Taiwan Will Debate Its Nuclear Future Once Again Ahead of 2020 Elections

Taiwan Will Debate Its Nuclear Future Once Again Ahead of 2020 Elections
Credit: Reuters / Pichi Chuang
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November's nuclear power referendum has only set the stage for political battles still to come.

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By Brian Hioe

Pro-nuclear groups in Taiwan continue to push for nuclear energy, as observed in three recent referendum pushes on nuclear energy-related issues. These referendums are organized by the groups responsible for the referendum on nuclear energy held in November during nine-in-one elections.

Namely, despite the fact that the referendum in November was successful in overturning previous legal stipulations that Taiwan was to aim towards a “nuclear-free homeland” in which nuclear energy has been phased out entirely by 2025, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has suggested that it still intends to gradually phase out nuclear energy. As such, nuclear advocates are pushing for another referendum on nuclear energy, seeing the Tsai administration as intending to shrug off the results of the referendum.

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Credit: Tsai Ing-wen / Facebook
President Tsai Ing-wen (center-left).

At the same time, it is to be questioned to what extent this proves a false political issue. It would have proven a difficult task for the Tsai administration to make the necessary shifts in Taiwan’s energy grid in order to phase out nuclear energy by 2025 anyway. Given the lack of concrete steps taken by the government to phase out nuclear energy, it is thought by some that the Tsai administration never intended to actually accomplish its promised goal of phasing out nuclear energy by 2025.

After all, even if the Tsai administration is reelected in 2020, Tsai would vacate her office by 2025. And despite proclaiming that it remains committed to long-term goals of phasing out nuclear energy, the Tsai administration itself already quietly approved reactor restarts in Taiwan. Though criticized by anti-nuclear groups, the Tsai administration was successful in keeping its nuclear restarts a low-key issue in such a manner that this did not provoke widespread public outrage.

Pro-nuclear groups call for the extension of the operating permits for four nuclear reactors whose permits were originally set to expire between 2021 and 2025, these being reactors at the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City and the Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung. Pro-nuclear groups also call for a referendum to call for the resumption of work on Gongliao Nuclear Reactor No. 4 – controversial even among pro-nuclear advocates because of views that its construction has been haphazard – and for a referendum on the current storage of nuclear waste materials on Orchid Island.

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Credit: David Hsu / Wikicommons
Taipower storage on Orchid Island.

At the same time, pan-Blue political interests are clearly behind the current pro-nuclear push. Huang Shih-hsiu (黃士修), the leader of the Nuclear Mythbusters group that was responsible for the November referendum, is a former assistant of former Kuomintang (KMT) chair Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) and has held high-ranking positions in a number of KMT thinktanks. The KMT was also primarily responsible for the referendum on food imports for Fukushima-affected areas that was also held during nine-in-one elections.

Although the KMT has at times been known to oppose nuclear energy as a means of criticizing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – ironic given that it is primarily responsible for the presence of nuclear energy in Taiwan, to begin with – it appears that the KMT currently intends to use advocacy for nuclear energy as a wedge issue against the DPP. On the other hand, pushing for a referendum on the storage of nuclear waste materials on Orchid Island – originally the result of KMT policy – is likely to allay criticisms against Huang and Nuclear Mythbusters for downplaying the issue in the past, including public incidents in Huang attempted to defend nuclear waste storage on Orchid Island to its indigenous residents, leading to demands by indigenous groups for Huang to apologize for what they perceived as discriminatory comments against Taiwanese indigenous.

Yet while members of the pan-Blue camp likely hope to attack the Tsai administration’s energy policy through a referendum on nuclear energy, their commitment to also resuming reconstruction of Gongliao Nuclear Reactor No. 4 is surprising and likely to provoke blowback. Again, even many advocates of nuclear energy do not support the construction of Gongliao Nuclear Reactor No. 4 and it is somewhat of a mystery as to why the KMT has been committed to seeing its construction through, despite public controversy. Some suspect that this is because of pro-nuclear members of the pan-Blue camp being beholden to the interests of Taiwan’s nuclear lobby.

Indeed, while advocates of nuclear energy in Taiwan attempt to claim that they are merely defending scientific truths, one observes that it is more often the anti-nuclear camp in Taiwan that is scientific and rational with regards to its views of nuclear energy. After all, many anti-nuclear advocates’ stance that nuclear energy is not suitable for Taiwan is predicated on the view that Taiwan’s frequent earthquakes make it very likely for a nuclear disaster similar to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster to take place in Taiwan. This is not necessarily rote opposition to nuclear energy in any and all cases.

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Credit: Central Election Commission
Huang Shih-hsiu speaks during a televised debate on nuclear energy in November 2018.

By contrast, Huang and members of Nuclear Mythbusters not only downplay the possible dangers of nuclear disasters but have attempted to deny the causes of the Fukushima incident (as stated in a post-Fukushima inquiry report), including claiming in a televised debate held before the referendum that “No nuclear disaster has ever been caused by an earthquake.”

Huang, as convener of the group, is also known for frequently outlandish claims, such as suggesting that the social responsibility of nuclear waste disposal be shared among all members of society by every household sharing a bottle of nuclear waste. Huang’s closing statement in the same televised debate made the claim that because the parents of the current generation of Taiwanese were raised through the use of nuclear energy, the current generation had a moral obligation to remain committed to nuclear energy, as it raised their forebears. Through such prewritten statements, which cannot be explained away as mere gaffes made during the heat of televised debates, Huang and other members of Nuclear Mythbusters generally do not seem very scientific or rational.

At the same time, one observes that the voting behavior of the Taiwanese electorate with regards to the issue of nuclear energy has sometimes been contradictory. 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 when in 2017, only 8 percent of Taiwan’s energy came from nuclear energy.

To this extent, during the referendums held alongside November nine-in-one elections, Taiwanese voters voted against food imports from Fukushima-affected areas – in spite of the assurances of the Japanese government that such food is safe – but in favor of nuclear energy for Taiwan. But it is likely that the KMT, which pushed for both referendums, wished to drive a wedge between the administration of Japan Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe and the Tsai administration through the referendum on food from Fukushima-affected areas.

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Credit: Jnlin / Wikicommons
The Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung.

Although there are valid concerns about food safety from Fukushima-affected areas, given the Japanese government’s lack of transparency regarding radiation after the Fukushima disaster, the Abe administration has made allowing food imports from Fukushima into a precondition for Taiwan being allowed into free trade agreements as the CFTPP or having closer relations with Japan. At the same time, this would accomplish the KMT’s aims of preventing closer ties between Taiwan and Japan to ward off the threat of China, given that the party is a pro-China one, and the KMT would also be able to attack the Tsai administration as taking unnecessary risks with the food safety of ordinary Taiwanese.

Nuclear energy will no doubt continue to be a contested issue in Taiwan going forward, then. Nuclear energy is highly likely to reemerge as a key issue in the 2020 elections.

Read Next: No Consensus, Mass Confusion After Taiwan's Energy Referendums

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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