The Liberty Times Editorial: Common sense about nuclear power

Tue, Mar 19, 2013 - Page 8

Two years ago, people around the world witnessed a doomsday-like disaster on their TV sets: the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan and the huge tsunami that it caused.

This not only resulted in the death or disappearance of almost 19,000 people, it also caused a failure in the cooling system of the nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant resulting in radiation leaks, making this the third large-scale nuclear disaster in history after the Three Mile Island accident in the US and the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Two years on, the Japanese government is finding coping with the consequences of this nuclear disaster difficult and the Japanese are still living in fear.

More than 200,000 Taiwanese hit the streets two weeks ago in protest, demonstrating their opposition to the continued construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市).

The makeup of these protesters transcended political affiliation, ethnic group and social class, and saw everyone come together to fight for a safer and happier future.

Societies are constantly advancing, but they make the same mistakes and pay hard prices for these repeated errors. Japan is the only country in the world to have ever suffered an atomic bombing when bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, bringing an end to World War II.

Despite this, Japan still chose to embrace nuclear energy as part of its efforts toward economic development and in the end, Japan ended up being hurt once more.

However, Japan’s tragedy transformed into a form of positive energy that led Taiwanese, who, like their Japanese counterparts, are also plagued by regular earthquakes and typhoons, to rethink a very fundamental issue.

The issue is that we lag far behind Japan in terms of science and technology and our bureaucratic system is also much less efficient than Japan’s. When it comes to nuclear power, compared with Japan, Taiwanese experts are like undergraduate students, while Japanese experts are more like holders of doctorates.

The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project has been plagued by a number of corruption scandals, both in terms of the way work was contracted out and the way the design of the plant has gone through more than 1,000 unapproved changes.

So how can we here in Taiwan expect to manage the construction of such a plant?

Also, how can anyone guarantee that we will not see a repeat of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster here in Taiwan, when there are more than 70 live volcanoes within a 80km radius of the construction site?

We could say that the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster has offered Taiwanese a revelation and that revelation is that “common sense” is enough when fighting against nuclear power. There is no need for us to rely solely on specialized, technical knowledge.

Common sense is the best weapon for the public to use in resisting nuclear power and in responding to the abstruse, specialized terminology used by nuclear experts and government officials.

The first piece of common sense you should consider is this: If a nuclear superpower like Japan was unable to control the disaster that hit Fukushima, how can Taiwan guarantee that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant will never experience an accident and how can Taiwan guarantee that the effects of a disaster will not spread further to other areas if one does occur?

The second piece of common sense: Taiwan is not only small in size, but being surrounded by water means there is no way to escape once a disaster does strike.

When the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster occurred in Japan, residents who lived within a 20km radius of the power plant were evacuated and the rest of Japan was able to keep functioning.

However, as soon as a disaster happens at the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, much of the Greater Taipei area would be included within a 20km evacuation radius, with many other parts of it being very close to the outer edges of the zone.

As many as 7 million people would be affected, which would be tantamount to announcing that Taiwan is over as a country.

The risk of Taiwan ending as a country is much more serious than an airplane crash in which hundreds are killed. Also, people get on airplanes out of their own free will.

How can we allow a minority of officials decide whether construction should continue on the much more risky Fourth Nuclear Power Plant?

Are all Taiwanese supposed to take equal responsibility for a choice made by a small minority if something does happen?

Our government officials have chosen to respond to concerns about nuclear power in one way, and that is to employ technical knowledge and misinformation to scare the public.

These bureaucrats and nuclear experts claim a number of things will happen if the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is not built.

First, they say that power prices will increase greatly.

Second, they have claimed that we will be short of power and that this will cause local businesses to move overseas and will also result in a loss of foreign investment.

Third, they have claimed that the financial sector will have to take on the construction costs of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, that to date stand at about NT$300 billion (US$10.1 billion), and list them as bad debts and that this would see the Taiwanese stock market incur a loss of 2,000 points.

However, the professional opinions of these “experts” can be easily refuted with common sense.

First, the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant has not yet started commercial operations and as such, current power prices are what we would pay without the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant anyway.

If the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is built and starts commercial operations and we leave out the frightening follow-up costs, power may become somewhat cheaper, but even if we do not have the plant, there is no reason why power costs would be any higher than they are now.

Second, Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) often maintains a reserve margin of as much as 20 percent: This causes approximately NT$40 billion in losses per year, because every 1 percent extra of reserve energy costs NT$10 billion to produce, and it is only necessary to maintain a reserve margin of 16 percent.

Also, if construction at the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is halted, does that really mean we can never build another type of power station in the future?

Also, given that our current power plants have capacity utilization rates of lower than 60 percent, we would be able to increase the efficiency of power generation if we started using more efficient equipment, with higher conversion rates.

Furthermore, we can develop alternative energy sources, so there is no reason to worry about a lack of power.

Third, Taipower is a state-owned enterprise and even if the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is not finished and almost NT$300 billion in construction costs is listed as a loss, the government would still have to take care of these, otherwise the nation would be bankrupt and nobody would be willing to buy Taiwanese government bonds in the future.

Fourth, as long as there is power available for use, local businesses and foreign investors will not care about how that power is produced.

Germany, for example, has already reduced its use of nuclear power, but we have not heard any reports of foreign investment stagnating or its stock markets plummeting because it wants to become a nuclear-free country.

It is therefore very hard to believe the talk about how foreign investment in Taiwan will stop and how our stock market will suffer if construction on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is halted.

Common sense is a powerful tool indeed. Common sense has led to many great achievements.

US political activist and revolutionary Thomas Paine authored a pamphlet called Common Sense that proved to be the most powerful ideological weapon in the battle for independence.

In the battle against the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, common sense will become a force that will lead the public in the right direction and will also serve as their most powerful weapon.

Translated by Drew Cameron