Taiwan's Nuclear Question


The flag flies proudly and clearly outside the second story window of the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance: “No Nukes – No more Fukushima” in English and Mandarin. I have seen this flag before in the backstreets of Taipei, at sporting events, and at protest rallies. Of the symbols of anti-nuclear sentiment in Taiwan, it may be the most prominent.

The last few weeks have seen the nuclear question raised again in Taiwan. The country, home to three currently functioning nuclear plants, is in the throes of debate about a controversial fourth. The AU$8.6 billion plant, located in the northeast of the country and formally known as Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant, is nearing completion.

The plant’s history is controversial; its future remains uncertain.

Many in Taiwan oppose its operation. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which shut down construction when it came to power in 2000, has called for the project to cease and for Taiwan to phase out nuclear power.
Environmental groups have come out against the project, and a growing percentage of the public is behind them. On 9 March, anti-nuclear rallies swept across Taiwan. According to rally organisers around 200,000 people attended protests nationwide, with 120,000 taking to the streets in Taipei, the country’s northern capital and most populous city.

Aiya Hsu, a member of the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance (GCAA), one of the rally’s organisers, told NM it was the biggest anti-nuclear rally the country has seen.

Police estimated that 50,000 protesters took to the Taipei streets, while Taichung and Kaohsiung, two prominent southern cities, each had rallies of around 8000 people.

Alan Fong, a senior journalist at The China Post, a national English daily, told NM that opposition largely stems from concerns over safety — both technological failure and human error — and waste issues.

Supporters of the project argue that Taiwan will face a power shortage and price hikes if the plant does not come into operation.

“Taiwan has few indigenous energy resources to serve a knowledge-based economy which is electricity-intensive,” says Mark Hibbs, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program. Uranium remains attractive to Taiwan, Hibbs says, as it is “the most stable-priced energy fuel available”.

The government, ironically, has pledged to make Taiwan nuclear-free by the middle of this century. Nuclear power currently provides about a fifth of the country’s energy. Coal is responsible for 40 per cent. Gas makes up 31 per cent.

According to Fong, the ruling Kuomintang administration, a few scholars and a quiet segment of the population support nuclear power. “I believe a lot of people who might be pro nuclear are the silent – I can not say majority – but silent multitude.”

The current administration has proposed a referendum to finally settle the matter — the plant’s construction began in the 1980s and has been postponed and recommenced numerous times.  Meanwhile, construction continues on “Nuke 4”, as it has come to be called.

The nature of the nuclear industry means foreign nations will inevitably contribute to debates over what might otherwise be seen as a “domestic” issue. Japan, unsurprisingly, has a strong voice in Taiwan.

Certainly, anti-nuclear sentiment in Taiwan did not begin with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which marked its second anniversary on 11 March. The movement can be traced to the 1980s, Hsu Kuang-Jung, a National Taiwan University professor, told NM. Hsu was former chairperson of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, an environmental group, and is currently its academic committee coordinator.

Nonetheless, Fukushima’s effect has been unmistakable.

“[Fukushima] … changed the entire ball game,” Fong says. Before Fukushima, “[Taiwanese] believed that to some extent nuclear power was safe because there hadn’t been an accident in decades. There was considerable objection to nuclear power before the earthquake … but still a lot of people either didn’t know that much about nuclear power or they at least felt reassured about it.”

Aiya Hsu noted that before the earthquake-tsunami in Japan, the public voice in Taiwan was relatively silent. The magnitude 9.0 tremor, resulting tsunami and nuclear meltdown pushed Taiwanese society onto the streets, she says.

Though Fukushima resonated globally — Germany’s adoption of a nuclear phase-out policy was, as Der Spiegel put it, “prompted” by events in Japan — it had a special resonance in Taiwan owing to similarities and links between the two countries.

There are the environmental parallels. Taiwan and Japan both suffer from unstable seismic activity and typhoons. In 1999, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake killed 2,400 people in Taiwan, injuring 10,000. Some fear a future tsunami, though Hibbs notes Taiwan’s nuclear plants are less prone to this type of disaster.

Further is an issue of limited landmass. “Taiwan, same as Japan, does not have enough space, a kind of land buffer,” Fong says, noting that Nuke 4 is only an hour’s drive from downtown Taipei.

“During the last four decades, Taiwan has had a very close relationship with Japan in nuclear power,” Hibbs says. “[The fourth power plant] relies on considerable expertise, equipment, and engineering from Japan. It is only natural that if a severe accident takes place in Japan, it will be closely watched on Taiwan.”

Taiwan has for a long time respected Japanese engineering. To see its nuclear power regime struggle so catastrophically was particularly affecting.

Proponents also use the Japanese experience. The country’s leader, President Ma Ying-jeou, recently said that by shutting down its 50 working reactors following Fukushima, Japan induced a summer of energy rationing and increased electricity rates. Further, its trade deficit rose to the worst on record, Ma said, because of the need to import fuel for generating power.

For the opposition, Germany matters. There is a Taiwanese refrain: “If Germany can do it, why can’t we?”

“The phase-out decision by the German government showed us that to claim a nuclear free homeland is really possible,” Aiya Hsu explained, adding that they often cite Germany when talking to politicians.

The China Post reported that German nationals joined the 9 March rally. I remember seeing a few placards that read: “Atomkraft nein danke. Atomangst nein wieder” — “Nuclear power, no thanks. Nuclear fear, not again.”

France, according to some of those I talked with, is used as an example of nuclear success by proponents (although, according to Hsu, this is becoming less the case as France questions the energy source.) In late January, President Ma met with the former president of France's Nuclear Safety Authority Andre-Claude Lacoste.

In a press release, Ma lauded France as the “world’s leader” in nuclear energy production, noting its “outstanding” safety record and the high level of public support which have made it the “envy of other advanced nations”.

Regardless the outcome of any referendum on Nuke 4, the flags and the words of Taiwan’s domestic nuclear debate seem set on adopting an international dynamic.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.