Taiwan to become nuclear-free by 2025?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu

Before the presidential election in early 2016, Ms. Tsai Ing-Wen, now the President of Taiwan, promised that all existing nuclear power plants will be closed by 2025. Implicitly, all reactors would operate for a maximum of 40 years, with no lifetime extension, and the fourth nuclear power plant will not become operational.

In January 2017, the Amendment of the Electricity Act passed the Legislative Yuan. Article 95 of the Amendment states "all nuclear power generating facilities shall cease operation by 2025." President Tsai's campaign promise became law. However, many uncertainties lie ahead, which will determine whether this part of Electricity Act becomes reality.

First, if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins the next two presidential elections and maintains its majority in the parliament, the chance of having another amendment to Article 95 of the Electricity Act will be small.

However, since her inauguration in May 2016, President Tsai's administration has been criticized heavily not only by the oppositions, but also by many long-time DPP supporters. The latter group felt uneasy about the administration being filled with many ex-KMT old-guards, perhaps out of President Tsai's conservative nature. The KMT or Kuomintang is the Chinese Nationalist Party, retreated to Taiwan after WWII.

Indecisive on some policy issues and too hasty on others, President Tsai has united opposite sides: they are both angry and frustrated. Her poll ratings have plummeted. Although there is no credible challenger from the opposition KMT in sight yet, President Tsai's re-election campaign will not be as smooth as the past one. Many think the President will initiate a major cabinet reshuffle soon to change the current uncomfortable situation.

President Tsai also set a renewable energy target of 20% electricity generated by 2025, with the aim to fill the electricity gap created by the nuclear phase-out. Taiwan's Renewable Energy Act passed in 2009, and took effect in 2010. However, former President Ma Ing-Jiu is known to prefer nuclear and often looked down on renewables. The state-owned utility Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) was hostile towards renewables. The percentage of electricity generated by wind plus solar PV barely exceeded 1% at the end of 2016, after seven years of development. To reach 17% from 1% by 2025 is a very difficult task. Hydro and waste generate around 3% of electricity, with little growth potential.

The attitude of TaiPower is the key determining factor whether the nuclear-free law can be achieved. Taipower is a strong believer in nuclear energy. Two days after Tsai won the election in January 2016, TaiPower surprisingly updated its projection on future power shortages from high risk to little risk if Taiwan becomes nuclear-free. However, two months later, Taipower chair Huang Chong-Chiou denied that Taipower had ever made any such a U-turn in its electricity projection, and said he could not guarantee adequate electricity supply without nuclear power.

Of six operating nuclear reactors in Taiwan, four have full spent fuel pools, with no space for a whole core removal in case of emergency. Unit-1 of Chin San Nuclear Power Plant (NPP1) has been idle since December 2014, pending legislative hearings on the broken handle of a fuel assembly. On 16 May 2016, three sets of lightening buffer facilities on Unit-2 of Guo Sheng Nuclear Power Plant (NPP2) exploded. Taipower has yet to produce a satisfactory explanation, so the reactor remains shut. Despite such a precarious situation, Taipower seeks every opportunity to keep those reactors running.

As if trying to prove Chair Huang's point, in May 2016, Taipower began repeatedly issuing warnings of a possible power shortage. Seeming being manipulated, Minister without Portfolio Chang Jin-Shen suggested the restart of unit-1 of NPP1 as backup power to fill the possible electricity gap, only two weeks after Tsai's inauguration. The suggestion made little sense: at the end of 2015, total installed capacity was 48.7 gigawatts (GW) and peak demand was less than 37 GW. Wind and solar capacity combined is 3 GW. The capacity of the two idled nuclear reactors is 1.5 GW.

Nevertheless, based on data provided by Taipower, Premier Lin Chuan sided with Chang Jin-Shen. However, Chang was heavily ridiculed as lack of basic knowledge on nuclear, since nuclear is not suitable to be backup. Both Lin's and Chang's remarks immediately drew heavy criticism from civil society as well as many DPP legislators who were outraged by the betrayal of President Tsai's nuclear-free promise. Premier Lin retracted his words the next day.

This incident exposed the administration's limited understanding of Taipower, and its role in Taiwan's energy policy over the past four decades. It also showed that the administration fails to control Taipower. Even in early February, Taipower kept issuing warnings of tight electricity supply. As former Premier Frank Hsieh once said: "Taipower often uses heavily doctored information to push its own agenda. Taipower often arranges regular maintenance during peak demand."

What is Taipower's agenda? Most likely it is nuclear power. Since Taipower is a state-owned company, its management team dare not openly defy the President's nuclear-free doctrine. Instead, they use their monopoly status to block all possible options except one ‒ nuclear.

Article 6 of the Amendment of Electricity Bill states that "in order to maintain stable power supply, power generation, transmission and distribution divisions of Taipower can merge into a controlling consortium". Instead of tearing Taipower into three individual companies as electricity liberalization should do, Article 6 did just the opposite, strengthening Taipower's monopoly position.

In case not enough renewable electricity comes online, the first alternative is to burn more fossil fuels. In fact, Taipower has plans to add at least 7.4 GW of fossil generating capacity. The consequence will be greater emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and more local pollution. As the Paris Agreement enters into force, the attempt to release more CO2 goes against the global trend, which calls for carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Some may say that since Taiwan is not party to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is no need to observe its rule. What happens if there are some types of economic sanction for not following the global consensus? Perhaps, nuclear should again be considered then?

Whether or not there is a healthy, vibrant development of renewable energy will determine the feasibility of the nuclear-free policy by 2025. Therefore, we demand a clear roadmap and corresponding budget allocations. Only when careful planning and actual implementation begin, can we comfortably say the nuclear-free policy is real. Without the framework and proper preparation, a promise is only a promise.

Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu Ph.D, MPA is a Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, National Taiwan University; Chair of Mom Loves Taiwan Association; and ex-Chair of Taiwan Environmental Protection Union.

Mass protests in Taipei on March 11

Thousands of citizens took to the streets in Taiwanese capital Taipei on March 11 demanding the closure of atomic power plants and more citizen involvement in decisions on radioactive waste storage. More than 60 anti-nuclear civil society groups rallied to demand greater openness and civic participation in managing nuclear waste, and advocated a move towards more sustainable forms of energy.

Indigenous groups from Orchid Island also took part in the demonstration outside the Presidential Palace with placards calling for the removal of nuclear waste from the island nation.

Marches were also held in Kaohsiung in the south, and Taitung on the east coast.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs responded by promising to comply with a plan to decommission nuclear plants and make Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025, in addition to using renewable sources for 20% of its power needs. In a press release, the ministry said the movement towards non-nuclear sustainable energy and lower carbon dioxide emissions has been stepped up, and announced two-year and four-year plans to boost solar photovoltaic and wind energy.