Embracing a non-nuclear future

By Winston Dang 陳重信  / 

Mon, Apr 04, 2011 - Page 8

On March 24, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential primary candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced her support for an energy policy that would turn Taiwan into a “nuclear-free homeland” by 2025.

For those politicians who think nuclear reactors are so safe that we can cuddle them while we sleep, Tsai’s no-nukes policy is just as scary as any earthquake or nuclear emergency. These politicians keep saying that construction on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant cannot be halted, because the cost of doing so would be more than NT$270 billion (US$9.23 billion). They warn that the price of electricity would go up and that the energy supply for Taiwan’s industrial sector would be a third short of what is needed — but this figure is wrong.

According to data released by the Bureau of Energy (能源局) in December 2009, nuclear plants only contribute 8.7 percent of Taiwan’s total power supply, not much more than liquefied natural gas at 8.4 percent. If the proportion of Taiwan’s total electricity generation derived from renewable sources could be raised from the present 4 percent to 25 percent or more by 2025, there is no reason why Tsai’s plan to phase out nuclear power by that date could not be achieved. Her proposal is in tune with the New Apollo Project proposed by the US Apollo Alliance, which aims to produce 25 percent of that country’s power from renewable sources by 2025. It is quite possible that Taiwan could achieve the same goal that US President Barack Obama endorsed two years ago — to generate 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2050. If the US can do it, so can Taiwan.

Energy policy is a matter of supply and demand. In February, 2008, I led a tour group on a visit to Beckerich, a small agricultural town in western Luxembourg that has just 2,000 residents. The town uses cow and horse manure blended with sawdust to produce methane through anaerobic digestion, and it has improved electricity -transmission efficiency to more than 95 percent. In addition, every home has solar panels on the roof that provide power for lighting and heating — even in winter. The town has achieved an impressive 87 percent self-sufficiency in energy. The scheme solves the problem of manure disposal by turning it into a cheap source of bioenergy. As a bonus, many tourists visit Beckerich to learn about its environmentally friendly innovations.

In 1985, the Danish parliament passed a resolution that nuclear power plants would not be built in the country. Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard is a strong advocate of energy efficiency and sustainable energy. By raising the price of gasoline and imposing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, Denmark has taken energy-saving policy to the household level.

While Denmark’s energy consumption has remained flat, its economy has grown at a respectable rate (GDP grew by 38.2 percent from 1990 to last year) and it has relatively low unemployment at a bit more than 4 percent.

In 2007, between 16 percent and 18 percent of Denmark’s energy came from solar and wind power, and that proportion is rising. Notably, Denmark has solved the problem of effluent produced by its 25 million pigs by using it to generate electricity and produce organic fertilizer.

There is no reason why the same could not be done in Taiwan, with its 6 million to 7 million pigs. People might think of effluent and dung from pigs, cows and horses as being without value, but put in the right place and used in the right way they become precious energy resources.

All four of Taiwan’s nuclear power stations are included in the list of the world’s most dangerously located plants. In 2005, a World Bank survey on worldwide natural disaster risk found that Taiwan may be the most -vulnerable place on Earth to natural hazards, with 73 percent of its land and population exposed to three or more hazards and 90 percent of its population living in areas at high relative risk of death from two or more hazards.

In addition, the frequency of extreme weather events has increased over the past few years and they are becoming increasingly severe. Typhoon Morakot in 2009 and Typhoon Megi last year brought some of the strongest winds and heaviest rain that Taiwan has experienced in many decades. Taiwan is a high-risk area and that risk is likely to increase in future.

On March 11, Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture was struck by a three-in-one disaster — a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which generated a tsunami, which in turn caused explosions at a nuclear power plant. If we add the volcanic eruptions, gales and heavy rainfall that have happened since then, it has been a six-in-one disaster. It’s a rare combination, but it has happened all the same and the government has to find a way to respond.

Could climate change and global warming lead to death and destruction on a mass scale in Taiwan?

The local economy is driven by exports; should Taiwan ever be hit by a multiple calamity including a nuclear disaster, it would set our economy back 50 years.

In light of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, mankind needs to rethink the concepts that underpin risk analysis in nuclear security. When assessing risk, we must take into account the worst-case scenario of a three-in-one or even a six-in-one disaster, where several kinds of disaster strike the same area at the same time, and we have to reassess risks accordingly. Following the events in Fukushima, no one in the world dares call himself an expert on nuclear safety, because the old methods of risk assessment and the old ways of considering environmental factors all have to change. Given that nobody dares claim that they know how to judge the risk of a six-in-one disaster including an earthquake and a nuclear accident, who can be convinced by talk of strict nuclear safety measures. Who believes now that man can always conquer nature?

US authorities have already incorporated climate change factors among national security concerns, but what about Taiwan? At a time when countries around the world are starting to take measures in response, the question is would Taiwan be prepared in the event of a nuclear disaster?

Following the March 11 earthquake in Japan, opinion polls in Taiwan show strong public support for the idea of a nuclear-free homeland. In fact, Article 23 of the 2002 Basic Environment Act (環境基本法) stipulates that: “The government shall establish plans to gradually achieve the goal of becoming a nuclear-free country. The government shall also strengthen nuclear safety management and control, protections against radiation and the management of radioactive materials and monitoring of environmental radiation, to safeguard the public from the dangers of radiation exposure.”

Following the disaster in Japan, Germany took the lead in closing down older nuclear power stations and many other countries have called a halt to the construction of new ones. Countries around the world are reconsidering their nuclear power policies and questioning whether they really need nuclear power in view of the risks. Non-nuclear policy proposals that have been set aside for years are being discussed once more.

In Taiwan, Tsai’s proposal for a nuclear-free homeland by 2025 is just a quiet reminder of a policy orientation that already exists in law. The question now is whether President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) will proceed in accordance with the law or ignore it?

Winston Dang is a former Environmental Protection Administration minister and chair professor at the Taipei Medical University College of Public Health, specializing in policy risk management.

TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG