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TAIWAN: Public Demands Safety Review of New Reactor

TAIPEI, Mar 17 2011 (IPS) - The unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has reignited debate over Taiwan’s own nuclear power programme and the controversy over continuing construction of a fourth nuclear facility here.

Maanshan nuclear power plant from Kenting beach in southern Taiwan. Credit: M. Weitzel

Maanshan nuclear power plant from Kenting beach in southern Taiwan. Credit: M. Weitzel

In the wake of the earthquake and devastating tsunami that struck eastern Japan Mar. 11, President Ma Ying-jeou, who is also chairman of the ruling right-wing Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), remains firm on one of the areas of most concern to Taiwan citizens – the future use and expansion of nuclear power in Taiwan.

After a briefing at the Atomic Energy Council Mar. 15, Ma declared that there was no need to cease operations of the existing three nuclear plants, and stated that construction of a controversial fourth facility should continue.

“There should be a national citizen referendum before fuel is loaded in ‘Nuclear Four’,” Kao Cheng-yen, former president of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, told IPS.

“The government is only telling us to be calm and not to worry,” said Taipei Association for the Promotion of Women’s Rights Secretary-General Karen Cheng.

Taiwanese Support to Japan

Taiwan’s government, civic groups and citizens have launched efforts to collect and deliver emergency supplies and assistance to Japan, whose government and citizens have regularly been swift and generous in providing rescue and other forms of assistance when Taiwan has been hit by natural disasters - such as the earthquake that stuck central Taiwan on Sep. 21, 1999, killing 2,400.

A special 23-person emergency rescue team from the National Fire Agency arrived in Tokyo Mar. 14 and promptly joined teams from the United States, Russia, France and Japan in search and rescue operations in Miyagi Prefecture the following day.

Moreover, over 4.5 million dollars has been contributed to a special foreign ministry fund for assistance to Japan, together with 890 generators, 1,000 kerosene stoves, 17,560 blankets, 36,000 sleeping bags and other materials.

Taiwan’s three nuclear plants supply about one-fifth of the island country’s electricity.

The three facilities, located respectively in Chinshan and Kuosheng in northern Taiwan, and Maanshan at the southern tip of the island, have four General Electric designed boiling water reactors similar to those operating at Fukushima and two Westinghouse pressurised water reactors.

The three plants entered operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the four-decade long period of authoritarian martial law imposed by the KMT regime. The plants are currently scheduled to end service in late 2017, late 2018, and late 2024.

The fourth plant, now being built by Taipower in Yenliao Township, New Taipei City, on Taiwan’s northeastern coast at an estimated cost of over nine billion dollars, has been bitterly opposed by a majority of local residents, environmental activists and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The former DPP government had briefly suspended construction of ‘Nuclear Four’ in October 2000, but this decision was overruled by the KMT-controlled national legislature in February 2001 after which construction resumed.

In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, environmental activists and DPP legislators reissued calls for a revaluation of the use of nuclear power and a suspension of construction of ‘Nuclear Four’.

“Countries that are more advanced or more backward than Taiwan are cautiously reviewing their nuclear power policies, but our government is acting like an ostrich and maintaining that everything is safe,” DPP Legislator Huang Wei-cheh told IPS.

Senior government officials and spokespersons for the state-owned Taipower have issued assurances of the safety of the existing facilities and the design of ‘Nuclear Four’.

Speaking at a cabinet news conference Mar. 17, Atomic Energy Council Director-General Tsai Hung-chun assured citizens that his agency would not approve loading of fuel into ‘Nuclear Four’ until all 66 critical systems passed inspection.

On Shaky Ground

Taiwan is located on the ridge of the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates in one of the world’s most seismically active areas has over 40 active fault lines.

The worst recent earthquake was the Chichi temblor of Sep. 21, 1999 in central Taiwan, which cost the lives of 2,400. Historically, earthquakes of seven or eight magnitude have struck in northern Taiwan where the first two and the site for the nearly complete fourth nuclear power plant are.

Professor Lee Chao-hsing of National Taiwan Ocean University stated at a news conference in the national legislature Mar. 14 that there are 11 active undersea volcanoes within 80 kilometres of the Yenliao ‘Nuclear Four’ site.

Taiwan is also subject to typhoons, which can easily trigger major rock and landslides, such as the Aug. 8 flood of 2009, which came in the wake of Typhoon Morakot destroying one entire village and killing 746.

During a media tour of ‘Nuclear One’ Mar. 15, Chinshan Nuclear Power Plant Deputy Chief Wu Tsai-chi and other Taipower officials showed reporters that the facility was protected from possible tsunami waves up to 23 metres thanks to its location in the hills off the coast.

Moreover, Wu explained that the plant’s emergency power supply had greater redundancy than the Fukushima plant thanks to two 40 megawatt oil-fuelled gas turbines and an emergency four megawatt diesel generator that could power water cooling systems for the reactors.

If these systems and the plant’s emergency core cooling system malfunctioned, Wu stated that there was also a 100,000 ton fresh water reservoir above the facility that could flood the reactors through gravity if power systems failed.

However, the tour also revealed possible blind spots.

A brochure on the Chinshan facility acknowledged five possible threats to the plant’s safety – fire, internal incidents, seismic shocks, floods and typhoons. Furthermore, the storage pool for cooling spent fuel rods – similar to the one in the troubled Fukushima facility – lies outside the nuclear reactor vessel, and thus outside the protection of the emergency water reservoir.

Under questioning in Taiwan’s national legislature Mar. 17, Taipower Chairman Chen Kui-ming told KMT Legislator Chen Chieh that the state- owned power company would “study the Fukushima experience” and make safety improvements.

According to DPP Legislator Tien Chiu-chin, the ‘Nuclear Four’ project suffers from a long list of concerns, including over 700 arbitrary design changes without GE’s permission, insufficient earthquake protection to withstand a seven magnitude earthquake, proximity to recently discovered active undersea volcanoes and faults. She also said the plant is suffering from poor management by Taipower, which is directly managing construction, unlike the previous plants which were supervised by GE and Westinghouse.

Civic confidence in the crisis-management capabilities of the government and Taipower is low. A poll of 1,202 on Mar. 14 found that 55 percent lacked confidence in the safety of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants, compared to 29 percent who had confidence.

In addition, 65 percent of the respondents said that they had little or no confidence in the KMT government’s crisis response capability, compared to 21 percent who trusted the government’s crisis management skills.

A survey of 1,112 Taiwan adults conducted by the DPP released Mar. 17 showed that 76.5 percent agreed that construction of ‘Nuclear Four’ should be suspended pending a comprehensive review of its safety design and engineering quality, while 18.6 percent disagreed.

Public opinion was split on Ma’s statements that “nuclear power plants in operation did not need to cease operating”.

DPP Public Survey Department Director Chen Chun-lin stated that, “as the public has a high degree of doubt about nuclear safety, President Ma should not have rashly issued such an important announcement but should first listen to the public will and carefully reconsider.”

Meanwhile, residents and environmentalists are mobilising to launch a renewed drive to halt ‘Nuclear Four’.

Over 100 Yenliao residents held a rally in front of the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) building in Taipei on the morning of Mar. 17 to call on the Ma government to “cease the extremely risky nuclear power development policy”.

Yenliao Anti-Nuclear Self-Help Association spokesman Wu Wen-tung stated that, “the problem is not how many spare generators a plant has or how many metres high its anti-tsunami sea wall is, but the reality that nuclear power is a highly risky system that science and technology still cannot fully control.”

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