On Dec. 18, Taiwanese are to vote on whether to restart construction of the mothballed Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District (貢寮), one of four questions in the referendum.
In a televised debate on Saturday last week, nuclear power advocate Huang Shih-hsiu (黃士修) — who initiated the referendum — crossed swords with Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Tseng Wen-sheng (曾文生), who argued against starting the plant.
Huang focused mainly on cost and revenue, saying that starting the plant would pay for itself after five years, and failure to commission it would bankrupt Taiwan Power Co (Taipower). Tseng addressed safety concerns, saying that the plant has failed 32 of 187 safety tests conducted by the Atomic Energy Council since 2007.
The question of whether to start the plant does not necessarily divide along party lines. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has consistently opposed the expansion of Taiwan’s civil nuclear power program, citing concerns over cost and the disposal of radioactive waste, while New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜), a prominent member of the pan-blue camp, opposes the plant too, also citing waste disposal concerns. No local government is willing to host a storage facility for spent fuel rods, a problem that has dogged Taiwan’s nuclear power plants for decades and has resulted in potentially dangerous on-site waste storage.
Taipower in 2000 estimated that it would cost NT$80 billion (US$2.88 billion at the current exchange rate) to commission the plant. More recent government estimates have put the figure closer to NT$200 billion, while a 2013 Green Citizens’ Action Alliance study estimated it would cost at least NT$1.12 trillion to bring the plant on line. The project certainly bears all the hallmarks of a monumental boondoggle, and this raises serious concerns regarding operational safety.
Construction commenced in the late 1990s and has taken longer than any other nuclear power station in the world. Critics argue that many of the project’s woes stem from an ill-conceived tender process, which divided the project among an unmanageable number of tender packages and subcontractors. Design changes, construction errors, and the repeated halting and restarting of construction for political and technical reasons have further compounded the plant’s problems.
A safety report submitted by Taipower in December 2011 listed more than 30 significant issues with the plant, while the World Nuclear Association has rated the plant as one of the most dangerous in the world.
A 2013 Central Geological Survey investigation confirmed that the plant is built on several seismic fault lines, including a 2km-long fault directly underneath the facility. This should give pause for thought, particularly given the plant’s location in New Taipei City is within 30km of urban population centers that are home to 6 million residents.
By way of comparison, there were 170,000 people living within 30km of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which was significantly damaged in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and leaked radiation.
The government plans to phase out nuclear power by 2025 and plug the shortfall with a combination of liquefied natural gas and renewable energy. At first glance, this appears ambitious, but Taiwan’s dependence on nuclear energy has fallen from more than 50 percent in 1985 to only 12.7 percent last year, Taipower data show.
Perhaps there is an argument for maintaining an element of nuclear power as part of the nation’s overall energy mix, but restarting work on the white elephant that is the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant would be an act of supreme folly.
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