Nuclear disaster waiting to happen

By Adam Chimienti  / 

Sat, Mar 09, 2013 - Page 8

In the 1980s, the now disbanded Long Island Lighting Company was working with the US federal government on plans to turn the eastern half of Long Island, in New York state, into a nuclear park, with a total of 11 plants to be built. They failed in their efforts and thankfully so.

Then-US president Ronald Reagan’s energy secretary was insistent on opening the plants that had been built in Shoreham on the island.

He said that if the already constructed plants did not open, the nuclear industry would be in trouble, while if they did, the industry would celebrate a new era.

Driving past the defunct plant today, the first “stillborn” of its kind in the US, one can eerily sense what might have been.

In October last year, Hurricane Sandy would have knocked out the power supplies to at least a few of those 11 planned sites. The US would then have had its very own Fukushima Dai-ichi-style nuclear disaster on the outskirts of its most populated and economically significant city.

The key reasons these plants were not finished were the grassroots efforts and a combination of legal, political and activist initiatives, including New York state’s use of eminent domain. These activists were able to get the Suffolk County legislature to vote against the required evacuation plan.

The densely populated island, which includes two boroughs of New York City, has more than 7 million inhabitants. Evacuating this many people would have been impossible. Does this situation not sound familiar?

Taiwan’s history of nuclear power, and Taiwan Power Co’s role in it, has been marred by accidents, mismanagement and corruption, according to environmentalists throughout the nation.

Considering the regularity of typhoons and intensity of recent storms, Taiwan’s position as a nuclear state is precarious.

In the days after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, then-premier Wu Den-yih’s (吳敦義) statement about the fourth-generation reactors that were operational in the nation revealed precisely the kind of overconfidence that was visible in Japan before the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster.

WikiLeaks released US State Department documents that revealed the concern the International Atomic Energy Agency had about Japan’s reactors and their ability to withstand major earthquakes. It also showed the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s reaction to a judicial order to close down a plant in the western part of the country because it was only capable of handling an earthquake of magnitude 6.5 or below. That court order was eventually overturned.

Moreover, David Yuen, professor in the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and other scientists have pointed out that the world’s most problematic earthquake and tsunami area, where a triple disaster like Japan’s could occur, is located south of Taiwan.

These experts are referring to the huge buildup of energy in the Manila Trench, where a major earthquake has not occurred in hundreds of years and is expected in the foreseeable future.

This should have Taiwanese concerned for their homeland.

The nation’s innovative recycling schemes and remediation of the environment has impressed the world over. Yet it seems this hard work in righting the wrongs of modern industrialism has been overshadowed by the threat of the use of a dangerous source of energy. As one Taiwanese economist said two years ago, the nation would be destroyed by a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

As in the case of Long Island, the Atomic Energy Council knows that it cannot successfully stage an evacuation of the Taipei metro area, so why is a 17 percent amount of the power supply worth such a risk?

This failure to guarantee safety is salient when innovation, conservation and renewable energy sources could easily become the deciding factor for Taiwan as they are in Germany’s ongoing nuclear phase-out, and Japan’s successful weathering of two months without nuclear power last year.

Instead of continually looking at costs that would result from a breach of contract at the Longmen (龍門) plant the nation’s leaders should consider the potential costs that would result from what some experts think could be an inevitable catastrophe.

Long Island’s activists have been eager to share their successful strategies with other states trying to close down dangerous nuclear plants. Perhaps Taiwan’s activists can learn from them. Maybe those lessons could hold the key for a nuclear-free Taiwan.

The undeniable powers of logic, justice and hope are squarely on the side of the antinuclear movement in Taiwan and the rest of the world. On this upcoming anniversary of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster and with a fateful referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮) likely, now is the time for Taiwanese to win a victory that will become a reference point for other movements around the world.

Adam Chimienti is a doctoral candidate at National Sun Yat-sen University’s Institute of China Asia Pacific Studies.