Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) recently spoke on the Diaoyutais dispute and also gave up her NT$270,000 year-end bonus in the wake of the controversy over year-end bonuses for retired government employees. Lu’s actions won praise for setting an example for civil-service retirees, and her assertions and knowledge regarding the disputed islands were clear and admirable. However, it could be her efforts on an anti-nuclear referendum in New Taipei City (新北市) that go down in history as her most important legacy.
The New Taipei City Council’s passage of the Act Governing New Taipei Referendums (新北市公民投票自治條例) on June 25, the first referendum law at the local level in Taiwan, made it possible for residents to have a say on local matters via referendums.
Lu, an advocate of a “nuclear-free homeland,” began the referendum drive in July with the aim of holding a referendum next year on whether to stop operations at the yet-to-be-completed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City — also known as the Longmen Nuclear Power Plant.
Lu is now ready to submit a referendum proposal after collecting more than 16,000 signatures and is working on achieving the next goal of 160,000 signatures, the threshold for a referendum to be held in the city. If more than 1.6 million residents vote in the referendum, with half of them supporting halting the loading of fuel rods, then operation of the plant would be halted.
While holding referendums is a symbol of Taiwan’s democratic achievements, they have been described as tools for political parties to impose their ideologies. This, along with the high threshold required, is probably why the proposals in all six national referendums held to date have been defeated.
The proposals in two of the three local referendums, including a proposal to build a casino in Penghu in 2009, were also defeated, with the only successful instance being one regarding another casino project in Matsu in July this year.
This could be the first time that a local referendum unrelated to gambling could generate public interest and draw national attention. It would also be an opportunity for Taiwanese to make their views clear on the dangers posed by nuclear power.
Construction of the Longmen plant began in 1999, but was halted by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration in 2000 before resuming in 2001. The total budget has now reached NT$330 billion (US$11.3 billion), making it one of the most expensive nuclear power plants in the world, calling into question the efficiency of both President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and the designated plant operator, Taipower.
The safety of nuclear power plants has increasingly become a cause for concern, in particular after the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant last year. These concerns have been exacerbated by technical problems at Taiwan’s nuclear plants.
Furthermore, a 100km deep fault in northern Taiwan, which already has the highest density of nuclear power plants in the world, could further endanger the lives of the 6 million people of New Taipei City, Taipei City and Keelung should disaster strike.
The need for a new power plant, the government’s primary argument, should also be discussed. Analysts and environmental groups have reported that if the excess reserve capacity rate were scaled down and efforts made to develop alternative energy sources, the plant would not in fact be needed.
Despite never completely addressing these issues, the Ma administration seems determined to forge ahead with its commitment to nuclear power.
This is why a local referendum could create real change through the most direct form of democracy and why it would be an historic opportunity to determine whether people in northern Taiwan are willing to accept the risks of nuclear power, however small they might be, for the sake of meeting energy demands.