Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

POLITICS-TAIWAN: Protests up as Gov’t Reverses Halt to Nuke Project

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Feb 14 2001 (IPS) - Activists are stepping up protests after Taiwan’s government bowed to pressure from conservatives and announced Wednesday the resumption of budgets for a 6.5 billion U.S. dollar nuclear power plant — one that has been a political and environmental controversy for more than two decades.

Leaders of the island’s environmental movement expressed “unlimited despair” over the action, lamenting the pressure put upon the government of President Chen Shui-bian by the opposition “even at the cost of political chaos and sacrifice of the people and land.”

“We condemn the opposition parties for carrying out a political struggle over Nuclear Four (as the nuclear plant is called) for the sake of their own party and personal interests even at the risk of endangering political stability and sacrificing the people and our land,” said Taiwan Environmental Protection Union President (TEPU) President Shih Hsin-min.

More than 60 environmental, labour, cultural and social activist groups as well as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that leads the government — have declared support for massive rallies in Taipei and the southern industrial port of Kaohsiung on Feb. 24 to call for a referendum on ‘to let the people decide” on Taiwan’s fourth nuclear plant, Shih said.

The opposition to the DPP-led government of Chen is led by the former ruling Kuomintang (National Party of China or KMT) party, which had used the nuclear issue to clamour for Chen’s ouster. Chen’s DPP had dislodged the KMT as Taiwan’s ruling party after 55 years. But since the KMT dominates the legislature, its opposition to Chen’s government had led to a political stalemate in the island for month.

The reversal by the government over Nuclear Four, as the nuclear project is called, followed more than three months of deadlock between the DPP-led Cabinet and the legislative majority led by the KMT after the Chen Cabinet cancelled the partially-built project on Oct. 27.

Sworn to halt the project, Chen’s assumption of the presidency on May 20 called into question the fate of the 2,700-megawatt plant, which the state-owned Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) has been building since 1996 at Kungliao township on the island’s northeastern coast.

US-based General Electric Co with Japan’s Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Electric Corp and engineering and construction firms linked with the KMT hold contracts to supply and install the two nuclear reactors and power systems.

In the wake of a ruling by Taiwan’s constitutional court requiring the Cabinet to report its move to the legislature, the “opposition alliance”, composed of the KMT, the conservative People First Party and the right-wing New Party passed a resolution Jan. 31 agreeing with the DPP’s goal of a “non-nuclear island,” but also demanding immediate resumption of the construction of Nuclear Four.

After two weeks of talks brokered by President Chen, political leaders from the two sides agreed Tuesday night to commit the Cabinet to resume construction in exchange for an end to the political deadlock that the stoppage of the plant’s construction has led to.

Taiwan’s Prime Minister Chang Chun-Hsiung, who announced the cancellation of the partially-built 2,700 megawatt facility Oct. 27, instructed the economic affairs ministry and the state-owned Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) to resume work on Nuclear Four “under the strictest” safety standards. “This is a painful decision, but also an unavoidable responsibility,” he said in a press conference after the weekly Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Indeed, politics has determined the fate of Nuclear Four, which activists oppose saying Taiwan is already paying the cost of relying on nuclear power, apart from the issue of waste disposal. Activist Shih added that the plant’s earthquake tolerance of 0.4g, enough to bear the shock of a seven-magnitude earthquake, was inadequate in the light of the 7.6-magnitude tremor that devastated central Taiwan in September 1999.

But some politicians say that while anti-nuclear forces may have lost this particular battle, the movement, which has been struggling against nuclear power for two decades, may yet win the bigger policy war and steer Taiwan away from nuclear power.

Chang observed that after Taiwan’s first transfer of political power in May, “we are confronted with a decisive point of social and economic transition, educational reform, financial reform, political reform and many, many ills that have accumulated over the past decades.”

“These afflictions cannot be swept away in a few days, weeks or months and, at a time when the global economy faces a slowdown, we cannot afford to risk division and chaos over a single public policy dispute,” acknowledged Chang, who cited the “restoration of political stability and economic development” as factors in Wednesday’s decision.

But despite the concession to resume Nuclear Four’s (3.5 billion dollar) budget through 2001 , Chang said that the previous decision on cancellation had gained a consensus for the goal of a non-nuclear home after more than 20 years of effort by the anti-nuclear power movement.

Thus, Chang also instructed the MOEA to “begin study and planning, under the condition of abundant supplies of power, the early cessation of operation and decommissioning of the existing three nuclear power plants so that Taiwan can become a truly nuclear-free home.”

“None of our reasons for halting Nuclear Four, including the fact that we do not lack electricity, cannot resolve the problems of nuclear waste and have no way to evacuate nearby residents in the case of an accident, were wrong,” Chang said. “Even if we build Nuclear Four, these issues will pose a grave test of our society.”

“The fundamental issue is not with the DPP or the DPP-led government but the fact that the majority opposition parties in the legislature are pro-nuclear in fact,” said DPP chairman Frank Hsieh Chang-ting.

But whether the compromise over Nuclear Four will bring political stability was doubted by DPP legislators. “Compromising on Nuclear Four will not ensure political stability,” warned DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yi, who predicted that the KMT-led opposition alliance would continue to push the government into supporting its other issues, like “the establishment of direct transportation ties with China and acceptance of the one- China principle.”

But there is little doubt that residents of Yenliao, where the nuclear plant is being built, know how they will vote in critical legislative elections to be held in December.

The compromise by the Chen government angered its residents, who voted by more than 90 percent against the project in an unofficial referendum in 1994 and overwhelmingly voted for Chen in the March 2000 election. A statement by a group called Self-Salvation Anti-Nuclear Association of Yenliao declared “war” on the DPP and urged voters to “punish the party of betrayal”.

“Under the long rule of the KMT, the Taiwan people placed their hopes for justice for the oppressed and disadvantaged on the DPP, but now that this party is in power, it has sold out its loyal supporters for the sake of its own interests,” it charged.

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