Anti-Nuclear Storm Brewing in Taiwan
By Tim Daiss
There is a storm brewing in Taiwan. But this time it’s not a killer typhoon blowing in from the South China Sea or even an earthquake, which often plagues this island country. It’s the fight over the future of nuclear power.
In one corner are environmentalists, academics, an alarmed populace and even Taiwanese celebrities. In the other corner are politicians, government planners and Taipower, the country’s state-owned power utility.
In fact, public outcry against the county’s proposed fourth nuclear plant has reached a fever pitch, prompting a referendum to be held later this year. At stake is a new nuclear plant already about 90 percent completed in New Taipei City. The plant is scheduled to come online by 2015.
However nuclear power is not new in Taiwan. Taiwan currently has three nuclear power plants, and six nuclear power reactors operating. The country’s first reactor, Chin Shan 1, became operational in 1978 and is licensed to 2018. The other five reactors are licensed from 2019 up to 2025, according to the World Nuclear Association.
The latest uproar over nuclear power stems from fears that a disaster like Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown could also happen here. Following Fukushima, Taiwan initiated a comprehensive nuclear safety review, which was completed in September. In addition, Taiwan strengthened its radiation protection capacity and contingency mechanisms, since Taiwan is prone to seismic activity.
And, it’s this seismic activity that has many Taiwanese up in arms over nuclear power, with protests all over the country.
Taiwan’s geographical location, which sits on the boundary between two converging tectonic plates, is indeed cause for concern. Additionally, the country is in the proximity of a volcano group. Opponents also cite the fact that Taiwan’s three existing plants are all located in one area, New Taipei City, which makes it even more vulnerable to natural disaster that could lead to a series of chain reactions.
The country’s anti-nuclear faction also points to nuclear waste as another problem, since nuclear waste has to be buried between 610m and 1,200m underground in a geologically stable area for a period of 10,000 years and up, they claim, citing a Taiwanese government paper. Critics claim that an adequate burial site cannot be found in Taiwan.
Ironically, last week North Korea sued Taipower for $10.1 million for an unfulfilled contract signed 16 years ago to dump nuclear waste in the communist country, according to the Taipei Times. A deal was signed in 1997 between Taipei and Pyongyang, but Taipei reneged due to international pressure from South Korea and the US.
Currently, Taiwan stores most of its nuclear waste within the plants themselves. Many claim that these plants have reached a saturation point.
However, the pro-nuclear camp has friends in high places, including current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma repeatedly defends his government’s nuclear stance and promises, even guarantees nuclear safety before allowing commercial operation of the new plant.
Though pro-nuclear, Ma seems to be taking a pragmatic approach to the problem. “We can reduce nuclear power gradually, but it will be hard to achieve this goal in a single step,” he said at a March 2 meeting with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members that call for a halt to construction of the fourth plant.
Ma added that the government would respect any decision made by the public on this issue in the upcoming national referendum, which itself has become a political bloodbath as both sides try to work referendum details to suit their own agendas.
Seemingly, in an effort to appease the populace, Taiwan invited international experts to conduct stress tests on its three nuclear plants. On March 4 six experts from the Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Nuclear Agency arrived in Taipei at the invitation of the country’s nuclear regulators.
Albeit, both sides are sticking to their guns over the issue and both sides have valid arguments.
Natural disasters in Taiwan cause death, destruction and financial loss on a continual basis. According to data from PreventionWeb.net, there were 65 natural disasters in Taiwan between 1980-2010, killing more than 4,000 people, affecting nearly four million people in a country of just over 23 million. That means around one-sixth of the population has been negatively impacted by natural disasters during this time period.
These natural disasters included six major earthquakes, costing billions of dollars. Of the 4,000 killed by natural disasters during this period, over 50 percent were killed by earthquakes.
Taiwan is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world. According to Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration, over 50 destructive earthquakes were recorded before 1900 and as many as 83 after 1900. These earthquakes occur on average of once a year.
However nuclear power proponents in Taiwan claim that if the country’s fourth nuclear power plant is scrapped, Taipower will be forced into bankruptcy. Suffice it to say, Taiwan needs all of the energy help it can get. The country imports 99 percent of its energy, which is vital to the rapidly industrializing economy.
Though Taiwan is getting edgy over nuclear power, the rest of Asia is not. The World Nuclear Association states that nuclear capacity is increasing worldwide, with over 60 reactors under construction in 13 countries, with most of the reactors planned for the Asia region.
Of the four countries that the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts nuclear capacity to rise in, India has 20 reactors, 7 under construction with 18 planned and 39 proposed; while South Korea has 23 reactors in operation, 4 under construction, 5 planned and none proposed. China has 15 operating nuclear reactors, 26 under construction, 51 in the planning stage and 120 proposed.
Bucking this trend in Taiwan may not be the way to go. But the government has it work cut out if it is to convince an increasingly worried and antagonist anti-nuclear public before the upcoming referendum.
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