Speaking at a forum at National Taiwan University on Monday, Michael Shellenberger, president of the US-based group Environmental Progress, explained why he thought the government’s plan to phase out nuclear power in Taiwan is misguided.
Nuclear power is clean and emits far fewer greenhouse gases than coal-fired or other traditional power plants. Unlike renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, it generates consistent levels of power around the clock, regardless of weather conditions.
It has large energy-generation capacity — capable of meeting industrial, manufacturing and urban needs — and relatively low operating costs.
Taiwan already has four nuclear power plants, three of which are operational with another one virtually ready, although never commissioned.
However, nuclear power carries significant risks in case of accidents, in addition to questions over sourcing uranium and disposing of nuclear waste.
For many Asian nations — as Japan discovered with the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster — it is the risk of a major earthquake that should give any government wanting to pursue a nuclear power policy pause for thought.
Thirty-one nations operate nuclear power plants. According to last year’s International Energy Agency report, titled Key World Energy Statistics, almost 11 percent of electricity produced worldwide is from nuclear power. France produces 72.3 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, Ukraine 52.3 percent and the UK 20.4 percent. However, these nations are not regularly hit by earthquakes — unlike Taiwan or South Korea.
Taiwan relies on nuclear power for 13.7 percent of its energy. South Korea, which produces about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and until recently had ambitions to double that percentage by 2035, is the only non-European nation with a nuclear power share of more than 20 percent.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the weekend reiterated his plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2060, despite a public opinion survey a few days earlier showing overwhelming support for continuing a nuclear policy.
Taiwan is also committed to phasing out nuclear power.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration aims to phase out nuclear power by 2025, and to produce 50 percent of electricity from natural gas, 20 percent from renewable sources and 30 percent from coal.
The risks of continuing to operate nuclear power plants far outweigh the benefits. Two of the nation’s three operational plants are in the densely populated north, as is the fourth, non-commissioned one.
Shellenberger’s argument that none of the thousands of deaths caused by the earthquake and the following tsunami in Japan in 2011 were directly caused by radiation leaks would do little to assuage concerns over nuclear power.
However, something will have to fill the gap. It would be good if this could be renewable energy.
During the International Symposium on Sustainability Science on Sunday, Tsai and Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Yang Wei-fu (楊偉甫) talked about the government’s plans to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, to install desulfurization facilities at coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, and to attract investment for renewable energy projects, but it is expected to be a great challenge.
Vice President Chen Chien-jen’s (陳建仁) remark at an environmental forum on Sunday that Taiwan could phase out coal power by 2050 was probably impossibly ambitious and unhelpful.
Nuclear power is a clean option, but it is only suitable for more seismically stable areas. The nation is moving away from nuclear power toward renewables, but it will take more than good intentions and wishful thinking to achieve.
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