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TAIWAN: Poll Will Decide Nuclear Plant’s Fate

TAIPEI, Jan 7 2012 (IPS) - Voters in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and national legislative elections will also decide the fate of a bitterly controversial 9.3 billion dollar nuclear power plant.

A DPP signboard in Yilan County asks voters to not let Yilan become another Fukushima. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS.

A DPP signboard in Yilan County asks voters to not let Yilan become another Fukushima. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS.

Nearly 14 million of Taiwan’s 23 million people will go to the polls Jan. 14 to choose between three presidential contenders, namely incumbent President and ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, 61, Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, 56, and People First Party Chairman James Soong, 69, a former KMT secretary-general.

The issue of whether Taiwan should continue to rely on nuclear power for nearly a fifth of its electricity needs became a major campaign issue after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami Mar. 11.

Taiwan’s three existing nuclear plants, all operated by the state-owned Taiwan Power Co, were built in the 1970s during the four decades when the KMT government exercised martial law rule.

Two nuclear power plants in the northernmost corner of Taiwan each have two General Electric designed boiling water reactors (BWR) similar to those operating at Fukushima, and are currently scheduled to end service by late 2018. The third plant sited at Taiwan’s southern tip has two Westinghouse pressurised water reactors (PWR) and is slated for retirement by late 2025.

The fourth plant, now being built by Taipower at Gungliao village in New Taipei City on Taiwan’s northeastern coast, will feature two 1,350-megawatt advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR) units designed by GE and Toshiba, but has been bitterly opposed for two decades by local residents, the DPP and environmentalists, who have long called for a referendum on the project.

Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, Tsai proposed a “2025 Nuclear-Free Home Plan” to phase out nuclear power by retiring the three existing plans on the current schedule or earlier and by not allowing the fourth nuclear power plant to load fuel or begin commercial operation. This, Tsai said, would avoid adding a fourth “time bomb” to the three existing plants on one of the world’s most seismic risky territories.

Speaking to Taiwan’s six major industrial and commercial federations in late November, the DPP chairwoman said that “nuclear power is not a clean and inexpensive source of electricity but actually is the most expensive source of power when front-end and back-end and externalised costs, such as dealing with radioactive waste, are considered.”

Tsai acknowledged that the attempt to halt construction of Nuclear Four in October 2000 by the previous DPP government, which governed Taiwan from May 2000 to May 2008 after 55 years of KMT rule, had failed due to “insufficient dialogue and a lack of social consensus.”

The order issued in October 2000 by then DPP Premier Chang Chun-hsung to halt Nuclear Four was overturned by the national legislature, which was controlled by the pro-nuclear KMT, which regained power in May 2008 with Ma’s election.

“After Fukushima, our society has realised that nuclear power is not only expensive but is also unsafe,” said Tsai, who calls for Taiwan’s transformation into a “nuclear-free home” as one of the DPP’s three core measures to achieve “justice and equity”, “sustainability” and “generational justice”.

Besides not allowing Nuclear Four to enter commercial operation, Tsai advocates a mix of strategies to reduce and finally end dependence on nuclear power.

Such measures would include promoting green and knowledge-based industries, eliminating energy subsidies to carbon, energy or pollution-intensive sectors, improving energy efficiency and conservation to curb demand, boosting the efficiency of thermal power plants and adding at least 1 percent annually in renewable energy capacity.

Tsai said that her party’s plan was “responsible and feasible” since there were 13 years to develop renewable and alternative energy sources to supplant nuclear power.

National Taiwan University Professor of Economics Lin Shang-kai told IPS that allowing Nuclear Four to be completed but not allowing it to load fuel or operate would avoid the necessity to receive legislative approval for its cancellation.

“If Tsai is elected, her government can simply decide not to turn the key,” stated the NTU economist, who added that “Taiwan could shut down all three nuclear power plants immediately and still not face any shortage of electricity.”

President Ma had initially endorsed the safety of Taipower’s nuclear plants and the rapid entry into commercial operation of the Nuclear Four project, but moderated his position in early November. He stated that, if re-elected to a second four-year term, he would allow Nuclear Four to begin commercial operation before 2016 “on the basis of assured safety.”

Ma said progress toward ending the use of nuclear power in Taiwan could take place under conditions of “no restrictions on electricity supply, maintaining reasonable electricity prices and fulfilling international commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”

The President added that if Nuclear Four’s two reactor units came on line before 2016, his government would not extend the operating life of the first nuclear power plant at Chinshan in northern Taiwan.

However, after hearing a presentation by Taipower on measures to deal with major structural problems raised by critics, AEC deputy chairman Huang Ching-tung announced after a meeting of Nuclear Four Safety Monitoring Committee Dec. 20 that the project would continue under “intensified monitoring” despite objections by civil society representatives.

Green Citizens’ Action Alliance secretary-general Tsui Shu-hsin said Taipower’s improvement plan “cannot resolve the Nuclear Four’s structural problems,” while DPP Legislator Tien Chiu-chin said that neither Huang or Taipower Executive vice-president Hsu Hwai-chiung replied to her question as to “how much more money in addition to the 9 billion dollars already invested will be needed to ensure 100 percent safety.

“It is impossible to guarantee 100 percent safe operation of Nuclear Four, but Taiwan would be devastated by a nuclear accident like Fukushima and cannot afford any possibility of such an incident at all,” said Tien.

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