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Taiwan's nuclear power phase-out

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu

With the election of the Democratic Progressive Party to govern Taiwan in January, plans are being progressed to phase out nuclear power by 2025 and to expand renewables. "There is no room for discussion. When 2025 comes, nuclear power will be abandoned," Economics Minister Lee Shih-guang said on 26 May 2016.

Three operating nuclear plants (six reactors) supply around 15% of Taiwan's electricity. Construction of the two-reactor Lungmen nuclear plant was suspended in 2014. Taiwan aims to increase the ratio of electrical power generated by renewables from 3% to 20% by 2025.

Here we reprint an excerpt from a detailed 2015 article by Gloria Kuang-Jung Hsu, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, National Taiwan University.

The problematic history of the Lung­men nuclear power plant (LMNP)

Construction of the fourth nuclear power plant at Lungmen reveals the strained relationship between the regulator (the Atomic Energy Council ‒ AEC), and the operator, Taipower. The existing three nuclear power plants were completed under the supervision of two US consult­ing firms, Ebasco and Bechtel. LMNP construction was under­taken by Taipower, which had little experience and oversaw the whole process using GE blueprints. The equally inexperienced AEC set up a regulatory committee in January 1997 to monitor the LMNP's quality and progress. The AEC began publishing short monthly monitoring reports in 2002, when the real work started. Many of the flaws identified during the early stages of construction were soon corrected. The first major discovery was triggered by anonymous tips, indicating that lower­ than ­required­ strength welding was applied in the reactor base frame. Follow­-up by the AEC in April 2002 confirmed the prob­lem, so the base frame was rebuilt.

The AEC identified an increasing number of flaws as con­struction progressed. Major problems listed in the AEC's reports included reinforced tendons for the containment anchor being accidentally cut and careless contractors repeatedly setting working platforms directly on top of previously installed pipes and tubing, causing rust, obvious dents, and even punctures. Workers' logs were filled with appar­ent indications of work overload that would be impossible to fin­ish in a single day. Moreover, many joints inside the LMNP reactor building were inadequately sealed with Teflon tape.

However, more serious allegations raised by an insider were categorized by the AEC as "not safety related". These included headline­ grabbing design alterations and the sys­tematic cutting of corners on materials. It was found that Taipower had made 395 alterations to the LMNP design, including support for an emergency cooling system, with­out consulting the AEC or GE. In addition, Taipower knowingly accepted the use of Neoprene gaskets to replace carbon fiber ones in pull box and conduit fittings, despite the fact that the LMNP specification clearly precludes using such gaskets. The former can easily be ignited at 130°C, such as with a cigarette lighter, whereas the latter can endure temperatures of up to 1,000°C. It was also found that the hot dip–galvanized zinc steel, whose coat­ing is twenty-­five times thicker than zinc­-electroplated steel and can last more than fifty years in coastal areas, nevertheless was replaced by the electroplated variety. In his reply to questions from journalists concerning these replacements, Taipower's LMNP site manager said that a nuclear power plant is not a humid environment, zinc electroplated steel is adequate, and Neoprene releases toxic fumes when it catches fire. Since no one can sur­vive such high temperatures, who would care about toxins then?

The AEC imposed a fine of NT500,000 (about US$16,700) on Taipower in April 2008 and insisted that Taipower re-evaluate the safety of altered items and make no more alterations without the AEC's consent. A couple months later, the AEC discovered that Taipower had made about 700 additional alterations without the AEC's knowledge. A total fine of NT3.5 million (about $117,000) was imposed. Yet again, more alterations without authorization were discovered in mid-­2011. This time, the AEC not only imposed a higher fine of NT15 million ($500,000), it also announced that it would take culpable Taipower executives to criminal court. Apparently, Taipower holds little respect for the AEC.

Shared irresponsibility

Taipower Company is the state-­owned utility monopoly, yet few government administrations had a real grasp of Taipower man­agement. Magazine interviews of several Taipower executives in June 2008 revealed the rationales behind all the nuclear power plant alterations. They blamed "GE's over­-conserva­tive design of LMNP" for all the problems. The excessive GE design, the executives said, required "tens to thousands of times more [materials] than LMNP really needed," making "construc­tion difficult" and "inflat[ing] the costs." Taipower executives did not trust the GE design since the United States had not con­structed a new nuclear power plant "in 30 years," during which "GE lost [a] major part of its nuclear capability." They claimed that Taipower had found "numerous contradictions" during con­struction, and therefore "had no choice but to make improvised changes in order not to delay the whole project".

The AEC had itself to blame for overlooking some important issues. In the short inspection reports in May and August 2007, the AEC lightly mentioned the poor cement jobs in both reactor con­tainments. Reports described threaded steel, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles found in the wall of the reinforced concrete contain­ment vessel, with no photos attached. Some places had steel bars partially exposed. Also found in the number one reactor building were workers chipping away at the newly built containment, with over forty tendon steel bars cut, to make room for the spent fuel pool. It was not until a picture showing plastic bottles in the con­tainment wall leaked to the press in April 2013 that people began to realize how potentially catastrophic and dire the situation was.

According to the AEC, a fine of NT400,000 (about $13,000) was imposed, plastic bottles were removed, and the holes were filled with equal-­strength concrete. The AEC assured the public that the strength of both containments was better than required even after modifications. Less than two weeks later, however, reports were published of a failed integrated leak rate test (ILRT) and structure integral test (SIT) for reactor number one between February 26 and March 5, 2014. Leaks were substantial but difficult to locate. Suspected causes range from more unseen plastic bottles in containments, second-hand valves, and the cutting of corners on the penetration seal within the nuclear island. In addition, records showed that as many as 197 items had been moved from unit number two to reac­tor number one to replace broken parts, probably as a result of inadequate handling.

As LMNP construction began, scandals came to light from time to time, but public reaction was rather mild. Grid connection time was postponed repeatedly, from July 1999 to 2004, 2006, 2010, and finally 2014. Work nevertheless continued with the full intention of bringing the LMNP online.

LMNP's demise

The Fukushima disaster changed the situation. Suddenly, people realized how much Taiwan and Japan had in common, especially regarding seismic vulnerability. Many were bewildered as to how a prudent society with much advanced technology could become so helpless, and what would become of Taiwan in a similar situation. Immediate responses from the AEC deputy chair were anything but reassuring. Without any evaluation and just two days after the Fukushima disaster, he boasted that "all nuclear power plants in Taiwan are just as sturdy as Buddha sitting on his platform." Neigh­boring countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, all had detected radioactive materials from Fukushima, but the AEC insisted that no materials were detected until March 31, 2011. The sensitivity of the AEC's instruments was questioned by nongovern­mental organizations and the public.

In February 2013, the KMT's premier proposed holding a ref­erendum to settle the future of the LMNP. The current Referen­dum Act requires a more than 50 percent voter turnout, plus an absolute favorable majority vote, in order for the referendum to be legally binding. Since the law passed in 2006, six national refer­enda had been held and all were rejected because turnouts were between 26 and 45 percent. Under the current law, how the refer­endum question is framed determines the outcome. The KMT's proposal was as follows: "Do you agree that the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant [LMNP] should be halted and that it not become operational?" Having the intended ballot date set at the end of 2013, the administration calculated that few would come to vote solely for the referendum, thus legitimizing the LMNP project.

Meanwhile, the AEC requested the European Union to per­form a Taiwan Stress Test, to be completed one month before the planned voting date. A well­-received international assessment cer­tainly would win more public support. Some concluded that the Taiwan Stress Test was a propaganda exercise and not really for nuclear safety. Non-governmental representatives discovered that geological information in a Taiwan National Report was out of date. In the end, the AEC received a polite and lukewarm assess­ment report. But waves of demonstrations popped up nationwide, including one anti-nuclear protest on March 9, 2013, that drew more than 200,000 people.

Pressure from the electorate forced KMT legislators to with­draw the referendum proposal. But a controversial service trade agreement with China that KMT legislators passed in thirty seconds flat renewed widespread demonstrations in March 2014. On April 22, Lin Yi­hsiung, former DPP chair and a longtime antinuclear activist, went on a hunger strike calling for termination of the LMNP. Under all this pressure, President Ma Ying­jeou reluctantly made compromises on the LMNP, including ceasing construction of unit number one and sealing it pending a later decision, and completely stopping construction of unit num­ber two. The decision for the latter was made prob­ably because the administration was clearly aware that the possi­bility of unit number two's becoming operational was very slim. Lin ended his hunger strike on April 30, 2014.

Kuang-Jung Hsum, 'To Regulate or Not to Regulate: The Conundrum of Taiwan's Nuclear Power', Asian Perspective, Oct-Dec 2015, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 637-666,