Nuclear future referendum needed

By Chang Kuo-tsai 張國財  / 

Thu, Oct 25, 2012 - Page 8

Earlier this month, one of the reactors at the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant — in Shihmen District (石門), New Taipei City (新北市), the oldest of Taiwan’s three functioning atomic power stations, experienced a “scram,” or automatic emergency shutdown. At about the same time, news emerged that anchor bolts at Taiwan’s Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City — also known as the Longmen Nuclear Power Plant — which is still being built, had been broken through faulty workmanship.These negative reports have once again focused people’s attention on the issue of nuclear safety and the question of whether the Longmen plant should go on being built or should instead be scrapped.

A year and seven months have passed since the Tohoku Earthquake and resulting tsunami struck northeast Japan on March 11 last year, causing a serious accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The disaster response efforts that followed the Fukushima accident can be summed up in two words — helplessness and prayer.

The US, the former Soviet Union and Japan are universally recognized as being among the world’s leaders in science and technology, yet these countries have experienced the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents. The promise made by nuclear experts that nuclear power is absolutely safe has been shown to be nothing but a myth.

Taiwan is a crowded island that is frequently shaken by earthquakes, and nuclear reactors depend on fallible human beings for their operation. Taiwan’s nuclear power stations have been the most expensive in the world to build.

That the US-based General Electric Co charged US$2.92 million for replacing six broken or cracked anchor bolts at the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant — in Wanli District (萬里), New Taipei City (新北市), earlier this year shows just how serious a problem this is.

The reality is that personnel management in Taiwan’s nuclear energy industry cannot compare with Japan.

Just how sloppy the Taiwan Power Co’s personnel management is can be seen from an incident that took place during major repair and maintenance work on the Jinshan plant at the end of last year, when O-ring gaskets were damaged by being reinstalled in the wrong position. That is what caused the shutdown on Oct. 7 this year.

Taiwan Power Co, better known as Taipower, also continues to assure the public that there is no need to worry about the safety of nuclear waste disposal, but at the same time it has avoided disposing of the waste in its own backyard and chooses to dump it on the neighbors instead. It ships its waste hundreds of kilometers away to Orchid Island (蘭嶼), where it has set up a nuclear waste storage facility while deceitfully telling island residents that it would be a fish cannery.

All these incidents make it clear that the question of whether to keep or scrap nuclear energy is an issue that Taiwanese cannot avoid addressing.

This is especially true of the Longmen plant. Construction of the plant has been delayed for various reasons and has dragged on for 17 years so far, with the parts used in its construction sourced from a variety of manufacturers. Nobody knows when the plant’s hardware and software, pieced together from various sources, will finally be ready for commercial operation.

Furthermore, the costs involved in building the plant are like a bottomless pit, with the budget being increased again and again. Nobody seems to know where it will end. The original budget of NT$169.7 billion (US$5.8 billion) has already gone up to nearly NT$330 billion. By the time it is eventually finished, or even if construction is permanently halted, the final cost will be astronomical.

All these problems bring to mind the old adage that bad policies are even worse than corruption.

Returning to Japan, recognized as it is for its advanced management practices and a strong sense of responsibility, the indecision and helplessness of Japanese nuclear energy experts in the face of the Fukushima nuclear accident revealed that there were few issues for which they could really take responsibility.

As for compensation for ruined lives and damaged property, it would be a mere “pie in the sky” idea if left to the power company to arrange. In the end, the huge cost of disaster relief operations could only be shouldered by the state, in other words by the public as a whole. This makes it all the more worrying to think about how Taiwan will eventually pay for the shambles that the Longmen power station project has become.

In the realm of politics, the modern age is no longer one of rulers who are supposed to teach their subjects and make up their minds for them. In our day, the public should be able to participate in policy decisions and share responsibility for the outcome. In the sphere of science and technology, this is an age in which people no longer have unquestioning faith in experts, and one in which people doubt and question authority.

Given the controversy that exists over the construction of the Longmen Nuclear Power Plant, the proper way to resolve the issue would be to put it to a referendum.

Should Taipower go on building the plant and make it operational, or should it be scrapped entirely? The public could decide and bear collective responsibility for the outcome. That is real democracy in action. That is real popular sovereignty.

A referendum is a collective exercise and expression of the will of a country’s citizens. It is nothing to be afraid of.

In January last year, the people of South Sudan voted for independence in a referendum, and on Feb. 26 this year Syria held a referendum on a new constitution. The democratic structures of these countries may not be as well founded as those of Taiwan, but in some ways they are ahead of Taiwan.

A referendum on the Longmen plant would be less fundamental for Taiwan than those held in South Sudan and Syria, so why has Taiwan never gone beyond just talking about it?

In Taiwan’s presidential elections there is no requirement that more than half of all people entitled to vote cast a ballot, nor that the winner must receive more than half the valid votes. So why, according to the existing Referendum Act (公民投票法), must a referendum proposal meet such strict requirements to be approved, even after getting over a number of hurdles such as examination by the Referendum Review Commission?

A national leader who respects the public and sees voters as the true masters of the nation has no good reason to prevent the public from freely exercising their right to hold a referendum, still less to impose all kinds of fetters on the rules of the referendum game.

Germany and Japan, both world leaders in science and technology, have announced timetables for becoming nuclear-free countries.

Does Taiwan want to keep its nuclear power stations, which are like ticking timebombs that could go off at any moment? Or would it be better to formulate policies allowing present and future generations to live free of the threat of nuclear accidents?

The question of whether to finish building the Longmen plant or scrap it is the most urgent question in this respect. Holding a referendum on the question would form a consensus encompassing a relative majority of the public as the basis for future policy. Without doubt, a referendum is the solution that best suits the principles and spirit of democracy.

Chang Kuo-tsai is a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors and a retired associate professor of National Hsinchu University of Education.

Translated by Julian Clegg