Cold comfort for anti-nuclear Taiwanese
By Jou Ying-cheng
TAIPEI - Amid the shockwaves of Japan's ongoing post-quake nuclear crisis, nuclear energy seems to be emerging as a contentious issue for next year's presidential election in Taiwan, as opposition leader last week declared her intention to abandon nuclear power if elected.
Taiwan, sitting at West Pacific Rim earthquake zone like Japan, has three operational power plants and is building the fourth.
Responding to a growing anti-nuclear voice, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said she "tends" toward not allowing the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (Nuke 4) to start commercial operations if she is elected. With the phasing out of the existing three nuclear power
plants, Tsai added, she would pursue a policy to ensure a nuclear-free Taiwan by 2025.
Tsai will have to win party primary before being able to challenge incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) in March 2012.
Ma had earlier emphasized improving nuclear power safety but made no indication on reining in the expansion of nuclear use. He also called for cross-Taiwan Strait cooperation to prevent nuclear accidents, though gave no details .
A business tycoon's statement on March 23 has boosted anti-nuclear momentum. Announcing his donation of 1 billion Japanese yen (US$12.3 million) for disaster relief in Japan, Chang Yung-fa, chairman of the Evergreen Group that runs businesses including shipping and air transportation, told the media that the earthquake-ridden Taiwan should not develop nuclear power. "It's better to close all the nuclear power plants [in Taiwan]," he said.
Thousands took to the street in Taipei on Sunday to demand an end to the use of nuclear power on the island. And activists are already organizing a larger rally they hope will draw 100,000 demonstrators on April 30.
In reference to the troubles at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, Taiwan's nuclear deployment can be particularly disturbing. "Where should the six million people in the 30-kilometer zone go if things go wrong at the First or Second Nuclear Power Plant?" A leader at Sunday's demonstration repeated through amplifiers.
In the Fukushima radiation leak accident, the Japanese government has designated a 20-km radius as the evacuation zone and asked people within 30 km from the plant to stay indoors. However, a 30-km radius drawing from either of the two nuclear power plants on Taiwan's north coast easily covers much of the Taipei metropolis.
Grilled by legislators, Tsai Chuen-horng, head of the cabinet-level Atomic Energy Council (AEC), admitted that the government has no ability to evacuate people when radiation threatens the capital, "so far all the plans only involves a 5-km radius".
He also acknowledged that the two plants' vicinity to faults - seven and five kilometers respectively - was not discovered at the time of building in the 1970s.
According to the state-run Taiwan Power Company (Taipower), which operates all the nuclear power plants, the facilities are located 12 or 15 meters above sea-level and therefore less vulnerable to a tsunami than Fukushima. The company also says the plants are equipped with more backup generators and have massive uphill water reservoirs, and therefore are unlikely to be in a situation where a lose of electricity leads to a drying up of cooling water, which was the main cause of the Japanese nuclear crisis.
But Taipower is widely criticized for complacency. Even Tsai Chuen-horng, who said all the nuclear power plants are firm and well-positioned enough to survive earthquakes and tsunamis "according to past assumption [of disaster scales]", acknowledged that it's "unknown" whether the plants would still be safe in the face of a disaster like the one that hit Japan.
The Nuke 4 under construction has been a particular source of grave concern. Opponents of the plant in Gongliao, on Taiwan's northeast coast and 40 km from Taipei, call it a "patchwork".
Unlike three earlier plants whose design and construction work was commissioned in large packages to specialized American companies such as General Electric (GE), the core nuclear reaction system of Nuke 4 was contracted in small parts to be undertaken by a number of American, Japanese and European companies. Using GE's design, the less experienced Taipower is in the position of carrying out the work to integrate components made by different companies.
"Such a practice is abnormal and worrisome," said Hong Shen-han of the Green Citizens' Action Alliance, an environment non-governmental organization; "it has caused a lot of integration problems and entailed endless modifications."
The Nuke 4 project was proposed in 1980 but construction work on the controversial plant, which is also near faults and undersea volcanoes, did not begin until 1999. After winning power in 2000 the DPP government announced a halt to construction. The decision created a political storm and was later ruled unconstitutional by a court. Surrendering to the KMT's advantage in the parliament, the government resumed construction in 2001.
The original budget for Nuke 4 was about NT$160 billion (US$ 5.4 billion) but has gone up to more than NT$ 270 billion. Construction is near completion and Taipower planned to load the fuel this year, but now expects a delay after Fukushima disaster. "The AEC will conduct strictest safety examinations before giving us a green light," S J Huang, vice president of Taipower, said.
Half of the respondents in a poll conducted by Apple Daily, Taiwan's best-selling newspaper, four days after the Japan quake said that Nuke 4 should be scrapped. The pro-DPP Taiwan Thinktank found an even higher percentage of 58% in its poll.
But can Taiwan do without nuclear power? Anti-nuclear activists believe so. According to governmental statistics, the three nuclear plants provide 16% of all electricity generated nationwide, while the country now has a 28.1% of reserve margin in power capacity. Citing the figures, Gloria Hsu, a professor of atmospheric science and ex-chairwomen of Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, said Taiwan won't be short of electricity even if all the nuclear power plants stop running.
Kao Cheng-yen, a science professor and veteran environmentalist, said a large part of any power sufficiency problem lies in the government's policies to develop highly energy-consuming industries such as steel and petrochemicals. "The government should change its policies and reduce these industries", he said.
Taipower, however, said opponents' have "misunderstood the meaning" of power reserve margin. In a written response to the Asia Times Online, a spokesman said the reserve is for use in situations like facility repair, emergency shutdown and so forth. Therefore, he said, closing nuclear plants would affect the reliability of power supply.
Environmentalists are more cautious about the DPP's stance on nuclear energy than before. Many felt betrayed when the DPP made a policy U-turn and resumed the construction of Nuke 4 in 2001. Asked to comment on Tsai Ing-wen's recent statement, Hong Shen-han said "it's very much election language".
"We welcome all politicians to express their anti-nuclear stance, but we'll carefully scrutinize their actual deeds," he added.
Jou Ying-cheng is a Taipei-based freelance journalist.
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