in the power supply.
Even if all the nuclear power plants had been operating, providing an additional 2.2GW, the total power supply would still have fallen below demand, making a blackout inevitable.
The fundamental problem is not adding nuclear power but coping with a failure at a major power plant. Nuclear power does not allow for more flexible response measures when a failure occurs at a major power plant.
When a transmission tower at Ho-Ping Power Co’s plant was toppled by Typhoon Nesat, causing a power crisis, many people claimed that the solution was more nuclear power. They have apparently forgotten about torrential rain that toppled a transmission tower at the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in June, causing a power failure.
Data provided by the Atomic Energy Council show that since 2002, the nation’s three nuclear power plants have experienced a total of 29 trigger events.
As with other power plants, nuclear power plants are susceptible to unexpected power cuts or transmission tower damage.
Emphasizing nuclear power distracts the nation from more pressing issues: the crisis posed by a centralized power grid and reliance on a few big power plants.
The government should review every aspect of the nation’s power system and enact comprehensive improvements.
Measures could include increasing system redundancy and risk diversification, developing smart power grids and regional power grids, as well as preparing energy storage for emergency situations to prevent large-scale power failures triggered by a single accident. If human error is inevitable, then the power supply system must be more resilient.
The recent power failure could serve as a timely reminder that the nation must consider new energy sources.
A classic example of clean energy transformation is Seoul. Following a large-scale power outage in 2011, which mayor Park Won-soon said was caused by the city’s overreliance on external energy sources and a vulnerable power grid, he launched a project to phase out a nuclear power plant. The project is aimed at creating a self-sufficient and “green” energy system for the city.
Taiwanese have long heard that nuclear power is the cure-all to the nation’s energy problems.
However, many types of problems can occur anywhere within the power system — from the generation and transmission of power to its distribution, delivery and consumption. None of those problems can be easily solved by either relying on nuclear power or eliminating it.
Whether Taiwan will be able to move toward developing more clean energy depends on whether Taiwanese can look beyond the controversy over nuclear power and think further ahead.
Tseng Hung-wen is a researcher at the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance.
Translated by Tu Yu-an
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