Atomic energy needs discussion

By Yang Yung-nane 楊永年  / 

Tue, Jan 29, 2013 - Page 8

There has been a lot of discussion about nuclear power in Taiwan recently.

A few days ago, Irene Chen (陳藹玲), director of the Fubon Cultural and Educational Foundation, launched a campaign to get 100,000 mothers to sign a petition to show concern about the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, also known as the Longmen (龍門) Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮), which is still under construction.

Chen and others have formed an association of mothers to monitor atomic energy plants and seek rational discourse and communication on the issue.

New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) recently said that nuclear power should not be used unless it can be guaranteed to be safe and the city has set up a nuclear safety monitoring committee.

Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) has called for a referendum on nuclear power to be held at the same time as elections in 2014, but some anti-nuclear campaign groups have questioned whether this is a form of political manipulation.

Whatever doubts people may have, it is unavoidable that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is going to remain a political issue. The plant and nuclear power in general are controversial issues that people are concerned about.

A worrying aspect is that nuclear power has quietly emerged as an emotionally loaded political issue and does not bode well for the nation’s political, economic and social environment.

How can the nuclear power issue be changed from a highly political one into one that can be dealt with through rational communication, dialog and discussion? This matter is worth further research.

Ways also need to be thought of to ensure that those who support or oppose nuclear power plants have equal opportunities to express their views and to communicate about the issue in a thorough and rational manner.

The problem is that atomic energy belongs to the realm of high technology, so not everyone is well informed about the issues involved.

Many people may not be very clear about the implications and risks of nuclear power. They may not fully understand specialist terms like “atoms,” “neutrons,” “fuel rods,” “containment vessel,” “fuel pellets,” “reactor coolant system” and “reactor,” or know much about how an atomic energy plant functions or the problems involved.

Working out how to help the public understand the key facts and questions is a “communication cost” that must be borne by the government and Taiwan Power Co (Taipower).

Not enough effort has been made to educate the public about atomic energy and many people’s perception is that it is a risky business and all decisions about it are made behind closed doors.

Questions associated with nuclear power can be divided into three levels.

The first level is that of science and technology, or the knowledge aspect of atomic energy. Is it desirable to know all about the science and technology of nuclear power? There is probably a general consensus about this. The public certainly needs such knowledge.

There nation already has three working nuclear power stations in and has accumulated quite a lot of nuclear waste. The nuclear power plants are not likely to be decommissioned until they have been running for 100 years or more.

If the public has little knowledge of nuclear technology and a nuclear accident were to occur, large sums of money might have to be spent hiring experts from abroad, which could turn into a national security issue.

Taiwanese should strive to ensure that they have an understanding of nuclear power technology and its workings. Indisputably, having nuclear power can motivate the acquisition of knowledge about the science and technology involved.

The second level is how nuclear power, science and technology are put to work. Taiwan has many nuclear technology experts. These experts have a variety of opinions about the technical and safety aspects of atomic energy, and that is as it should be.

The problem is that nuclear energy often involves other scientific and technological issues, including civil engineering, building, machinery, electronics, materials and other things related to the construction of a nuclear power station. Scientific issues to do with earthquakes, tsunamis and geology are also significant.

These factors make nuclear energy a multifaceted and highly complex field. Those who specialize in these scientific fields must explain them in layman’s terms to the public.

The third level is the issue of science and technology governance, and at its heart lies the human factor. Science and technology are used by people and are supposed to serve the public, so it is important to ensure that people in general have faith and confidence in any kind of science and technology.

However, the nuclear accidents that occured at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Dai-ichi have made the public, especially those who are not specialists in the subject, very doubtful about nuclear power. If such doubts cannot be dispelled, then emotional and political factors will become the dominant factors in deciding atomic energy policy. This is a question of governance and the government and Taipower must confront it.

Nuclear power should not be a question of yes or no, but a multiple-choice question. Whether a country chooses to use nuclear energy or to do without it, there will be a variety of problems linked to that choice. A variety of complementary measures will be called for and a variety of social and economic prices will have to be paid.

In other words, for atomic energy to operate, the following three preconditions must be met: First, the government and Taipower must be able to guarantee nuclear safety.

Second, people living in the vicinity of nuclear power stations must accept and believe that atomic energy is completely safe.

Third, the public as a whole has to accept that atomic energy is safe.

If the nation decides that it wants to do without nuclear power, then it will have to think about what alternative sources of energy could be used. The public must ask whether electricity would become more expensive and whether so much of it could be used, whether alternatives would cause greater carbon dioxide emissions and whether there would be economic repercussions.

The current problem is that there has not been enough discussion or preparation concerning the complementary measures mentioned above.

This lack of discussion is the biggest problem associated with the question of nuclear power in the nation today.

Yang Yung-nane is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Political Economy and the Research Center of Science and Technology Governance at National Cheng Kung University.

Translated by Julian Clegg