Taiwan's government has halted construction of the country's fourth nuclear power plant as a result of sustained public opposition and protest. Premier Jiang Yi-huah from the governing Kuomintang Party (KMT) announced on Sunday April 27 that one of the two General Electric-Hitachi Advanced Boiling Water Reactors at the Lungmen plant will be 'sealed' once safety checks are complete and before loading fuel, and construction of the second reactor – now 90% complete − will be halted immediately. Almost US$10 billion (€7.2b) has been spent on the plant so far.1
There have been mass protests against nuclear power in Taiwan since the Fukushima disaster. In March 2013, around 200,000 Taiwanese people participated in anti-nuclear protests. In March 2014, about 80,000 people protested against the Lungmen plant (and nuclear power generally) around the time of the Fukushima anniversary. In the days before the Premier's April 27 announcement, tens of thousands of protesters (some reports say 30,000, some say 50,000) broke through a police cordon and staged a sit-in along a main street near the central train station in Taipei. Following the announcement, many protesters left but hundreds remained, and police used water cannon to disperse them on Monday morning. More than 40 people suffered minor injuries.
Five days before the April 27 announcement, former Taiwanese opposition leader Lin Yi-hsiung, who led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from 1998−2000, began a hunger strike to protest against the Lungmen plant. On April 30, Lin ended his fast and said: "Over the past half month, the people of Taiwan's outstanding display has been unprecedented, which leaves one feeling moved, full of admiration and deeply appreciative. Nuclear opponents should take a step forward to ensuring the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 nuclear power plants are closed on schedule."12
The recent anti-nuclear protests followed other major mass campaigns, including a student-led occupation of Taiwan's parliament in March to oppose a controversial trade agreement with China; a campaign that successfully pressured the government to stop construction of a petrochemical plant; and a 100,000-strong protest over the death of a mistreated conscript.2
The greatest single reason for opposition to the nuclear plant is that Taiwan is located in the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire. In September 1999, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed around 2,400 people. A 2011 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that all six of Taiwan's operating reactors are located in very high seismic hazard areas.10 The report states: "With respect to earthquake and tsunami hazards, and large nearby populations, Taiwan's six reactors represent outliers in terms of high risks and consequences from a nuclear reactor accident."
Last year, a consultant on the Lungmen plant's safety monitoring committee publicly released a report detailing a number of construction problems and safety concerns.3 A safety assessment carried out by the European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group led to recommendations to use more modern techniques in identifying earthquake-related hazards that could affect nuclear power plants in Taiwan. The 2013 report suggested that Taiwanese assessments regarding earthquake hazards do not meet current international requirements and do not take into consideration new geological and geophysical data regarding "capable faults in the site vicinity of the Chinshan, Kuosheng and Maanshan plants." The report also recommended greater consideration of multi-reactor and multi-site risks, and the establishment of alternative emergency control rooms.4 The inadequacy of nuclear accident liability arrangements is another reason for concern.5
Radioactive waste management problems have also motivated opposition to nuclear power in Taiwan. Central Taiwan Antinuclear Action Alliance convener Tsai Chih-hao says that a group of citizens have discovered 54 sites across Taiwan with elevated radiation levels. There are concerns that the elevated readings may be connected to Taipower's practice of incinerating low-level radioactive waste.6
There is no prospect of finding a disposal site for high-level nuclear waste (spent fuel) in the foreseeable future, and the dense packing of spent fuel at operating nuclear plants is another concern. According to Taipower's Spent Nuclear Fuel Final Disposal Program Plan, a final disposal site for high-level waste is to be decided by 2038 and ready to use by 2055.7
Atomic Energy Council Deputy Minister Chou Yuan-ching told a May 5 hearing of the parliament's Social Welfare and Environmental Hygiene Committee that 16,671 spent fuel bundles produced by the three operating nuclear plants are being kept in the plants' spent fuel pools. Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Woody Duh told the Committee that because the pools at the first and second nuclear power plants are unable to store all the spent fuel bundles produced in the plants' lifespan of 40 years, the government hopes to move the bundles to dry cask storage facilities.7
Chou told the Committee that an estimated 740,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste − including 292,048 barrels produced during the three plants' 40-year lifespan and 455,783 barrels produced during the decommissioning process − are to be created by the three plants. About 100,000 barrels are stored on Lanyu (Orchid Island) while others are in storage facilities at the three plants.11 Chou said that in 2012 the ministry named Taitung County's Tajen Township and Kinmen's Wuchiu Township as potential sites for a low-level waste repository, but the two local governments have not agreed to hold local referendums.7
Yilan Charlei Chen Foundation president Chen Hsi-nan told the Committee that the design of Taiwan's dry cask storage does not allow spent fuel bundles to be removed or transported to other sites, because it lacks sufficient vibration-proof and crash-proof material. He Li-wei, a nuclear expert who worked at the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, said that seven hydrogen explosions occurred when the institute tried to remove fuel bundles from pools 26 years ago in Taoyuan County's Longtan Township.7
Over the decades various plans to send radioactive waste abroad have been advanced and then abandoned.13 On May 12 Kyodo News reported that Taipower has initiated discussions with French officials regarding the possibility of spent fuel reprocessing in France. This follows delays and opposition to the construction of an interim dry storage facility in New Taipei City. Taipower also told Kyodo News that discussions have been initiated with Beijing regarding the possibility of disposing of low-level radioactive waste in China given the obstacles to establishing a repository in either Wuchiu or Tajen Townships.
Whether the fourth nuclear power plant will become operational in the future will be decided by a national referendum − though the timing is uncertain and the nature of any referendum will be contested. Ironically, the pro-nuclear KMT has supported a referendum despite widespread public opposition to the Lungmen plant (more than 70% of Taiwanese are opposed according to DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang, and a March 2012 poll found 66% opposition among Taipei residents). The reason is that none of the six national referendums held in Taiwan since the Referendum Act came into effect in January 2004 has achieved the required 50% voter turnout, even when held in conjunction with national elections.
In August 2013, 40 politicians from the largest opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), barricaded themselves inside the legislative chamber and remained there overnight to prevent a parliamentary vote on whether to hold a referendum on the completion of the Lungmen plant. A physical brawl ensued the following morning and the parliamentary vote did not take place.3
The DPP has called for the Lungmen plant to be scrapped without holding a referendum. The DPP has also called for a referendum to require a majority vote for or against the Lungmen plant without a minimum turnout or with a minimum 25% turnout. The KMT opposes those proposals but may have to modify its position given the strength of public and political opposition.
DPP member and former Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu has called for an amendment to the Nuclear Reactor Facilities Control Act to allow local referendums for residents to decide whether nuclear plants should be built within 50 kms of their homes. Lu said that according to Article 11 of the Act on Sites for the Establishment of Low-Level Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Facilities, sites for building nuclear waste final depositories must be approved by local residents through referendums. Lu said the law should be amended so that people living within 50km of plant sites can decide on the construction, installation of fuel rods and operation of reactors through local referendums.8
The government says that a national energy conference will be convened as soon as possible to ensure a steady supply of electricity in the future. The KMT and Taipower have warned of power shortages and steep price hikes to justify their support for the Lungmen plant. But even without the Lungmen plant, Taiwan has a 22% reserve margin according to Prof. Jeffrey Bor Yunchang from the Chinese Culture University, in part because factories have moved to China or south-east Asia. "If the government can invest more in other alternative energies like solar power, like wind power, like geothermal, then we can have more alternative power to our energy supply," Yunchang said.9
Construction began on the two 1350 MW Lungmen boiling water reactors in 1999, with the first originally scheduled to enter commercial operation in 2006 and the second in 2007. However, the project has been beset with political, legal and regulatory delays.
The DPP is calling for a phase-out of nuclear power, and even the KMT has pledged to make Taiwan nuclear-free by the middle of this century. Six reactors at three plants currently provide about 18% of Taiwan's electricity − well down from the peak of 41% in 1988.
(Written by Nuclear Monitor editor Jim Green.)
From WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor #786, 16 May 2014
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