Taiwan’s Nuclear Spring

Politicians and political parties in most countries occasionally take baffling decisions and positions, especially to outsiders. Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang’s (or Chinese Nationalist Party) nuclear power policy demonstrated their version of this phenomenon this spring. 

The KMT, through Taiwan Power (Taipower, 台電), has presided over the construction and operation of three nuclear power plants.  Chin San began operation in 1978/79 with two GE BWR-4’s; Kuosheng in 1981/83 with two BWR-6 units; and Maanshan in 1984/85 with two Westinghouse PWR’s.  Combined they represent a little over 5 GW in net electrical capacity.  Lungmen units 1 and 2, GE ABWRs, began construction in 1999, are about 96% complete and would add another 2.6 GW of capacity.  The Lungmen plant (usually referred to as the “Fourth Nuclear Plant” in Taiwan) became a major political issue after Fukushima and presented a dilemma for the KMT in the 2012 elections.  The KMT has ruled Taiwan since 1945, except for 2000- 2008 when the opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had control.  The DPP has been very critical of the KMT’s nuclear energy policies. 

On February 27 the KMT announced that it would conduct a national referendum whether to stop construction of the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Station.  Ostensibly the referendum will “provide a platform for the public to decide whether to continue to build the fourth nuclear power plant,” according to KMT legislator Lee Ching-hua. The real reason why the KMT would pursue a referendum is pretty transparent: no public referendums in Taiwan have ever passed and if such a referendum is rejected it cannot be proposed again for 8 years, well after the 2016 Presidential elections and when the Fourth Plant would be complete.  The KMT would appear to be co-opting the opposition party’s ability to frame and control the issue.

March 3, the Democratic Republic of North Korea announced that it was suing Taipower for US $10 million for breach of a contract to store nuclear waste in that country.  Waste from the operating plants is currently stored on Orchid Island.

On March 7, the KMT released its draft of the referendum and helpful reasons to support or reject the proposal.  This is the wording as translated in the local press.

Proposed Referendum Wording:

Do you agree that the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be halted and that it not become operational?

Why to vote yes:

Why to vote no:

Operating a nuclear plant is not the safest way to generate energy and carries the risk of causing irreparable consequences.

Generating nuclear power is a relatively clean process in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and helps cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions so it can honor the environmental pledges it has made.

Nuclear power is not the cheapest source of energy, considering the cost of disposing of nuclear waste, decommissioning a plant and cleaning up the construction site.

A nuclear-free homeland cannot be achieved in one step. Nuclear power plants are a key element in the nation’s gradual progress toward that goal, as they provide a stable supply of energy that can allow people to change their lifestyles and the government to adjust the industrial structure to set the nation on a path toward becoming nuclear-free and having a near-zero-emission economy.

There are many safety issues have been discovered at the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant during its construction, which are compounded by the fact that Taiwan Power Company is not experienced in integrating components for the plant made by different companies, concerns that the operator has withheld information about safety violations and a general lack of confidence in the government’s regulatory mechanisms.

Terminating the construction of the power plant could lead to power shortages because all renewable energy technologies, such as natural gas, are still undeveloped, extremely expensive and vulnerable to fluctuations in the prices of raw materials in the global market.

Taiwan is frequently hit by earthquakes and typhoons and the power plant is in a vast metropolitan area. If there was a threat of a radiation leak, the government does not have the capability to evacuate the entire area that would be at risk.

Halting the plant’s construction could send prices of electricity soaring, severely impacting the economy and people’s livelihoods, resulting in a decline in GDP, driving industries overseas and raising unemployment.

After the accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in 2011, Japan temporarily shut down all its nuclear power plants and some other countries starting working toward becoming nuclear-free. Taiwan can also adopt such a policy and develop alternative sources of energy.

If the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant cannot be put into operation, it might be necessary to extend operating licenses of the nation’s three operational nuclear plants, which could carry serious risks because of the three plants’ aging reactors.


Imagine such a presentation of pros and cons like these for a US nuclear plant.

Curiously the announcement of the referendum and its wording came on the Thursday prior to the 2nd anniversary of the Fukushima incident, which fell on the following Monday, allowing for a full weekend of protests, which had already been planned but became much more popular after the referendum announcements.  That Saturday, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets to demand construction of the Fourth Nuclear Plant to be halted. In addition, they sought the early decommissioning of the other three plants.

The New Taipei City Council passes a resolution to halt construction on March 20.  The Fourth Nuclear Plant is within New Taipei City.

On the 21st the Taiwan EPA announced that without the Fourth Nuclear Plant it cannot meet its CO2 reduction goals, and that “reaching the goal of 100-percent renewable energy is not realistic,” according to Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Stephen Shen.  The Taiwan official goal for renewable energy is 8% by 2025; in 2012 renewables accounted for 1.5% of total generation. 

On March 28 (the 34th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident) Taipower claims not completing the Fourth Nuclear Plant will harm US relations.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly rebukes the claim the next day.

KMT legislators have starting coming out against completing the plant, including the Mayor of Taipei.

The China Post recently cited a Taiwan saying used to describe the fickle weather in spring on the island. “A spring day is like a stepmother’s face,” her face changing color many times a day.  Politics in Taiwan seems just as unpredictable as the stepmother this March.  

I suspect the DPP at this point is quite happy they were co-opted.