Could a Fukushima-style Nuclear Accident Happen in Taiwan?

Credit: REUTERS/KYODO
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The government's target date for phasing out nuclear by 2025 could not come soon enough.

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Taiwan Green Bulletin

There has been a lot of talk about more violent earthquakes set to shudder our planet and Taiwan in particular next year.

First off, Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau said in September that we haven’t had enough big quakes this year, leading to a build up of sub-surface energy and more likely possibility of larger temblors ahead. Then, last month, scientists were predicting stronger earthquakes next year worldwide linked to a slight slowdown in the Earth’s rotation; and some could be pretty devastating.

Earthquakes are dangerous enough, but when coupled with six aging nuclear reactors the question arises: could a Fukushima-type nuclear accident happen in Taiwan?

Taiwan has three nuclear power plants each with two reactors. There are two stations in New Taipei City – Kuosheng and Chinshan and one near the golden beaches of Kenting – Maanshan. Currently only three reactors – Maanshan 1 and 2, and Kuosheng 1 are operational. Chinshan is due to be decommissioned starting next year and it is doubtful whether either of its reactors will ever work again. All plants are operated by state-owned Taiwan power Co. (Taipower).

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Morley J Weston

These are aging reactors and it shows. In recent years, they have suffered a litany of disasters. If we just look at recent accidents all the reactors have been shut down at one point or another because of equipment malfunctions, fires, heavy rainfall, and system failures. If a downpour can shut down a plant, what could a serious quake do?

Another issue is nuclear waste – there is a build up of spent fuel rods while the country debates how to handle it. Taiwan does not reprocess its nuclear waste, it has been using direct disposal. Even the World Nuclear Association, a pro-nuclear power body, commented on its website that Kuosheng and Chinshan “are constrained by capacity for storing used fuel.” Chinshan 2 is non-operational only because it is bloated with used fuel; there is no more room to store spent fuel rods.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party government has pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2025, when all reactors have reached the end of their lifetimes; the Electricity Act was amended earlier this year to reflect this. Fukushima scared the Taiwanese public, and anti-nuclear sentiment is now fairly widespread. In 2014, anti-nuclear protests drew crowds of 45,000 across the island, though power blackouts this summer caused the nuclear lobby to pipe up and urge a rethink of the phase out.

So if a powerful quake shook Taiwan – and the science says this is growing more likely – could we experience a nuclear disaster?

There are three factors to consider here: are the reactors vulnerable to an accident from an earthquake or a tsunami in the first place? How far are they from population centers? And, are contingency plans adequate?

In terms of vulnerability by location, a report by the U.S.’ Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "Global Implications of the Fukushima Disaster for Nuclear Power", authored in the summer of 2011, just months after the Fukushima nuclear accident, pointed out that all of Taiwan’s reactors are located in very high seismic hazard areas.

In terms of vulnerability by design, David Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of Concerned Scientists says Taiwan’s nuclear power stations use the same or similar technology used in the U.S., and could fail in the event of a Fukushima-esque disaster. Kuosheng uses boiling water reactor model 6 (BWR/6) and Maanshan boasts Westinghouse pressurized water reactors (PWR). “Our [the U.S.’] BWR/6s and PWRs are vulnerable to severe earthquakes like Fukushima. I've often said and written that any reactor operating in the US – if magically swapped out for the reactors in Fukushima on March 11, 2011, and subject to the same challenge – would experience the same fate. The timeline and path to disaster might be a little different, but the outcome would have been the same.”

In terms of population centers, there is also a problem with the two plants in north Taiwan, both around 50 km from downtown Taipei. The NRDC report, using 2011 statistics, noted that 5.5 million people lived within a 30 km radius of Kuosheng, and 4.7 million within 30 km of Chinshan. “A severe nuclear accident at either of these stations could have devastating consequences for the entire country...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.”

The situation with Kuosheng, which still has one operational reactor, is even more serious than at Fukushima. Lochbaum says that “Kuosheng [has] a much higher population within 30 km of the plant than most other reactors – way more than around Fukushima. The last layer of defense against a nuclear reactor accident is evacuation – getting people out before the radioactive plume passes through. The higher the population, the more challenging it is to move them out in time. And the higher the consequences of not getting people out of harm's way.”

It all hinges, he says, on whether the contingency plans have been sufficiently upgraded since the Japanese tragedy – for example the emergency power support is crucial; a few hours back up is not enough. Power is needed to quickly resolve safety issues. Lochbaum says he is not aware of any contingency plans for Taiwan’s reactors either before or updates after Fukushima. However, though this summer's massive power blackout was down to human error, the strains on Taiwan's power grid are well known.

It is not a question about operating standards, the World Nuclear Association notes that global oversight organizations concluded in 2013 that safety standards for Taiwan’s nuclear plants are “generally high and comply with international state-of-the-art practices.” Rather, it is about how to safely contain the nuclear material in the plant in the event of a serious accident caused by seismic activity. And in this respect, that 2013 review “recommended that Taiwan should update its assessment of all natural hazards, notably earthquakes and tsunamis, so as to be better prepared for such.” A 2016 paper by Shang Su-wu on the, albeit unlikely, but real possibility of nuclear disaster noted, “Taiwan's insufficient level of preparation would make external disaster relief crucial.”

On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale around 3 p.m. led to a tsunami with 15-meter waves to cause three reactors at the Daiichi nuclear power plant to go into melt-down. The death toll varies according to who you ask but in 2016 the World Heath Organization reported that the disaster led to 2,579 missing people, and the death of 15,891 others.

Editor: David Green

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