The nation at nuclear crossroads

By Mei-chin Chen 陳美津  / 

Thu, Apr 04, 2013 - Page 8

Taiwan is at the crossroads on the nuclear power issue: Should it go full speed ahead, finish the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮) and continue to rely on nuclear power, as President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government and Taiwan Power Co are advocating?

Or should the nation gradually phase out nuclear power and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power, as many in the democratic opposition and academic community are arguing?

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan two years ago has raised awareness of the dangers associated with nuclear power, as the reactors in Japan were similar to those used in Taiwan. This has led to a mushrooming of civic groups in Taiwan that are concerned about the safety of nuclear energy. These groups have become more vocal, calling on the Ma government to stop construction of the power plant in Gongliao.

These anti-nuclear civic groups were able to mobilize more than 100,000 people to participate in an anti-nuclear protest in downtown Taipei on March 9. The total number of protesters was more than 200,000 nationwide, if the protests held in Greater Kaohsiung, Greater Taichung, Greater Tainan and Taitung on the same day are included.

On that day, this writer stood on a street corner near the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial MRT station for nearly two hours and witnessed the colorful procession of protesters streaming by — the overwhelming majority of whom were young people and families with small children. The protesters wore ingenious costumes, and danced to music and drums in a festive atmosphere.

The tide against the continued construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is also reflected in recent opinion polls showing that more than 73 percent and 70 percent of residents in New Taipei City and Taipei respectively are against continued construction. There is also dissent in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) camp: Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and many KMT legislators support halting the construction of the plant.

In its efforts to stem the tide against nuclear power, the Ma administration has pulled out all the stops in its public relations campaign to win support for completing construction of the plant and making it operational.

However, the most tricky move was the recent decision by the Ma government to hold a referendum by the end of this year on the nuclear power issue. Coming from a government that has always fought any referendum tooth and nail, this sudden turnabout is highly surprising.

The move is less surprising if one looks at the way the question is phrased: The voters will be asked to vote as follows: “Are you in favor of discontinuing the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant?”

Even if 70 percent or 80 percent of the respondents vote that they are in favor of discontinuing construction, the referendum is likely to fail, because under the nation’s highly restrictive referendum law, passage requires that more than 50 percent of the registered voters express themselves in favor of the issue.

This is unlikely to happen, and the Ma government can then say that the referendum failed and proceed with completing the plant’s construction. A fairer way to go about it would be to drop the 50 percent of the registered voters requirement, or phrase the question as such: “Are you in favor of continuing the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant?”

Aside from all the antics and rhetoric, we need to realize three basic facts: First, like Japan, Taiwan is located on a major seismic fault and no design will be safe enough to withstand a major shock, as we saw in Fukushima.

Second, Taiwan is a small and densely populated place: The Taipei metropolitan area (with about 7 million people) is only 40km from Gongliao, while the city of Keelung is only 20km to the northwest of the nuclear plant. In case of a catastrophic event, it will be impossible to evacuate that many people in a short time.

Third, because of its size, Taiwan has inadequate facilities to store nuclear waste. At present, much of the nation’s nuclear waste is stored on Lanyu (蘭嶼) — also known as Orchid Island — off the southeast coast of Taiwan, literally in the backyard of the Yami people. Unless Ma and the Taiwan power Co bosses agree to store the nuclear waste in their own backyard, nuclear power should be phased out sooner rather than later.

Mei-chin Chen is a commentator based in Washington.