Nuclear plant may win democracy

By Jay Fang 方儉  / 

Mon, Aug 05, 2013 - Page 8

Taiwan’s lawmakers have been wrangling over a proposal by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to hold a referendum about whether to finish building the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮). KMT legislators are looking increasingly uncertain about what they are supposed to be fighting for.

Lin Tsung-yao (林宗堯), a former member of the Atomic Energy Council’s Fourth Nuclear Power Plant Safety Monitoring Committee and a former General Electric engineer, who the KMT had been expecting to come to the rescue of the plant project said that the plant is a hopeless case as far as safety is concerned. Dismayed by Lin’s statement, KMT lawmakers are very unsure about how to continue this fight.

As the vote on the proposal approached, KMT legislators spent the night at the five-star Sheraton Taipei Hotel, while those from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and other opposition parties camped out on the floor of the legislative chamber. This may cast some light on the two camps’ relative determination.

When Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) suggested holding a referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Plant on Feb. 25, it came as big surprise. Jiang’s idea demolished the DPP’s twin policy mainstays of support for referendums and opposition to nuclear power, while the referendum turnout seemed certain to not reach the 50 percent threshold. It looked like a double win for the KMT.

However, now that everyone has had five months to mull it over, perhaps it was not worthwhile for the KMT to focus so much firepower on the issue. The reality is that all the KMT’s legislators are now gambling their futures on the Gongliao plant, which will only generate 5 percent of Taiwan’s total electricity supply. Even Jiang is feeling the pinch, with his public satisfaction rating down to 17 percent.

The Gongliao plant issue is politically very risky. If any of Taiwan’s four nuclear plants runs into any kind of trouble, KMT legislators will go down in flames. The plant is not scheduled to start operating until 2016. Since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) cannot run for a third term, he will not suffer from blame if anything goes wrong. If needs be, he and Jiang can shift all responsibility onto the legislature, because it was legislators that formally proposed the referendum.

One KMT legislator said ever since the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan, he worries that something will go wrong with Taiwan’s nuclear plants every time there is an earthquake.

Even though the state-run Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) has taken people to visit the Gongliao plant’s No. 1 reactor, some people ask why nobody has ever visited reactor No. 2. The plant’s budget includes the cost of two reactors.

There were many glitches and breakdowns during the assembly and testing of the first reactor. Replacements for the faulty items have had to be taken from the second reactor. The truth is that, with a budget of nearly NT$300 billion (US$9.96 billion), only one reactor has been built so far.

If Taipower is made to divulge the engineering and procurement lists for its supplementary budget, the truth of the matter will come to light. The claim that only “a little bit more” money is needed is untrue. Even if the referendum gets passed, the KMT and the government are going to get dragged over the coals by anti-nuclear activists and opposition politicians whenever the plant’s budget comes under scrutiny.

It is hard to foresee when the Gongliao plant will finally go into operation. The three existing plants have been shut down many times. There have been a lot of problems with the dry storage facilities for spent fuel at the oldest nuclear power plant at Jinshan (金山) in New Taipei City, and there is no solution in sight for dealing with all the nation’s nuclear waste.

One mid-career politically appointed official from the KMT asks how the party’s legislators can hope to get re-elected if they are made to go on accepting nuclear power. In New Taipei City, Taipei, Keelung and Yilan County, in particular, the KMT’s stance on the Gongliao plant will poke a big hole in its support base, making it very hard for the KMT to continue in government.

The DPP, too, finds itself in a dilemma. Two of its policy mainstays have now become weapons in the hands of the other side. DPP lawmakers are doggedly occupying the speaker’s podium in the legislative chamber. Even if they cannot achieve their aim, they can be seen to be making an effort.

The KMT hopes that DPP occupation of the podium and getting into fistfights will win the KMT more support from its less dedicated “pale blue” supporters, as well as swing voters.

The strongest will to fight can be seen among civic groups. Anti-nuclear groups were opposed to politicians manipulating the “birdcage” referendum.

After five months of campaigning, most of them realized that the poll might as well go ahead. It will educate the public to oppose “birdcage” referendums in future, and instead move on to achieving real direct democracy.

If a referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant provides an opportunity to achieve direct democracy, then the NT$280 billion that has already been spent on the plant will not have been completely wasted.

Jay Fang is chairman of the Green Consumers’ Foundation.

Translated by Julian Clegg