The anti-nuclear demonstrations held throughout the nation on Saturday last week were the largest mass demonstrations ever held by private citizens in Taiwan, and so can be used as a guide to the future of direct participation by citizens in major public issues.
The scale of the protests means they cannot be ignored.
They represent a major turning point in the strengthening of democracy in Taiwan and could lead to the sidelining of political parties.
The emergence of public self-awareness and consciousness has created a tidal wave that could sweep away everything in its path.
Nevertheless, those in the upper levels of government and the civil service do not seem overly impressed by public opinion, and appear to still live in the totalitarian past, resorting to the intimidation and coercion of the political tutelage and propaganda models.
They talk of “shared responsibility for the consequences” — is this really the government’s attitude to responsibility? — and the possibility of electricity price hikes, of Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) going bankrupt and of economic decline.
They have also been guilty of playing word games, saying “there will be no Fourth Nuclear Power Plant unless it is completely safe,” referring to the nuclear plant being constructed in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), or bringing up the issue of absentee voting in referendums, all to cover up that they are promoting nuclear power while pretending to work toward scrapping it.
For example, Irene Chen (陳藹玲), one of the founders of Mom Loves Taiwan, an association for mothers against nuclear power, has received a lot of media attention, but is still not allowed to attend official meetings.
Then there is the Greater Taichung Government, which keeps allocating assembly and demonstration areas within the city for other purposes.
There is also the case of the German environmentalist Daniel Helmdach, who had previously attended anti-nuclear demonstrations in Taiwan, and was recently denied entry to the country.
All of this leads one to suspect that some elements within the government are up to their old tricks again, which is not good for democracy.
Then there is the concept of nuclear safety.
With recent incidents of extreme weather and the nation’s high frequency of earthquakes, one wonders whether there is any such thing as nuclear safety.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the International Commission on Radiological Protection say there is no level at which radiation is totally harmless, and that even low doses can cause cancer.
Once someone is exposed to harmful levels of radiation, there is no simple, effective course of treatment.
There is ample evidence of this from the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and from the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and, more recently, Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
Even if people are not contaminated by radiation, there are other effects of such disasters that can affect people for the rest of their lives.
For example, in the disaster in Japan two years ago, an estimated 20,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of the earthquake and the tsunami it generated, but a further 50,000 were displaced, unable to return home due to the risk of contamination in areas around Fukushima.
Two years after the nuclear accident, five former plant workers are dead and of 38,000 people tested since April last year in Japan, 43 percent have been found to have thyroid problems.
This is quite unprecedented and truly tragic.
The climate and geography of Fukushima and parts of Taiwan are very similar, and both nations have nuclear power plants located close to their capital cities, their political and economic centers. According to research by the respected magazine Nature, two of the world’s three most at-risk nuclear plants are in Taiwan.
The other is the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant, widely known as Kanupp-1, in Pakistan.
The Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in Shihmen District (石門) and the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in Wanli District (萬里) — both in New Taipei City — are both within 30km of the Taipei metropolis and its 5 million residents.
The most at-risk plant in the world, Kanupp-1, has a population of more than 8 million people nearby.
However, the two Taiwanese plants have a combined capacity 23 times that of the Kanupp-1 plant, and store more than 10,000 sets of spent fuel rods in storage pools already close to capacity, making northern Taiwan the most vulnerable place in the world to a nuclear disaster.
In addition, public confidence in the Ministry of Economic Affairs or in Taipower is hardly at an all-time high, so it is no wonder that people are worried.
The majority of the public support a nuclear-free homeland, and millions of mothers have taken to the streets to call for a safe place for the next generation.
The government should take heed and announce an immediate halt to the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant instead of continuing to be slave to nuclear power.
As regards to how to find a replacement energy source, or how to continue nurturing economic growth, the government is responsible for finding new ways to move the nation forward.
Now that ordinary men and women have stood up to make themselves heard, the message has gone out to the governing and opposition parties: From this day on, major policy decisions need to take into account the will of the public and can no longer be made behind closed doors.
This is the single most important change that the mass movement has brought about.
Lu I-ming is a former publisher and president of Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News, and previously served as a member of a watchdog monitoring Taipower.
Translated by Paul Cooper