As the referendum on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), is about to take place, government leaders take the moral high ground, pretending to be ready to lay to rest one of their most cherished issues.
Urged on by the public, leaders do not want to risk having to stop construction of the plant, but not following through would destroy their credibility. This is placing them in a difficult situation, and their only way out is to take a rational and professional approach, and give the public a feasible and gradual strategy for phasing out nuclear power.
Here are four issues to consider for one such strategy:
First, why did the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) restart the construction of the plant in February 2001? Was there any international political pressure?
If the current administration is unable to overcome US political pressure, it could complete the plant, but not make it operational. The alternative might be to resume the project in the future, which could be even worse.
Second, how should the plant’s planned energy output be replaced without raising the price of electricity?
Recently, the US has successfully developed shale gas deposits using hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.” Since US shale gas deposits are projected to last for more than 100 years, the price of natural gas has dropped by 20 percent since its highest point in 2008.
According to Taiwan Power Co’s estimates, if Taiwan could import natural gas from the US, the price of the nation’s natural gas purchases would drop by 40 percent. The US has agreed to export part of its shale gas, and South Korea, one of its free-trade agreement partners, will begin importing US natural gas in 2017.
There are rich shale gas deposits around the world. If other countries developed it, the price of natural gas would drop further. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the cost of nuclear power generation, after equipment depreciation and amortization, is almost double the cost of natural gas used for electricity generation in the US. Since Taiwan must import its natural gas, the cost is higher.
If nuclear power is replaced with natural gas, the nation could expect to lower power generation prices if it handles shipping and storage properly. Thus, it is possible that nuclear power could be replaced by natural gas. However, more thermal power plants will result in an increase in carbon emissions. This leads to the next issue.
The nation must gain an understanding of nuclear power and natural gas carbon emissions. The average carbon emission rates of nuclear power, natural gas-fired and coal-fired thermal power are 5g/kWh, 400g/kWh and 800g/kWh respectively. For example, the carbon emission rate for the coal-based Taichung Thermal Power Plant, with a capacity of 5,780MW, is 931g/kWh, making it the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
To compensate for the additional 2,700MW of carbon dioxide emitted by thermal power plants once they replace the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, the nation needs only to establish six 550MW natural gas-based units, with a total capacity of 3,300MW, in Greater Taichung or the Datan Thermal Power Plant in Taoyuan County. They could replace the six coal-based units of the Taichung Thermal Power Plant.
This would provide the nation with extra standby power of 3,300MW, when dealing with the short storage period of natural gas, and improve the plant’s reputation as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter.
Finally, the fracking technique is currently not widely used, and between 10 and 20 years might need to be waited for the price of natural gas to drop significantly. How should this issue be dealt with? There are two ways.
First, construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant could be continued, and it could operate to replace the three current nuclear power plants. This would relieve any US pressure and allow greater strategic standby power, granting the nation a better bargaining position in future negotiations over natural gas imports.
Second would be to terminate construction of the fourth plant and delay the decommissioning of the three operating plants, which are set to be decommissioned in between seven and 14 years, gradually replacing them with natural gas.
Even if the nuclear referendum does not pass, the authorities should still listen to public opinion and choose the better of these two methods, following a cost analysis. That would allow them a graceful exit from their current dilemma.
Hwang Jih-shang is a professor at National Taiwan Ocean University’s Institute of Optoelectronic Sciences.
Translated by Eddy Chang