Perils of nuclear power ignored

By Tsui Shu-hsin 崔愫欣  / 

Wed, Nov 07, 2012 - Page 8

A few days ago, New Taipei City (新北市) Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) and Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) made headlines by declaring one after another that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant — the Longmen (龍門) Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District (貢寮) — which is still being built, would not be allowed to go into operation if its safety can not be guaranteed.

No other country in the world would dare to build a nuclear power plant as close to its capital city as the Longmen plant is to Taipei, still less three nuclear power plants, as there will be if the Longmen plant goes into operation alongside the two existing plants on the north coast.

As the top leaders of greater Taipei’s twin municipalities, Chu and Hau are a bit late in making such a statement so long after the disastrous meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in March last year. However, until the Longmen plant goes into operation, there is still time to do something about it.

The safety of the Longmen plant has long been in doubt and a 5,000-character report about it, published by Fourth Nuclear Power Plant Safety Monitoring Committee member Lin Tsung-yao (林宗堯) in 2009, sparked widespread consternation in Taiwan as people realized just how fraught with problems the project really is.

There have been numerous hitches in the construction of the plant over the last few years. Following relentless coverage of the issue by media and environmental groups, the Control Yuan went so far as to propose corrective measures and initiate impeachment proceedings in relation to these accidents. However, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the state-run Taiwan Power Co (Taipower), have stubbornly refused to admit their mistakes. They know that doing so would inevitably put the whole Longmen plant construction project in doubt, and they fear that blame for the accidents would be assigned to the officials responsible, and that they might even face prosecution.

For this reason, up until now, none of the top leaders of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have dared to criticize the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project. It came as a surprise to many, therefore, that Chu and Hau, who are both KMT members, should make the statements they did. Probably a lot of people are puzzled as to why they did so, but anyone who has even a little knowledge of what has been going on behind the scenes knows how far things have gone wrong with the plant. It has become a financial drain and a big burden for the authorities, and government and opposition parties now all recognize that the plant will never be safe.

If nuclear disasters happen anywhere, then no matter how slight the chances of them happening may be, nuclear power cannot be called safe. However new and well built a nuclear power plant may be, therefore, thought should still be given to closing it down, and this is all the more true of a problem-plagued and dangerous construction project like the Longmen plant.

Considering how unsafe the plant is, how can government leaders find their way out of this mess? President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) assures the public that the plant will only be allowed to go into operation if it is safe, but does that really mean that it will not go into operation if it is not safe? Furthermore, who can guarantee that it is indeed safe? Could it be that our president knows that the Longmen plant has problems, yet does not appreciate the price that will have to be paid if it turns out not to be as safe as it is cracked up to be?

Our leaders’ pledges that the plant will only be allowed to go into operation if its safety can be guaranteed are really an empty promise that cannot be kept.

The Longmen plant has been under construction for well over a decade, costing more than NT$200 billion (US$6.84 billion) in public funds so far, and we still do not know when it will finally be completed. There is no knowing how much bigger the budget will grow, and the public cannot be sure about the safety and quality of the building work.

Taipower says that the Longmen power station will commence operations only after it is approved by an international atomic energy organization and with the agreement of the government departments in charge.

Considering that the government departments in charge have been overseeing the construction of the plant for all these years and the project is still such a shambles, the officials responsible should consider themselves lucky if they do not end up in jail. What is for sure is that they have long since lost all credibility.

As to the “international atomic energy organization” that Taipower refers to, it is the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which is an inspection agency set up by corporations in the same line of business as Taipower. Many doubts have been raised around the world about the role of WANO and its objectivity.

Examination and approval by overseas companies in the atomic energy businesses are no guarantee of safety. The clearest illustration of this is the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which passed an inspection as recently as 2009. Following the meltdown at Fukushima, all kinds of faults in the power station came to light, whereupon everybody realized that the inspections the plant had undergone had simply been a formality.

The situation we have reached today is that the government is employing delay tactics to over the Longmen plant. Glibly dismissing the faults and mistakes of the past, the government seeks to evade its responsibility by handing the task of verifying the plant’s operational safety over to so-called international experts. If only things were so simple!

The fact is that nobody can guarantee that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant will be safe.

It would be a good thing if the government could honestly confront the issues at hand. In order to shed the historic burden of the Longmen plant, the first things that need to be done are to delve into the mistakes and malpractices that have plagued the construction project, and to stop adding more items and more money to it.

The next thing that needs to be done is to make a serious plan for implementing the proposals outlined by environmental groups at the National Climate Change Conference in June for zero growth in Taiwan’s electricity generation and consumption. Industry needs to be restructured in a way that gives priority to saving energy, so as to make possible a long-term energy outlook that does not include nuclear power.

Once that has been done, the next task will be to look into what is to be done with the Longmen site. Should it be returned to its original state, or used to build a different kind of power plant instead? Or should it be made into a center for research into submarine geology? It could even be converted into an amusement park or museum, serving both touristic and educational functions, as has been done in Germany.

The key point is that the government must be sincere. The issue of the plant’s safety has become a serious problem that cannot be resolved. The government should make public all information about the safety issue and about how much more time and money will have to be spent on the plant so that people can decide for themselves about the positive and negative aspects of the project.

The government should also give the public open access to information about the makeup of power generation costs, so that people can go beyond the war of words over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and instead engage in a proper discussion about whether it should go on being built or be scrapped altogether.

Tsui Shu-hsin is secretary-general of the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance, Taiwan.

Translated by Julian Clegg