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March 13, 2013

Anti-Nuclear Energy Activists Becoming More Vocal in Taiwan

by Ralph Jennings

A wave of mass street protests in Taiwan has prompted the island’s government to reconsider a fourth nuclear power plant. Demonstrators at concerts and elsewhere this past weekend said the plant would threaten inhabitants of Taiwan’s north coast.

About 220,000 people turned out for loud, emotional demonstrations in Taiwan’s three biggest cities to ask that the government stop plans for the island's fourth nuclear power plant. They were the largest protests since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008. 

Safety concerns

The demonstrators said they are worried a catastrophe similar to Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown two years ago could occur on the island.

Lee Yi-chun, a 40-year-old software engineer from Taipei, says she joined a demonstration on Saturday because she fears a nuclear accident.

She says the first issue is consideration of a disaster much like that in Japan.  She says the Japanese plant had gone through a rigorous inspection and its management was not bad, but that does not mean an earthquake or tsunami will not cause damage or suddenly cut electricity to the plant, leading to a meltdown.

Taiwan's fourth nuclear plant has already felt its share of shocks. Government-run Taiwan Power Company started work on it in 1999.  The semi-official Central News Agency says it has spent about $9.3 billion on construction. In 2000, public opinion led Taiwan’s government to halt work on the power station, which is near one of northern Taiwan’s most popular beaches. But the legislature ordered the project to resume a year later. Ma’s government had tentatively planned to start operations last year.

Economic need

Taiwan has few of its own fossil fuel sources and hopes nuclear power will reduce dependency on sometimes costly imports. There have been no nuclear accidents in Taiwan and the power company has pledged that the fourth plant will be safe. Nuclear energy contributes 12 percent to the island’s total power generation capacity.

Lin Hung-chih, deputy secretary-general of the ruling Nationalist Party’s Central Policy Committee, says Taiwan cannot afford to hold back on nuclear power, especially for industrial use, as long as the island lacks other energy sources. He wants Taiwan to join France, South Korea and other countries that rely heavily on nuclear power.

He says that, without nuclear safety, there would be no fourth nuclear plant.  He questions what the island will use to replace the energy that would be provided by the fourth plant.

Protesters becoming more vocal

Taiwan’s protests against nuclear power were muted, before the Japan earthquake of 2011. When the first three nuclear plants began coming online in the 1970s, citizens accepted them as part of Taiwan’s fast economic development. Today, two plants operate alongside public beaches, attracting thousands of tourists.

But the Japan meltdown raised the intensity of anti-nuclear protests and environmental activism in Taiwan.

Taiwanese officials who face tough elections every two to four years have studied the idea of converting the fourth nuclear plant to a thermal one but say that shift would cost another $3 billion. The Taiwanese news agency says today’s cost already exceeds earlier estimates, because of suspected corruption, budget inflation and challenges by environmental groups. 

New Taipei City, where the plant is based, is urging people to speak out and the central government to listen. Last month, the government suggested putting the fourth nuclear plant to a popular vote.

Anti-nuclear activists plan to use weekend protest momentum to collect signatures for the referendum. Meanwhile, the government is trying to convince the public of the nuclear plant’s safety.