Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), former premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) and others are promoting a referendum on nuclear power which they have dubbed “Go nuclear to go green.”
Last week the proposed referendum petition completed its second stage, having obtained 310,000 signatures, and was delivered to the Central Election Commission. If approved, it would be the 10th proposed referendum to have reached the second stage since the Referendum Act (公民投票法) was amended last year to lower the threshold needed to initiate a referendum.
The stated aim of the proposed referendum is to overturn the government’s policy for a nuclear-free homeland by 2025, as stipulated in the Electricity Act (電業法).
However, it completely dodges the issue of the considerable problems unique to nuclear power generation in Taiwan.
Taiwan has been operating nuclear power plants for nearly 40 years, and the first three of these plants are now approaching the decommissioning stage of their operational lives.
Decommissioning work on the oldest, the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Shihmen District (石門), is due to start at the end of this year, and the second, the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in Wanli District (萬里), is to begin decommissioning at the end of 2021.
Decommissioning is forecast to start at the end of 2024 on the third, the Ma-anshan Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung County’s Ma-anshan (馬鞍山).
Taiwan’s fourth plant, the mothballed Longmen Nuclear Power Plant, located near Fulong Beach (福隆) in New Taipei City, underwent a 10-year construction process riddled with problems.
The Atomic Energy Council uncovered a raft of safety problems with the plant, which culminated in the Ma administration deciding to halt construction work on Unit 2 of the plant in 2014 and to temporarily mothball Unit 1.
A few months ago, newly purchased fuel rods from the mothballed plant began to be sent back to their US supplier. A second batch of unused fuel rods was transported to Keelung Port in the early hours of Sept. 5 in preparation for shipping to Oakland, California, to find a buyer.
Given the state of Taiwan’s nuclear power industry, talk of “Go nuclear to go green” is completely irrational.
Furthermore, Ma’s strong support for “going nuclear” sidesteps two major problems with civil nuclear power generation: first, the safety and second, how to dispose of spent nuclear fuel rods.
Like Japan, Taiwan is situated within an active seismic zone, and nobody can predict when an earthquake will occur, its magnitude and, thus, if the earthquake-resistant design of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants would be able to withstand a seismic event.
When a magnitude 9 earthquake struck near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan on March 11, 2011, nuclear fuel within three of the plant’s reactors went into meltdown, melting through the bottom of the reactors and releasing a large amount of radiation.
This not only caused serious radioactive contamination within the plant itself, it also contaminated residential, agricultural and forest areas outside the plant’s perimeter.
Seven years later, contaminated underground water from the plant is still leaking into the Pacific Ocean, polluting the marine environment and fish.
Furthermore, the problem of how to safely deal with the highly radioactive nuclear material inside the three reactors that experienced meltdowns remains. The majority of low-level radioactive waste produced by the contamination cleanup process is still stored outside the plant’s walls in a contaminated waste storage zone.
It is still unknown whether it will be possible to return the plant and the surrounding areas to the natural radiation levels.
Academics and specialists at a Japanese think tank recently estimated that the decontamination work at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will take 40 to 50 years to complete and cost US$200 billion to US$600 billion.
Given that Taiwan is more densely populated than Japan — especially considering the three nuclear power plants in New Taipei City — can Taiwan afford to accept the high social, economic and environmental risk of a similar nuclear incident taking place here?
As for the question of how to safely dispose of nuclear waste material — including low-level waste and spent nuclear fuel rods — given the nature of Taiwan, the answer is multifaceted and complex.
Over the past two decades the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party administrations have sought in vain to find solutions for dealing with the permanent disposal of low-level nuclear waste. The temporary storage and permanent disposal of highly radioactive used nuclear material is an even tougher nut to crack.
In addition, a phased decommissioning of the Jinshan plant is to start at the beginning of next year. In the years to come, this work will produce even greater amounts of nuclear waste that must be dealt with.
Taiwan still does not have a system or policy for the handling of nuclear waste that the public can trust. Promoting the abandonment of the policy to build a nuclear-free homeland by 2025 and continuing the use of nuclear power is shortsighted and irresponsible.
Taiwan’s air pollution is not new a problem. It is mainly caused by insufficiently robust laws and regulations covering industrial waste emissions, while the authorities responsible for managing air quality have not been thorough in enforcing existing laws and regulations.
To resolve these two problems, the environmental authorities must strictly enforce emissions controls and require Taiwan’s manufacturing industry to invest in new equipment to reduce air pollution.
As for the government’s policy of creating a nuclear-free homeland by 2025, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has already provided a road map for how it intends to offset the reduced electricity supply following the decommissioning and closure of the three active nuclear plants.
Of course, it will be a challenge to provide an alternative sustainable energy supply in the next few years. However, so long as the government stays resolute and sticks to its policy to create a nuclear-free homeland by 2025, Taiwan will be able to smoothly transition through the next few years while renewable energy solutions are being developed.
Jow Hongnian is a former employee of the US’ Sandia National Laboratories and has a PhD in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Translated by Edward Jones
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