Political Debate Goes Nuclear After Referendum Keeps Reactors Running

Political Debate Goes Nuclear After Referendum Keeps Reactors Running
Credit: Reuters / Pichi Chuang
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Taiwan voted to reverse a plan to phase out nuclear power by 2025, but nobody knows what comes next.

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By Brian Hioe

After the referendum on nuclear energy held concurrently with nine-in-one elections on Nov. 24, shifts in Taiwan’s treatment of nuclear energy-related issues are likely to take place. The referendum called for the overturning of current provisions in the law which stipulate that Taiwan is to be nuclear-free by 2025.

Although the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) scheduled the restart of the No. 1 reactor at the Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant shortly after the referendum, this was not because of the results. The Tsai administration quietly approved reactor restarts for nuclear reactors, including the Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant, last year, but the No. 1 Kuosheng Reactor was taken offline for scheduled maintenance last month. With the completion of this maintenance and the completion of safety checks after some initial failures, the plant was brought back online.

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Credit: Toach Japan
The Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City, Taiwan.

In the meantime, the first reactor of the Jinshan power plant has now reached its scheduled decommissioning date, but questions remain on what to do with the nuclear waste from the plant. The second reactor of the plant is scheduled to be decommissioned next year. On the other hand, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has ordered Taipower to submit a request to postpone the decommissioning of the Ma-Anshan Nuclear Power Plant.

It is also a question as to what should be done with nuclear rods from the currently shuttered Gongliao Nuclear Reactor, with the proposal that these rods should be shipped back to the U.S., but also calls from nuclear energy proponents to restart the reactor.

Another referendum question had asked Taiwanese voters whether they hoped to maintain current bans on food imports from areas of Japan affected by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The administration of Japanese President Shinzo Abe has made accepting food imports from such areas a strong precondition for stronger diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This is part of efforts by the Abe administration to depict Fukushima as safe and to suggest that Japan has had no issues with returning to nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster.

There are, of course, valid concerns with regards to whether such food is safe or not, seeing as the Japanese government was criticized for being reluctant to conduct safety assessments after the Fukushima disaster. The Kuomintang (KMT), however, has been an instrumental force in pushing for this referendum. While the Abe administration has stated that it hopes that Taiwan will reconsider the food ban, it has indicated that it will more broadly overlook the issue for the sake of relations with Taiwan going forward.

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Credit: Yomiuri Shimbun via AP
Workers demonstrate the dismantling of an exhaust pipe at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Nov. 19, 2018.

The overall energy policy of the Tsai administration going forward remains unclear. The Tsai administration has stated that it still intends to push for a nuclear-free Taiwan, just that after the referendum results, which are legally binding, it no longer has a deadline of 2025 to realize a nuclear-free Taiwan.

On the other hand, the proponents of nuclear energy who pushed for the successful referendum in November, who have generally evidenced strong ties to the KMT, now call for a national referendum on restarting the Gongliao Nuclear Reactor. This is an unusual move seeing as some proponents of nuclear energy in Taiwan actually also oppose the Gongliao Nuclear Reactor, which is widely viewed as having a haphazard construction process. Furthermore, they call for a national referendum to be held on the unresolved question of where to store nuclear waste in Taiwan, including having a nationwide referendum on current nuclear waste storage sites in Lanyu.

The New Power Party (NPP) has, on the other hand, asserted that local referendums and a consultative process between civil society, experts, and the relevant government organs should be held to decide nuclear waste storage sites. This would be in order to prevent local residents of any given location from having nuclear waste storage sites built near their homes against their will.

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Credit: New Power Party
The New Power Party released a chart clarifying its positions on the Nov. 24 nuclear power referendum.

However, after making this proposal, the NPP was unexpectedly criticized by civil society groups because of the misperception that the NPP hoped to also hold a national referendum on the issue, rather than local referendums. This was mistakenly seen as not so different from what pro-nuclear groups called for in terms of seeking a national referendum and the NPP was criticized as fixated on the notion of holding a nationwide referendum, when this had resulted in widespread defeats for progressive civil society not too long before. This may have originated in a deliberate spin against the NPP, as observed in misleading headline titles, but this backlash may also represent that progressive civil society groups have now become significantly more wary of holding nationwide referendums to settle key political issues.

It continues to be that proponents of nuclear energy indicate strong ties to the pan-Blue camp, as well as that they are strongly beholden to the nuclear lobby in Taiwan. Indeed, in an examination of many of their arguments, one finds that despite the stereotype of nuclear energy opponents as being anti-science, in Taiwan it is more often than not proponents of nuclear energy who are anti-science.

For example, Huang Shih-hsiu (黃士修), a former legislative assistant of Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) of the KMT and the convenor of the referendum on nuclear energy, has proposed outlandish solutions to Taiwan’s nuclear waste issues such as every household taking in a small canister of nuclear waste so that the burden of nuclear waste is equally shared between all members of society. Huang has also claimed during a televised debate on nuclear energy that the Fukushima disaster was overblown, stating a belief that no earthquake had ever led to a nuclear disaster, and expressed strange views during televised debates on nuclear power such as that because nuclear power has been used in Taiwan for generations, the current generation has a commitment to their forebears to continue using nuclear energy.

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Credit: Central Election Commission
Huang Shih-hsiu speaks during a TV debate held ahead of the Nov. 24 nuclear power referendum.

Still, misleading information abounds, which sometimes results in voting by the public on the basis of incorrect facts.

A survey conducted by the Risk Society and Policy Research Center at National Taiwan University recently found that 44 percent of Taiwanese think that Taiwan’s energy mostly comes from nuclear energy. In reality, only eight percent of Taiwan’s energy came from nuclear energy in 2017.

It remains a challenge to combat such perceptions in order to work towards sustainable future energy policy.

Cover photo: A boy participates in a 2014 protest against construction of Taiwan's Fourth Nuclear Power Plant. The head banner reads: "Stop construction." The sticker on his face reads: "Nuclear go zero."

Read Next: Govt Sidesteps Energy Referendums as Pro-Nuclear Group Mulls Further Action

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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