You are here

Nuclear Power in Taiwan: accidents waiting to happen

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Gloria Hsu, Taiwan Environmental Protection Union

It was in February 2001, in order to mend political rift caused by cancellation of fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan, both parties, the Democratic Progressive (DPP, ruling, then) and the Nationalist (KMT, ruling, current) Party agreed, Taiwan will be a “no nuclear homeland”, and the fourth nuclear power plant is the last one.

As climate change is becoming too imminent to ignore, the only remedy of the KMT government is nuclear power, which happened to be the main theme in recent National Energy Forum, held last April. KMT’s energy proposals includes: extended lifetime to 60 years for current reactors; 6 to 8 new reactors from 1.35GW each to increase the share of nuclear in electricity-mix from 13.5% in 2007 to over 30% after 2025. But strong opposition from civil society (and renewable industries) prevented those proposals reaching “consensus” in the April National Energy Forum. However, Premier Liu Chao-shiuan still stresses that “nuclear is the essential transition energy towards low carbon economy” in his closing remarks.

By the way, this energy forum produced no targets on energy efficiency improvement, or the share of renewable energy and also no cap on industry energy consumption. President Ma Ying-jeou only promises CO2-emissions returning to 2008 levels between 2016 and 2020, and back to 2000 levels at 2025. Taiwan’s CO2 emissions in 2000 were 100% more than that of 1990.

NPP4, disaster in the making

In 1996 General Electric won the contract of the fourth nuclear power plant (NPP4). Since it no longer manufactures any reactors, it subcontracted the reactors to Hitachi and Toshiba, and the generators to Mitsubishi. One question is whether this arrangement violates the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty since no diplomatic ties exist between Japan and Taiwan.

Unlike the construction of the existing three nuclear power plants more than 20 years ago, construction of the fourth plant is now supervised by Taipower Company which has no experience in this matter. On February 5 2008, a local newspaper (the Apple Daily News: “Hidden Dangers of the fourth nuclear power plant”) revealed that between January and November 2007, Taipower changed the GE design in 395 places without applying permission from the Atomic Energy Council, as law requires.

Among the 395, a total of 20 alternations may jeopardize major safety features. One alternation is the welding of the emergency cooling water system. Instead of using nuclear-grade sealing gaskets in conduit, Neoprene, or Chlorinated Polyethylene materials are found in NPP4 nuclear islands. These materials are specifically disallowed in GE design. In addition, hot-dip galvanized steel or galvanized steel are replaced with zinc electroplating steel. Zinc electroplating steel is usually 10 to 30 times thinner than the other two types of steel.

In the same February 5 article, Taipower claimed that GE’s design flaws makes welding of the cooling-water system impossible and that they had to alter the original design. In June 2008, in an article (“Current status and challenges of Taiwan nuclear energy”) in the Taiwanese edition of Scientific American, Taipower states that the GE’s NPP4 design is over conservative, and requires ‘10 to 100 times more (steel, cement) than necessary’. A Taipower representative admits that toxic fumes will be released if neoprene is heated. However, “under such condition, everyone dies, who cares about toxic gases.”

Saving 2/3 of cost is the main reason to replace galvanized steel with zinc electroplating steel. Taipower representative also claimed that power plant indoor is dry enough, therefore “no need to worry about material life expectancy (corrosion).” However, NPP4 safety specifications clearly state that material for indoor equipment has to last 40 years under 10 to 100% normal humidity, and maximum humidity during accident conditions – first 6 hours steam, next 99 days 18 hours 100%.

Amid those questions, officials from the regulatory body – the Atomic Energy Council – said “(material of) gasket and conduit are no concern of plant safety.”

A recent incident revealed how good the construction quality control is! In the night of September 13 2008, Typhoon Sinlaku hit northern Taiwan. The nuclear island of the second reactor of NPP4 was flooded with more than 2 meters of muddy water for 4 days due to heavy rain! Almost all major safety features were under water, including control rod moving assembly and cooling-water condenser, along with 50+ pumps, numerous valves, etc. To blame for this was a not properly sealed opening to an unfinished underground tunnel.

What else will follow?

Low-level nuclear waste

By Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council's definition, everything except the used fuel is low-level nuclear waste. Initially, Taipower (i.e., the Taiwan Power Company) promised in the initial Environmental Impact Assessment of NPP4, to have a permanent low-level nuclear waste storage facility in operation by the end of 2001. This sentence was removed in later EIA modifications. As of December 2008, a total of 192,898 barrels of low level nuclear waste were produced from existing 6 reactors. Since shipments are blocked from unloading since 1996, some 97,960 barrels are stored at the designated site on Orchid Island, home of the Tao tribe. The rest is stored inside three nuclear power plants.

In May 2006, the DPP government passed the “Low-level nuclear waste permanent storage site act”. Commissions formed by selected experts first have to find ‘potential sites’, and then select “suggested candidate sites (SCS)” from these “potential sites”. Local governments of SCSs will vote (agree or reject) to be “candidate site”.  On August 29, 2008, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced three potential sites: WangAn of PengHu (Pescadores) County, DaZen of TaiDong County, and MuDan of PingDong County. On March 17, 2009, it was announced that MuDan was eliminated from the Suggested Candidate Sites. PengHu County opposes the possibility to be nuclear waste dumpsite by designating the location as a “Nature (Basalt) Reserve”. But the Taipower Company said it will not give up easily.

Residences of DaZen of TaiDong County are mainly indigenous tribes, with an average income lower than national. The County parliament hosted a public hearing on April 8, opposing the central government decision and demanded removal of the nuclear waste from Orchid Island (which is located in the same county).

High-level nuclear waste

Currently all spent fuel is stored on-site. As of October 2008, there are 5,206, 6,864, 2,127 fuel assemblies, respectively, in three nuclear plants. Taipower claims it will fall short of space for spent fuel if all existing reactors run 40 years. Interim on-site (dry) storage for spent fuel was proposed for NPP1 and its EIA passed in 1995. Taipower revived the idea in 2005. After nine review meetings, the modified EIA finally passed in March 2008, despite opposition from local government and residences. A similar process for on-site dry storage of spent fuel from NPP2 is underway.

Citing costs-concern and self-dependency, it is decided that dry casks will be home made. Worries about this include lack of experiences, early rust and leakages in the humid salty environment, and that the interim storage may eventually become a permanent dump site.

Source and contact: Gloria Hsu, Taiwan Environmental Protection Union. 2nd Floor, No. 107, Section 3, Ting Chou Road, Taipei, Taiwan 100.
Tel: +886 2 363 6419