‘Birdcage referendum’ is a farce

By Chan Shun-kuei 詹順貴  / 

Fri, Jun 14, 2013 - Page 8

On June 2 and 3, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) went on a two-day “energy tour” of Taiwan’s electricity generation facilities, accompanied by a large number of senior figures from the media.

The remarks Ma made following the tour show clearly that his government has already adopted a firm stance in favor of nuclear energy and wants the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮) to be completed and operational.

Given that the government has already made up its mind, what is the point in going through the pretence of holding a “birdcage” referendum to determine halting construction?

Article 23 of the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法), which came into force on Dec. 11, 2002, states that: “The government shall establish plans to gradually achieve the goal of becoming a nuclear-free country.”

More than 10 years have passed since that goal was written into law.

Under the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), construction of the Gongliao plant was halted for a while, but later restarted.

Aside from that farcical episode, have the administrations headed by either the Democratic Progressive Party or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) established any plan or timetable whatsoever for achieving the goal of a nuclear-free nation?

The Basic Environment Act is not regulatory legislation and at first seems to be purely declaratory. Nevertheless, as National Taiwan University law professor Yeh Jiunn-rong (葉俊榮) says, it is still a piece of policy legislation.

In drawing up the act, lawmakers set a minimum requirement for all levels of government to meet environmental policies. Government institutions at different levels may improve their policies, but they cannot lower the basic standards set by lawmakers.

Considering the nation’s small size, dense population and the frequency of natural disasters, Taiwan’s only option is to gradually phase out its nuclear generators and stop the building of any new ones.

Article 12 of the Act on Sites for the Establishment of Low-Level Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Facilities (低放射性廢棄物最終處置設施場址設置條例) clearly states that “feedback subsidies,” or compensation, of up to NT$5 billion (US$167 million) should be shared among townships and cities near any disposal facility and the county or municipality in which it is located. This is after the residents have approved construction of such a waste disposal site through a referendum.

More than seven years have passed since this law went into effect on May 24, 2006, but not a single place has put itself forward as a candidate for hosting a low-level waste dump, despite the generous compensation.

If it is so hard to find a final storage site for low-level nuclear waste, the chance of finding one for high-level waste is even more remote.

Government officials, Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) top executives and nuclear engineering professors whose jobs depend on Taipower can only go as far as claiming that other countries have developed the technology for processing and permanently storing spent fuel rods, which are highly radioactive and have a half-life of up to 100,000 years.

To see whether this is true, consider the case of the Hanford site in southern Washington State in the US, where 200 million liters of highly radioactive nuclear waste is stored.

In February, it was discovered that radioactive waste from six underground storage tanks had been leaking.

This casts serious doubts over whether the technology for storing nuclear waste is safe, widespread and available for commercial technology transfer.

To make matters worse, what these officials and professors strenuously avoid mentioning is that Taiwan does not possess this kind of processing technology.

It does not even have the technology needed for decommissioning nuclear generators.

The spent fuel rods from the nation’s three existing atomic power stations are still being kept in overcrowded cooling pools.

Considering this, is Taiwan really in a position to operate another nuclear power station so that it too can churn out low-level and high-level radioactive waste for 40 or 50 years?

The nation’s spare electricity generation capacity has been on the high side for a long time, and a number of big thermal power stations that have already been approved are scheduled to start generating electricity in the next 10 to 15 years.

Halting construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, which has been plagued by constant problems and whose safety can by no means be assured, is surely the best risk-management option if the government is truly concerned about public interest.

The Ma adminstration is proposing a referendum about stopping construction, but at the same time it keeps getting government ministers and Taipower executives to convince the public with statements about the plant being safe and suggesting that stopping construction would hinder Taiwan’s economic development and affect the price of electricity. Now, Ma himself has joined the chorus.

These statements are blatantly inconsistent with the referendum proposal, so what is the Ma administration trying to achieve?

Does it want to use the media to persuade people not to vote in the referendum, thus ensuring that the threshold for voter participation is not reached and the birdcage referendum proposal to stop construction is automatically rejected?

This kind of manipulation might seem clever, but it is also thoroughly contemptible.

Chan Shun-kuei is a lawyer and chairman of the Taiwan Bar Association’s environmental law committee.

Translated by Julian Clegg