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Taiwan pushes to revive nuclear construction

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#344
21/12/1990
Article

(December 21, 1990) Speculation that the government of Taiwan plans to resume its nuclear power construction program was revived recently when the government's Council for Economic Planning & Development included construction of a two-unit complex (Taiwan's sixth and seventh nuclear power reactors) in its new Six-Year Economic Plan.

(344.3438) WISE Amsterdam - The vice chairman of the Council has also told the press that the government should begin planning for an additional four units, as well, in order to avoid power shortages in the first decade of the next century. But a major obstacle to the plan is fervent opposition by Taiwan's growing environmental movement, as well as opposition by You Ching, magistrate of Taipei County, where the sixth and seventh units are to be located.

Even if the government takes the decision to build the complex now, it will be at least 2.5 years before actual construction can begin. Speaking at a recent Taiwanese-Japanese conference on nuclear safety in Taipei, Atomic Energy Council (AEC) Chairman YY Hsu said that if the Ministry of Economic Affairs gives the project the green light, it will then submit an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the AEC which will require six months for completion. After approval of the EIA, the Ministry would require one year to prepare its report on means of assuring the plants' safety, and the AEC an additional year to evaluate that report.

Meanwhile anti-nuclear politicians and lobbyists have reaffirmed their opposition to any new construction, but the government believes their impact on public opinion is likely to be lessened by fear of oil shortages that could result from the current Middle East crisis. At an August cabinet meeting, Premier Hau Pei-Tsun said authorities should start focusing on developing nuclear power to replace petroleum as the prime source of energy in Taiwan. Later, Economics Minister Vincent Siew announced that the Premier had asked him to increase efforts to reduce public fears regarding nuclear power plant operations.

According to an article by Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld in The Ecologist, among the many environmental problems facing Taiwan, nuclear power is undoubtedly the greatest potential threat to its environment. Taiwan now has six nuclear plants. If the technocrats had had their way, the island would have been stuck with a plan to build 20 by the year 2000. Rising public opposition, however, has blocked government plans to build further, and the growing space for democratic discussion has pushed the public into taking a more critical view of the whole nuclear power program. But as Bello and Rosenfeld point out, if Taiwan's nuclear power program does not serve the interests of the Taiwanese people, it does serve several powerful foreign and domestic interests.

Taiwan proved to be a lifesaver for a US nuclear industry that was threatened by the loss of its domestic market in the late 1970s and 1980s. With tight repressive measures by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) Party curbing anti-nuclear activities, the nuclear monopolies were able to carve up the Taiwanese energy market. (Taiwan's six opera-ting nuclear units come from Westinghouse and General Electric, with Bechtel Corporation providing the architectural and engineering services for plants Nos. 2 and 3.)

Realpolitik also entered in. When the US decided to cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize the People's Republic of China, the KMT correctly reasoned that with the nuclear vendors and other US firms on the island, the US government would not be so quick to cut off all military and political ties.

Nuclear power plants also provide an opportunity for centralized bureaucratic control unmatched by any other energy technology, making Taiwan's technocrats a natural constituency for nuclear power. The centralization of Taiwan's energy supply supports them in their visions of state-guided high-speed growth and means more economic and political power is concentrated in their hands.

Then there's the military. The opportunity to reprocess spent fuel from reactors to make weapons-grade plutonium has made them, not surprisingly, also an ally of the nuclear energy program.

According to Bello and Rosenfeld, safety issues are of special concern to Taiwan, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Taiwan's nuclear power experts argue that the greatest threat to nuclear safety in Taiwan is not human error -- which led to the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl -- but external events such as earth-quakes and typhoons. Even if one ignores the other safety problems of the program, this brings up serious questions. Taiwan is regularly battered by typhoons and lies along the so-called "Pacific Fire Belt", a ring of intense tectonic and volcanic activity. "Indeed," say Bello and Rosenfeld, "the Shihmin Hsiang and Kuosheng power plants, just 12 miles from Taipei, are said to be situated at the edge of the active Ta-Tun volcano group and amid a maze of earthquake fault lines."

But in fact typhoons and earthquakes are not the only problems. While Taipower, the state energy monopoly, insists that no problems ever have or ever will exist at any of its nuclear plants, the public record tells a different story: accounts of radiation leakages, accidents, and cover-ups. A July 1985 fire at nuclear power plant No. 3 forced the suspension of operations for 15 months and caused damage valued at US $300 million. Another fire broke out at the same plant in August 1987. A major radiation leak at plant No. 1 in January 1986 led, according to one report, to an attempted cover-up by Taipower. This was apparently the second such accident at plant No. 1 within a year. The plant had, according to press reports, set a world record: 56 days of continuous radiation leakage outside the plant -- from 3 September to 28 October, 1985. A computer error on February 1988 caused a generator at the No. 1 plant to shut down. Two fuel pellets were stolen from the No. 3 plant, then found a few days later. Plant repair logs are some-times incomplete or missing altogether. Plant personnel are not adequately trained, and most reports of plant safety violations are reported by nuclear plant workers who are upset by their dangerous working conditions rather than the operators. This was the case in May 1988 when 200 maintenance workers at plant No. 1 walked through a puddle of radioactive water the plant manager knew was there.

Taipower's record and plans in the area of radioactive waste disposal isn't exactly wonderful either. Say Bello and Rosenfeld, "Children in Taoyuan, near Taipei, had been playing for weeks on a pile of scrap metal near their elementary school before it was discovered to be radioactive. Old parts of nuclear power plants exposed to intense radiation were said to have been sold as scrap metal, then recycled into metal for new buildings. An underground low-level waste depository which Taipower built on Lan Yu (Orchid Island), 40 miles from Taiwan's southeast tip, lies on an earthquake fault line. Despite protests by the Yami aborigines who inhabit Lan Yu, Taipower plans to build a second low-level waste dump on the lush nine-square-mile island -- plus a 247-acre national park above the dump, including a hall with exhibits extolling the virtues of nuclear energy." Mean-while, spent fuel is being temporarily stored at the reactor sites. And no viable solution to the mounting waste problem, other than shipping the waste out of Taiwan, may ever be found. As an extremely densely populated island, it is virtually impossible to find a site which would be remote enough to isolate long-lived radionuclides from the human environment.

But with all this, a strong anti-nuclear movement has grown up in Taiwan. A key event was a well-publicized seminar sponsored by the Consumers' Foundation in April 1985, which brought together scholars and intellectuals opposed to the building of the fourth nuclear power plant. The new movement was strengthened shortly after the July 1985 fire at plant No.3 (local residents were so alarmed that they organized meetings and rallies to demand safer emergency and evacuation plans and compensation for surrounding communities) and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. According to Bello and Rosenfeld, a grassroots anti-nuclear movement was born -- a network of 'anti-nuclear self help associations' -- "evolving much along the decentralized pattern of anti-nuclear movements in the advanced industrial countries."

As Taiwan has no institutional framework for citizen participation in economic planning and decision-making, the main outlet for public outrage has been demonstrations and civil disobedience. (Even the formation of special interest groups was effectively outlawed by the 1949 martial law decree which included the "Law Governing the Organization of Civic Bodies During the Extraordinary Period". This ban was not lifted until last January.) People in Taiwan have learned, though, that protesting brings results. They have forced some factories to make improvements in conditions or pay and others to shut down or move to another lo-cation, blocked construction of prospective plants, and have emerged as the most effective challenger to the model of growth put forward by KMT and Taiwan's business elite. It is this decentralized, multiclass, grassroots movement the government must turn around if it is to build additional nuclear plants.

Sources:

  • Nucleonics Week (US), 6 Dec. 1990, p.7 and 16 Aug. 1990, p.11
  • "High-Speed Industrialization and Environmental Devastation in Taiwan", The Ecologist, Jul/Aug 1990, p.125.

Contact: Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, 3FL-4, No. 12, Lane 74, Wen Chow St., Taipei, Taiwan, tel: (02)363-6419, fax: (02)362-3458.