‘Taiwan might be the next Fukushima’

Ada Chou

Ada ChouAda is a member of Mom Loves Taiwan NGO, a nuclear issue researcher and an observer of the Taiwan nuclear energy policy.

While activists from all over Asia converged in Taipei recently for the No Nukes Asia Forum 2014, the Taiwanese govt extended the license for the NPP-1, just 20 kms from Taipei. Taiwan witnessed massive people’s protest early this year. DiaNuke.org interviewed Ada Chou in this context –
1. The turn-out in Taiwan after Fukushima has been massive. Is it only in reaction to the accident or has there been sustained activism on the ground?

There has been sustained anti nuclear activities dated back to the 1990s when the Legislative Yuan (i.e. The Taiwanese Parliament) approved the budget to build the proposed NPP No. 4. NPP No. 4 started construction in 1999. It was planned to operate in 2004. Yet it is another NPP that is over time and over budget. It still has not been completed in 2014.

However, it was not until 2 years after the Fukushima disaster in 2013 when the pro nuke Taiwanese government was getting ready to start NPP No. 4 that the anti nuclear activism started to gain momentum.

Although Fukushima disaster played an important role in raising the awareness of nuclear safety issues among the Taiwanese citizens, it was the over time , over budget and corruption of the NPP No. 4 project that made people really angry and lost all confidence in nuclear power as well as the government.

The anti nuclear activists had been advocating for a referendum to decide whether the country should go down the nuclear energy path in the 1990s. However it was futile until February 2013 when the Premier Jiang (Yi Hua) announced a referendum to decide if the NPP No. 4 should be in operation.

Pictures from the protest in Taiwan in April 2014

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This was totally unacceptable to the anti nuclear / environmental groups in Taiwan. They demanded to scrape the NPP No. 4 project immediately because nuclear safety is not an issue determined by popular vote. By now ‘A No Nuke Home’ has been an official slogan/policy for more than a decade.

NPP No. 4 is deemed unsafe to operate by most citizens from all the news leaked from the construction site. For example, NPP No. 4 was originally designed by GE-Hitachi; however, for cost saving, NPP No. 4’s operator, Taipower has altered the design in more than 2000 parts. The construction work quality is also very poor. The site has been flooded several times in typhoon seasons and a plastic drinking bottle which was used by the construction workers to hold their urine (no, there is no toilet on site) stuck in the concrete wall outside the containment vessel was reported in the local newspaper.

On the 9th March 2013, a protest was initiated by the anti nuclear civil groups and environmental groups in solidatiry with the Fukushima victims. It was also a protest against NPP No. 4 and the referendum. More than 200,000 people turned out on streets island-wide. The main request was to stop building NPP No. 4. immediately and ‘No more Fukushima’.

Note: The referndum was called “Bird Cage” referendum by the locals for it requires more than 50% turnout rate and more than 50% voted for the referendum question. This causes two concerns. 1. Historically none of the 6 referendums in Taiwan’s voting history has more then 50% turnout rate. This might attribute to the issues in question did not attract voter’s involvement or simply because there is still no pre poll or postal voting in Taiwan and voters just couldn’t vote on the polling day in person at their electoral area. 2. The referendum question was manipulated in a way that the government was not held accountable regardless the results of the referendum.

The referendum was deemed by the anti nuclear activists and environmentalists in Taiwan as a political stunt to kill any opposition forces in order to start NPP No. 4.

On 15 Apri. 2014, a prominent anti nuclear veteran Mr Lin started a hunger strike in protest against the NPP No. 4. All anti nuclear & environmental groups in Taiwan initiated another protest in support of Mr Lin. On 27 April 2014, the Taiwanese government announced to halt the construction of NPP No. 4 and to seal the site temporarily until such a time in the future it could be re-opened should the opinion has changed to support nuclear energy. This decision has been seen by many citizens as another cover-up for corruption as the estimated cost to seal the site is US$132 million.

2. Nuclear is not just a ‘not in my backyard’ question in Taiwan, a sizeable number of middle classes have hit the streets. What is the reason?

Traditionally the anti nuclear movement in Taiwan has been deemed anti government and advocating independence (as opposed to unification with China). Hence most middle classes tried to avoid this controversial issue to avoid being labelled as anti government. This was especially true prior to the 1990s when Taiwan was still under martial law ruling.

In the late 1980s Taiwan lifted its martial law and started a series of political reforms. Also the wide access to internet in the last 15 years or so has also help spread the knowledge and information regarding nuclear power. So political liberation and information availability has helped the middle classes to gain more understanding of the nuclear safety issues.

In addition, personally I believe Fukushima is a wake up call to most of the middle classes in Taiwan because Taiwan shares so much similarity with Japan culturally and geographically. People realises what had happened in Japan could happen in Taiwan too.

3. In particular, there are so many youths in the anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan. What made it possible?

This is an interesting point. I believe the younger generation has a very different mind-set from those who are currently in power in Taiwan. They do not want to shoulder the burden, i.e. the disposal of the nuclear waste, that they have no say in it.

4. What has been the government response so far?

The government no longer talked about the referendum these days. It was shelved till next year (2015) after the local government elections in November this year. Because the NPP No. 4 construction has been halted, the monopoly Taipower claims that there will be electricity shortage in the future, hence it is preparing to apply for licence extension of the NPP No. 1.

Ironically, if you question the officials in charge of energy, they will tell you NPP No. 1 is to be decommissioned in the next 2 years and there is a decommissioning plan in place.

In a nutshell, the official policy is to decommission existing 3 NPPs (6 reactors in total) based on their licenced 40 operating years; however, under the table they are also planning to operate the existing 3 plants beyond the licenced 40 years as they do not have executable plans nor budgets for decommissioning them. This is my personal observation.

5. What prospect do you see for/in referendum?

At the moment, no one is sure if there will be a referendum at all. Recently the Taiwan Environment Alliance has initiated a referendum to prevent Taipower inserting fuel rods into the reactor at NPP No. 4 for hot testing the reactor in the name of safety before sealing the site. The referendum was knocked back by the authority.

6. The govt has extended the license of NPP-1? How safe is that?

As mentioned earlier Taipower threatens there will be electricity shortage because NPP No. 4 was halted. They plan to extend the licence of NPP No. 1. However, they have not submitted any application to the Atomic Energy Council of Taiwan (AEC) so far.

NPP No. 1 has 2 GE Mark I reactors. It started operating in 1979. The problem with NPP No. 1 is its SFP is near capacity; there is no capacity for temporary storage of fuel rods required by the 18 month grand maintenance work. Taipower came up with an ‘innovative’ idea to extend the time fuel rods left in the reactors to burn so that they don’t have to be moved to the SFP. Taipower claims it is safe to do so because even if the fuel rods have reached their expiry date, their ‘burn-up rate’ is still within safety limit. Personally I wonder how they measure the fuel rods burn up rate in the two reactors at NPP No. 1. There is no disclosure of this information in Taipower or the AEC’s websites.

So how safe is this? I wish someone can tell me.

7. How independent is the nuclear regulator in Taiwan?

The nuclear regulator in Taiwan is the Atomic Energy Council (AEC); the sole nuclear power operator is Taipower which is also the only power company in Taiwan. All nuclear engineers in Taiwan are graduates from the Tsing Hua University which is the only university offers nuclear science study.

So the nuclear village in Taiwan is a very closed circle.

Nuclear incidents occurred in any one of the three NPPs normally will not be reported by the media at least 1.5 month later after the issue was resolved or patched up. How many incidents not reported by the media remains unknown.

The inter-dependency between the nuclear regulator and Taipower can best be explained by the relationship between Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (INER), AEC and Taipower. INER is a research facility under the AEC; it also undertakes projects from Taipower such as nuclear waste dry storage facilities and welding projects. The anti nuclear activitists in Taiwan say that AEC plays the roles of both a soccer player and a soccer referee.

8. Compared to India and Japan, Taiwan nuclear industry sounds more transparent. You can walk almost near the reactor buildings. Is it because there is no weapons connection?

Taiwan’s secret attempts to develop nuclear weapons dated back to the late 1960’s during the Cold War period. However, it was not until an army officer defected to the US in 1988that Taiwan’s nuclear weapon development attemp was disclosed.

INER had been attempted to produce and extract plutonium from its research reactor located in Longtan (at Taoyuan County, in northern part of Taiwan) in the 1970s and the 1980s. A recent media report disclosed that there had been at least 6 hydrogen explosions on site during 1970s and 1980s. To date many residents around that site have no idea it houses a nuclear reactor and high level nuclear wastes are stored on site.

The fact that you can walk almost near the reactor building when you visited Taiwan means the on site security is probably pretty slack to me. However, some international independent nuclear engineers have been denied entry to the NPPs in Taiwan, including Hiroaki Koide and 菊地洋一from Japan. When former PM Mr Naoto Kan visited NPP No. 1 in September 2013, it was a special treatment to an ex State head. However it was still a close-door visit and no media was allowed in. Hence there was the confusion in media released by Taipower claiming Mr Kan had praised the safety standard of NPP No. 1, which was later denied by Mr Kan personally.

In the cyber space, the pro nuke government in Taiwan spent tax payers money to buy off search key words which include a large number of prominent anti nuclear activists’ names to block their messages in the internet.

From all I have observed I would say the nuclear industry in Taiwan is far from transparent.


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