INTERVIEW: Hau on why opinion polls better than a referendum

Following his proposal to let the fate of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District be decided by a public opinion poll, instead of through a national referendum, as suggested by President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, in a recent interview with ‘Liberty Times’ (the sister newspaper of the ‘Taipei Times’) reporter Tzou Jiing-wen, called on the government to put a halt to the power plant’s construction should a majority of the public continue to lean toward suspending the project

Sun, Apr 07, 2013 - Page 3

Liberty Times (LT): Your recent proposal to defuse the growing controversy over the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant through a public opinion poll does not yet seem to have been embraced by the central government. What do you think the main differences between you and the government are on the issue?

Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌): I do not oppose referendums, which are a constitutional right afforded to the people and an instrument of democracy employed to make decisions on matters of public policy, particularly those that sharply divide public opinion.

The reason I proposed using opinion polls instead of a referendum is that I believe the necessity of holding a referendum, when most polls have consistently shown that the public favors halting the plant’s construction, is debatable and also because I think there are some more time-efficient ways to settle the matter.

Considering how much time is needed to propose, review and initiate a referendum, as well as how much preparatory work would be required to implement an absentee voting mechanism — which in my perspective should be established to boost voter turnout in the referendum — the plebiscite could be held no sooner than the end of this year.

As such, if information provided by Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) and the Atomic Energy Council on the plant in the coming months also fails to narrow the substantial gap between the numbers of respondents in favor of and against completing the plant’s construction, we do not have to conduct the referendum and could instead stop the construction via negotiations between the administrative and legislative branches of government.

This would be the fastest way to assuage the controversy and would also conform the most to mainstream public opnion. An intensive and constant mobilization of civil society over the matter causing conflict and unrest among the people is the last thing we want to see.

The importance of having a smooth operation of the government is supposed to outweigh that of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant. The government should refrain from devoting too much energy to one issue, because there are other important matters that need to be dealt with as well.

The central government is convinced that only a referendum could prevent the escalating controversy over the power plant from spiraling out of control, but I believe otherwise, primarily because of the threshold of 50 percent turnout that is required for a referendum to be valid.

A scenario in which more than half of the nation’s eligible electorate comes out to vote in the referendum would be easy to handle, but how is the government going to deal with the situation if the plebiscite has a voter turnout of less than 50 percent, yet more than half of those who cast their ballots voted in favor of suspending the plant’s construction?

Although the central government is inclined to handle matters related to referendums in strict accordance with the Referendum Act (公民投票法), I have reservations about whether the power plant referendum could reach the minimum turnout threshold and thus do not believe the plebiscite would resolve the issue. The government had better start preparing for the “worst-case scenario.”

LT: What is your next step in dealing with the issue?

Hau: The Taipei City Government recently published the results of a survey it conducted to gauge Taipei residents’ perspectives on the referendum and issues pertaining to the construction of the power plant.

According to the poll, 66 percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of suspending the porject, compared with 18 percent who support continued construction.

Among respondents who said they would participate in the referendum, as many as 78 percent said they would vote in support of suspending the construction on the power plant, while 17 percent said they oppose the idea.

The city will continue carrying out such polls on a monthly basis and release their results to the public until the plebiscite is held.

In the meantime, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) recently said that he would instruct the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission to conduct nationwide surveys on the issue, and I want to invite New Taipei City (新北市), Keelung City and Yilan County to also carry out similar polls to gain a thorough grasp of their residents’ opinions on the matter.

LT: What do you know about nuclear energy and what are your gravest concerns about it?

Hau: The disposal of nuclear waste has long been an insurmountable conundrum. After efforts to find sufficient storage sites for low-level nuclear waste on Taiwan proper proved fruitless, more than half of the nation’s radioactive waste has been stored on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼), generating long-standing controversy that has prompted the government to apologize for the sorage on several occasions.

Meanwhile, the high-level nuclear waste produced by the three operating nuclear power plants have been stored mainly within the plants, where storage pools’ maximum capacity has been exceeded.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs also acknowledged recently that a long-term solution for radioactive waste storage is not yet in sight.

Judging from the public’s bitter opposition to the location of low-level nuclear waste storage facilities close to where they live, the location of high-level radioactive waste disposal sites will most likely be the ultimate “hot potato.” If the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is to continue and it is to become operational, nuclear waste disposal will undoubtedly pose a big conundrum for future generations.

In the face of the intractable problem of nuclear waste disposal, my experience as the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency and Taipei mayor has led me to conclude that the key to having a sustainable energy policy lies in economozing our national resourses and recycling them. All of us should endeavor to save electricity regardless of whether the construction of the power plant will be suspended and the government should lead by example on this.

In the meantime, Taipower must reflect deeply on its ineffective management and way of thinking, to embark on a new path that will lead to smarter electricity management.

The state-owned utility should re-evaluate its views on the future growth of demand for electricity and on electricity generation from the perspective of mazimizing efficiency in energy use and distribution.

As for people who support the establishment of a nuclear-free homeland, I urge them to face up to the possible consequences of halting the power plant’s construction with a pragmatic attitude. They have to realize that what they are striving for will inevitably bring dramatic changes to the nation’s energy policies and put an end to the [relatively] low electricity rates and a high-energy-use lifestyle that we currently enjoy.

LT: Since completing the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is a policy endorsed by the Ma government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), you must be under a lot of pressure. How are you holding up?

Hau: Having a bit of a background in science, I know that every step in the scientific method must be carried out with extreme caution to ensure the accuracy of an experiment’s results.

Because my past academic research has focused largely on the use of radiation for food preservation, I believe that — under strict supervision — radiation can be applied safely in many areas of everyday life. Therefore, I have always been a stalwart supporter of using radiation for purposes such as the generation of electricity.

However, in light of the escalating controversy over nuclear energy and the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, I conducted further research into the matter and have not yet read any information that convinces me that the plant is safe. I have doubts about the safety of nuclear energy as a whole, as does the majority of the public.

There are people criticizing me over what they say is my about-face on nuclear power, but the power plant did not pose such a safety hazard when I threw my support behind it as it does today.

As a supporter of applied radiation, my core guiding principle for nuclear power is to ensure it can be used safely. Without guranteed safety, we do should not use nuclear energy, and that doesn’t have any bearing on party policies or that of the government’s.

LT: Your actions have been interpreted by some as a bid to accrue more power. What is your opinion on this?

Hau: However I react [to the nuclear energy controversy], all my moves would be considered to be politically motivated. All I can do is act on what I believe, say what I think and not let the voices of others change that.

The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project is a matter of people’s livelihoods, not a matter of politics.

I hope that when people deliberate on issues pertaining to the plant, they can rise above political considerations and do not let their affiliations cloud their judgement.

When looking at the issue, we must take into account whether the power plant, as a public facility, is safe enough and whether the people trust those who operate it, because letting the matter turn into a pretext for political parties to mobilize sectors of society would be a setback in the development of the nation’s democracy.

Translated by staff writer Stacy Hsu