The power outages on Aug. 15, due to a natural gas supply disruption to a major power plant in Taoyuan’s Datan Township (大潭), and on July 29, due to the collapse of a transmission tower at Ho-Ping Power Co’s plant in Hualien County, did more than curtail Taiwanese use of electricity, they gave rise to calls to mitigate against a supposed capacity crisis by restarting nuclear power plants, or even building more plants.
Will restarting nuclear power plants really solve the problem of nationwide power shortages? Will it really ensure against an energy crisis due to a transmission tower collapse? Contentions such as these do not really hold water, and indeed will only exacerbate the problem.
A more sober analysis shows that the recent electricity “crises” do not have any direct connection to total electricity capacity or the power generation method, but have more to do with flaws in power grid management.
There is no relationship between increasing the number of nuclear plants and whether the power grid can be improved, nor a direct connection between restarting nuclear power plants or increasing generative capacity and addressing system flaws.
Talk of increasing the number of nuclear power plants is both irresponsible and unhelpful to the matter at hand.
The collapse of the Ho-Ping plant’s transmission tower made it unable to supply electricity, and this caused the supply warning light to trip.
When the natural gas supply from CPC Corp, Taiwan was cut, the six generators at the Datan plant shut down, leaving more than 6 million people around the nation without electricity. These events brought into the open certain shortcomings in Taiwan’s national power grid.
Our research of the power grid and power management, conducted over an extensive period, has shown that weaknesses in the power grid lie in risk management flaws between energy agencies.
According to media reports, the electricity demand at the time of the latest power cut was 34 gigawatts (GW), while the total electricity supply for the nation was 37.6GW, meaning that the supply exceeded the amount being used by 3.6GW.
The Datan plant has a capacity of 4.2GW and, at the time of the blackout, all six of its generators were running at full capacity. Therefore, the supply from Datan was, at the time, in excess of the operating reserve.
As far as systemic stability is concerned, should the generators at the Datan plant suddenly, for whatever reason, cease supplying electricity, the operating reserve would be unable to make up for the loss.
As a result, this is an issue of power grid risk management.
The problem was that, as this was happening, CPC and Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) had underestimated the supply-side risk of the system, and neglected the fact that the operating reserve was insufficient for accommodating a shut-down of the supply at the Datan plant.
With this low operating reserve, engineers were sent to replace valve components that controlled the natural gas supply at the plant, a process that they carried out without adhering to proper procedure, putting the system in jeopardy.
How can the agencies responsible for the power supply and for power management not be more vigilant of such circumstances?
It is like a doctor deciding to stick a gastroscope into your stomach just as you were stuffing your face with meat and washing it down with a beer. Why would a doctor even think of doing that? You would be lucky not to choke to death.
Our expert assessment of the blackout on Aug. 15 is that it is attributable to shortcomings in the power grid risk management system, lapses in lateral communication between Taipower and CPC, and problems of systemic stability and systemic risk.
These two companies lacked an adequate level of risk awareness and did not adhere to standard operating procedures.
CPC should not have chosen a time when the power operating reserve was lower than the generating capacity at the Datan plant to check and replace the natural gas supply valves.
It should have arranged for the work to be carried out during overnight, off-peak hours, when the power operating reserve is higher than the Datan supply capacity.
That way, even in an instance of inconceivable negligence, such as this break in the CPC gas supply that caused the Datan generators to shut down, more than 6 million people throughout the nation would not have their power cut off, as the operating reserve power would easily be able to cover it.
This, then, was a problem of power management, systemic stability and management quality, and it was unrelated to the generation capacity or nuclear power plants.
What must be investigated and improved is how to apply empirical data to supervising and controlling power management and systemic stability, and how to introduce the latest system monitoring equipment and technologies that would be able to assess and control risk levels before an incident even happens.
These steps would minimize the scope of power outages or reduce the degree of the problem should another incident occur, as well as preventing any chain reactions or damage.
The traditional approach of continuing to construct power plants and increasing the operating reserve ratio has already become problematic in this nation, where a large population is crammed into a small area.
Instead, smart meters should be introduced, and a time-of-use pricing system and demand-side management should be implemented so that peak time loads are decreased and the operating reserve rate is thereby increased.
This would also facilitate carbon reduction in a viable and safe way.
In view of the power outage and Taiwan’s supposed power shortage, a number of nuclear experts and pro-nuclear advocacy groups in the past few days have begun calling on the government to consider restarting idle reactors at the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Shihmen District (石門) and the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in Wanli District (萬里), and launching operations at the mothballed nuclear power plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), saying that this is the only solution to Taiwan’s lack of a stable power supply.
However, this power outage was simply due to poor safety management regarding a gas supply valve, for which there are apparently more than 10 different safety checks.
The only reason these failed, and what set off this unfortunate chain of events, was the people handling the situation. On this occasion, nobody can deny that this was nothing more than a case of human error, and an issue of poor safety management on the part of personnel.
If the government were to follow the advice of pro-nuclear advocacy groups and use nuclear energy again, restarting nuclear power plants to increase the supply of power, these additional plants with their nuclear reactors would necessarily be under the same management and operating procedures that led to the power outage on Aug. 15.
If this is the case, should we really believe that this kind of human error could not reoccur?
In the most recent incident, the nation only suffered blackouts. Were a similar slip-up to occur with nuclear power reactors, the repercussions would be unimaginable.
Starting up dormant nuclear power reactors, as certain pro-nuclear advocates recommend, would not only fail to address the cause of the problem, it would be handing dangerous nuclear power to people ill-equipped to follow risk management protocols.
Were there to be a nuclear disaster, we would be looking at something much worse than a mere power outage.
Liu Chih-wen is a professor in the department of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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