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Will Taiwan be the Next Country to Say No to Nuclear or be the Site of the Next Big Disaster?

The Radioactive Ghost of Chiang Kai-shek

by ADAM CHIMIENTI

On March 9th, 2013, over 200,000 anti nuclear activists took to the streets around Taiwan as the debate over nuclear power is once again heating up. A proposed referendum in July or August is now touted as the ultimate arbiter of the fate of nuclear plant Number 4 at Longmen. These particular reactors have been contentious since their inception, officially in production for over two decades, with plans dating back even further to the pre-democracy days. Most recently though, Fukushima has been causing increasing concern among many Taiwanese citizens and the recent second anniversary has further galvanized activists and average citizens alike. The Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially known, already has three active plants with six reactors in operation. The move by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) to put Number 4 to a vote has not impressed the opposition, with one calling it “a joke referendum”. Before we review the case of nuclear plant Number 4 and its soon-to-be-revealed destiny, a brief history of atomic power in the island once widely known as Ihla Formosa (Portuguese for beautiful island) is essential for local and foreign observers.

Nuclear Disaster Waiting to Happen

Following the March 2011 genpatsu shinsai, a term newly created in Japanese to indicate the triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, the nuclear establishment around the world went into damage control. In Taiwan, this included absurd statements by the leadership that demonstrated a desire to deceive people into believing that it couldn’t happen there. Yet, what was revealed in the weeks and months following was enough to make any sane leadership rethink their position. Unfortunately, much of the debate was scarcely publicized and public attention failed to reach any critical mass. The Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) Administration would remain focused on the goal of finishing the country’s fourth nuclear power plant. The logic is to leave future leaders with the task of possibly decommissioning it, ostensibly due to the enormous costs that a breach of contract would result in.[i] This logic is contradicted by the ever-escalating costs involved with finishing the reactor (not to mention what a nuclear emergency could mean for the island and its inhabitants). Taiwan Power Company, or Taipower, is the utility company running the project despite its widely noted lack of experience in building something of this size and scope.  In 2000, it estimated costs of roughly $2.6 billion USD, but now forecast at least four times that amount at over $10billion USD.[ii]

Among the most frightening revelations in the aftermath of the 311 disaster at Fukushima were reports by tsunami experts and seismologists warning of enormous pressure accumulating in the Manila Trench. These experts pointed to the fact that it had been hundreds of years since a major earthquake occurred in the South China Sea. The overarching message was that the next triple disaster  would most likely occur in southern East Asia with tens of millions living in a danger zone. The Associated Press reported that no less than five plants were particularly vulnerable to what could potentially be one of the most costly earthquakes and tsunamis ever. These five plants include four on the southern coast of China and one on the southeastern coast of Taiwan.[iii]

Professor David Yuen from the University of Minnesota, in what could someday be one of history’s most prescient warnings gone ignored, said that we must assume all five reactors would be struck by massive waves sometime this century if such an event occurs. It is hard to imagine what Fukushima times five would look like but the governments of these densely populated regions need to do just that according to the experts. This analysis and preparation has not seriously been undertaken as far as most activists are concerned. It is also unlikely in the future because of the strength of a nuclear establishment that carelessly and recklessly dismisses legitimate concerns. One can say a lot about global nuclear advocates but defeatism has never been an identifiable trait. Certainly, undertaking the thorough tests and using the best technology would be a challenge that would at least slow down, if not altogether halt, the progress of the licensing, construction and future operation of reactors. Yet, fast-tracking such projects is the norm in the many countries that are advocating a nuclear renaissance.

The utility companies in charge of providing people around the world with electricity have often been found guilty of conspiring, not only when it comes to price-gouging, but also reckless endangerment. Consider the past history of the operator of Fukushima’s six reactors, TEPCO, and its counterparts throughout Japan who surely knew well in advance that many reactors were not prepared to deal with major earthquakes, according to Wikileaks documents. Yet, this awareness just led to collusion with METI [the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry] in an effort to downplay or ignore legitimate concerns. The pro-nuclear forces in the country did everything they could to dismiss the urging of experts and the power of a court order of at least one Japanese judge.[iv] The fact that Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and once operated 54 reactors within proximity to the coast indicates this recklessness. Yet, the fact that Japan has consistently led the world in studying the potential impacts of tsunamis and earthquakes on its reactors is remarkable. China and Taiwan, as well as the US and India and other states that continue to support nuclear power post-Fukushima, are not as prepared as Japan was. This is a cause for concern, if not alarm.

The case of Taiwan is especially problematic considering that it is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Because Taiwan is an island, the people (over 23 million) and animals living there are incredibly vulnerable to widespread disaster and the ensuing panic that would follow. So what are the leaders of Taiwan doing? For the most part, few are calling for the outright decommissioning of the six reactors currently operating on the island. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) talks of a gradual phase out and additional safety tests, meanwhile most leading members of the KMT promote extensions for the existing reactors and plans to build more. To be fair, there are politicians from both parties who are now publicly advancing the issue and stress that time is of the essence.

The nuclear establishment consistently tells us there is no need to worry because they know what they are doing. Just ask some of the Japanese citizens who live daily with the fear of radiation and the inevitable increased incidences of cancer. The former Taiwanese Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), in an embarrassing attempt to deflect citizens’ fears in Taipei went out on a limb and declared that Taiwan’s reactors were more advanced than those in Japan. He boldly declared that they were in fact fourth-generation, but then was forced to backtrack because fourth-generation reactors have not yet been built anywhere in the world.[v]

This was certainly not the model available in the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s when Taiwan was building their plants. The reactors they built were four boiling water reactors (BWR) designed by GE and two pressurized water reactors (PWR) by Westinghouse. These reactors have been cited as vulnerable to a variety of challenges and the high-level waste is typically stored outside the reactor vessel as in the case of Fukushima, a result of incapacity to deal with it in a more responsible manner. Mostly, the low-level waste has been sent to Lanyu, an island off the southeastern coast populated with locals who have a proud tradition of managing their environment, yet are now forced to deal with a storage site that has been leaking amidst (not surprisingly) a cover up by Taipower.[vi]

Like elsewhere in the world, as soon as you bring up the issue, most people will say there is no other choice because energy security is paramount. Like most other places on the planet where they have moved beyond the Industrial Age and now consume significantly more than they produce, there is abundant and unnecessary waste in Taiwan. The Taiwanese are surely not as bad as their counterparts in the United States or other parts of the developed world, but you don’t have to see much in the country to notice that there is significant room for improvement when it comes to energy conservation.

Qui bono? Qui lustret? (Who benefits? Who sacrifices?)

Revisiting Japan again, we find that they successfully endured a couple of months of 2012 without any nuclear power whatsoever. Moreover, many citizens throughout the country were arguing that they would cut back in order to keep the reactors offline, as they had in the past when dealing with the ecological disasters that accompanied their ‘economic miracle’. There were massive protests when the government announced plans to restart the reactors at Oi last summer.[vii]

These were unprecedented as protests in Japan usually tend to be low-key and not particularly antagonistic toward the ruling class. Yet, the energy conservation efforts were reminiscent of the strides that made Japan among the most energy efficient nations on the planet. There were and are valuable lessons to be learned here. It has been sufficiently argued that energy conservation is in fact enough to offset the losses in nuclear output that would come with plants closing down.[viii]

Taipei has been considerably influenced by Japan since it has undergone a similar model of growth and production and has been distinguished by economists and politicians as one of the Asian Tigers. One can imagine then, that Taiwanese people were paying close attention to what was happening in Japan at that time. While many were eager to highlight the material and financial assistance Taiwan offered, there were also fears throughout the island about products from Fukushima. One anxious farmer recently expressed his fears to a local reporter that the same thing would happen to produce from the northeastern portion of Taiwan, where the fourth nuclear plant is slated to begin importing nuclear fuel rods by the end of the year barring a vote down in the proposed referendum.    

Many Taiwanese activists are quick to point out that the plant has been ranked number 14 by the World Nuclear Association on a list of the most dangerous plants in the world. To understand how this project could still be underway, we must briefly delve into Taiwan’s past to comprehend the main problems with its nuclear industry today.

Scientists who say no to nuclear and the leaders who ignore them

In the late 1970s, Dr. Chang Kuo-lung (張國龍), a Yale-trained professor of Physics from National Taiwan University and future director of the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency (2005-2007), took note of the project that was to be nuclear plant Number 4 in the northeastern portion of the island. In a conversation with me last December, he recalled finding out about the plant after visiting his brother who was living in the countryside to escape the damaging effects of air pollution in the big cities of Taiwan. This was a very different time in Taiwan. Political dissent was dangerous but the brilliant young professor, freshly returned from studying in the US, was undeterred. He began speaking about the issue of nuclear power to colleagues and the fate of Number 4 (which incidentally is unlucky in Chinese culture because the character reads like the character for death) to anyone who would listen.

At that time, few were aware of the real dangers but things would soon change after the first major nuclear power disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979. The problem was how to get people to understand what was at stake. The government of Chiang Kai-shek was  brutal  and it wasn’t uncommon for troublemakers to suffer at its hands. Under the leadership of his son Chiang Ching-kuo however, political liberalization gradually ensued. The debate over nuclear power had begun on the island but was too technical for most people to comprehend. Soon enough however, change was on its way.

By 1987, martial law was lifted on the island after roughly four decades and the newly emergent Democratic Progressive Party or DPP had taken up the fight as part of their platform. The young rising political stars also took on an array of other progressive issues under one umbrella that sought to delegitimize the ruling KMT. It would take some time for them to achieve electoral success and much of the wind would apparently be taken out of their sails. By the time of the former president (and current inmate[ix]) Chen Shui-bian’s assumption of the presidential office in 2000, the party more or less owned the issue of the environment and nuclear power. This was not necessarily a good thing as they were outnumbered by the opposition and perhaps too inept or timorous to move toward ending, once and for all, the saga of the fourth nuclear power plant. The plant became big news itself in the mid-1980s because of environmental concerns that accompanied the country’s remarkable economic growth, as well as an excessively bloated budget for the third plant at Heng Chun (the one identified above as being in the potential path of a major tsunami ).[x]

For the courageous physicist Dr. Chang, as he explained to me, it was a matter of conscience. How could the leaders of his country build this fourth plant after a series of minor disasters at the previous plants due to poor management by the state-owned Taipower, and especially after the major disasters he watched from afar in Chernobyl and Pennsylvania? People were being lied to. The real and potential costs far outweighed any benefits to the public.

Though it wasn’t the public that was necessarily meant to benefit. Like any major endeavor, the funds and extensive construction associated with such a grand project meant a lack of accountability that complemented an authoritarian government well. Chiang Kai-shek’s reprehensible lust for power and riches is well-documented. His dark legacy of repression in Taiwan began even before he fled China and crossed the Strait. I was, however, dismayed when I heard from some of the country’s most respected environmentalists that the Chiang family is still relatively powerful in the country and that some of Chiang’s descendants are behind the push for the fourth nuclear reactor. Today, the DPP remains weak despite an incredibly low approval rating of second-term President Ma Ying-Jeou. The fate of the anti nuclear movement, tragically, remains trapped in this democratically ineffective party structure.

According to a recent article in the Taipei Times, the same DPP members that pushed for a referendum on the Longmen Plant (Number 4) now reject it out of hand. “This is a joke, that the government is proposing to hold a referendum under the current Referendum Act, because the current version of the law is intended to prevent referendums from succeeding, making the outcome meaningless,” said the current DPP chairman Su (蘇貞昌), further adding that,

“it’s obvious that the public are no longer reluctant to express their fears, doubts and anxieties about nuclear energy, so what the government should do is to stop construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant immediately, not hold a referendum on whether the construction should continue.”[xi]

Yet it seems that the public were not reluctant to express their concerns earlier either. From 1994 to 1998, four referendums were held in Taipei City, Taipei County, and Yilan County and these reportedly did show a strong anti nuclear majority, but at that time the ruling KMT dismissed these as illegitimate.[xii] Now the tables have turned as a Referendum Act  passed in 2003  requires at least 50% of eligible voter participation, as well as requiring that at least half of those voters  say yes to the question proposed. Since the Act has been introduced, efforts to get sufficient voter turnout has proven unsuccessful six out of six times.

Successful Anti Nuclear Movements and lessons for Taiwan

Japanese activists have expressed similar concerns regarding a decisive vote on nuclear power. It appears that many in Japan are also apprehensive about turnout and the enormous propaganda that would accompany such initiatives. In fact, all across the nuclearpowered world, disinformation or lack of relevant information remains decisive. It took the strong leadership and decades of determination of anti nuclear groups in Germany, plus the critical support of former nuclear advocate and Chancellor Angela Merkel to finally begin a phaseout there. In Italy, the situation was a bit different. Italians had earlier voted against nuclear power following the accident at Chernobyl and again had the unfortunate experience of revisiting the issue due to an overzealous (redundant, I know) Berlusconi, who tried to undemocratically force nuclear power back on the grid.

Other successful movements are worth examining for Taiwanese activists. In the second half of the 1980s in Long Island, New York, the federal government and local utility’s plans to dot the northern coast of Suffolk County with 11 nuclear reactors had failed. The Federal government had been promoting the necessity and safety of nuclear power and pushing for a nuclear renaissance.  The U.S. Energy Secretary John S. Herrington expressed the desperation of the industry in getting the Shoreham plant, the only fully-constructed of 11 proposed plants, to open by stating that if it didn’t, it would be a low point in the history of the nuclear industry. The activists reportedly used a mix of legal, political and activist initiatives, according to Karl Grossman, an anti nuclear journalist who covered the movement in depth.[xiii] In other words, they got creative and they were extremely aggressive and able to outsmart the other side.

It appears that the anti nuclear victory on Long Island is a useful model for Taiwan. Both islands are heavily populated. One of the reasons for the defeat of the nuclear establishment on Long Island at that time was the refusal by New York State and Suffolk County to draw up evacuation plans that were federally mandated. Indeed, it was regarded as an impossible task to evacuate such an island and if a contingency plan is impossible, then there should be no amount of electricity generation worth that risk. Look at a map of Long Island and you will see several connections by bridge and ferry to the mainland (practically worthless in a major evacuation, but connections nonetheless). In Taiwan, no connections such as these exist. New York could hardly be considered a seismically active location. Taiwan is located in the “ring of fire” and has been put on alert many times because of tsunamis.

A time for Taiwanese (and citizens the world over) to stand up for everything we cherish

Taipower has already wreaked havoc on Lan Yu (aka Orchid Island) with its stockpiling of radioactive waste there. The Taiwanese government should stop playing politics and engaging in crony capitalism and instead heed the words of the experts who reported on the buildup of pressure in the Manila Trench. They should close down and decommission all of the plants on the beautiful island known as Taiwan. This utility should not be allowed to add to the hot patches of ocean that have been a stark reality since March 2011. Moreover, citizens should hold their governments accountable for the risks they take. The people should be the ones calling for economic and ecologicallycentric plans for solving the myriad problems that have come with the shopping malls and fast cheap food and energy. ‘Green New Deals’ should be the norm in every country and proprietary impulses should be curbed as people around the world share the best ideas and technologies.

In the United States last month, President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Energy, or as he calls him “another brilliant scientist”, Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist from MIT, received a ringing endorsement from the nuclear establishment.[xiv] He will surely do the dirty work of promoting nuclear power, despite the overwhelming evidence that this technology is clearly not worth the humongous risks.

Only days before the earthquake and meltdowns at Fukushima, Dan Rather told his Huffington Post readership that the issue of nuclear energy had been all but decided and everyone was in agreement—the renaissance was back on.[xv] The media leads the way in obfuscating and obscuring those humongous risks, as Joe Giambrone’s excellent March 18, 2013 CounterPunch piece on radiation and the media demonstrated.

Bill McKibben, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 2011 ‘top global thinkers’, essentially told me in a recent email exchange that there wasn’t really any room for the anti nuclear focus in February’s historic march in Washington. I found that rather bizarre considering the inherent danger to the planet that comes with nuclear power.

All too often, the folks that shill for the nuclear industry use the language of “real world economics”. This helps rationalize their support of the dirty forms of energy that poison our air, water and earth and affect all forms of life on the planet negatively.

All too often, environmental leaders go along with such rationalizations probably because, as in the case of Taiwan, they see closeness to political parties and leaders as being convenient and potentially advantageous someday.

Today, we must stop and ask the critical question, how can we stand by and let the next Fukushima happen? Is there nothing starker in the real world of physics and biology than what has happened at Fukushima and Chernobyl? What will the next disaster bring? Will it be in California, Nebraska, New York, Vermont, France, Bulgaria, Russia, India, or China? Can we afford to lose all of Taiwan because some clearly corrupted utility and political party have hitched the fate of a nation to an industry, an establishment, that seeks to authoritatively dominate our economic and political existence? There are ‘brilliant scientists’ out there, like Dr. Chang and other scientists of conscience (with the excellent Helen Mary Caldicott, Chris Busby and Arnie Gundersen at the forefront), who reject the immorality of profits before people, but unfortunately the dictators, or those that dictate policy and restrict the flow of critical information, tend to win out and leave a radioactive disaster in their wake. Perhaps Taiwan can now bring an end to such corrupted atomic calculus and inspire the world, as opposed to irradiating it.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.

Notes.

[i] Chris Wang. “Ma Should Learn From Chiang: DPP,” Taipei Times, 23 February 2013, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2013/02/23/2003555505/1.

[ii] Florence de Changy. “Taiwan presses ahead with home-built nuclear power plant despite safety fears,” The Guardian Weekly, 14 February 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/14/taiwan-asia-pacific.

[iii] Margie Mason and Robin McDowell. “Asia’s coastal nuclear plants: Disaster-in-waiting?” Associated Press, 18 April 2011, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/42649580/ns/world_news-asiapacific/

[iv] Steven Swinford and Christopher Hope, “Japan earthquake: Japan warned over nuclear plants, WikiLeaks cables show” The Telegraph 15 March 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8384059/Japan-earthquake-Japan-warned-over-nuclear-plants-WikiLeaks-cables-show.html.

[v] Vincent Y. Chao and J. Michael Cole. “Experts question Wu’s nuclear facts,” Tapei Times, 17 March 2011, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2011/03/17/2003498375

[vi] See the following articles for more on the Tao people: Cindy Sui. “Tribal Culture Survives in Taiwan,” BBC Travel, 6 October 2011, http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20110930-tribal-culture-survives-in-taiwan; and Carmen Roberts. “Taiwan’s paradise island fights to save its identity,” BBC News, 7 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-radio-and-tv-15182502.

[vii] Mure Dickie. “Japanese anti-nuclear demonstrations grow,” Washington Post, 17 July 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/japanese-anti-nuclear-demonstrations-grow/2012/07/16/gJQAPXPgoW_story.html

[viii] One example of a scientific study that set out to prove that the benefits of energy conservation and renewable sources would be less costly than sticking with nuclear power is from a senior economist at the Japan Center for Economic Research: Tatsuo Kobayashi. “Energy Saving and Renewable Energy Less Costly Than Sticking with Nuclear Energy,” Redesigning the Japanese Economy: Beyond the Earthquake Disaster. 27 December 2011. Another excellent blog post and infographic on this subject comes from Energy Savvy at http://www.energysavvy.com/blog/2011/07/13/ticking-atomic-clock-nuclear-power-vs-efficient-homes/

[ix] President Chen and his wife were arrested, charged and convicted of bribery upon leaving office in 2008 and are both serving their prison terms.

[x] This section was based on discussions with Dr. Chang Kuo-lung and cross referenced with: Ming-Sho Ho. “The Politics of Anti-Nuclear Protest in Taiwan: A Case of Party-Dependent Movement (1980-2000),” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, July 2003.

[xi] Chris Wang and Loa Iok-sin. “President Ma should halt nuclear project: Su, Tsai,”

Taipei Times, 1 March 2013-Page 4.

[xii] Ming Sho-ho. Ibid.

[xiii] Karl Grossman. “Eminent Domain and the Fight Against Nuclear Power,” Common Dreams, 23 January 2012, https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/01/23-0.

[xiv] Erika Bolstad. “Gina McCarthy tapped to head EPA, Ernest Moniz to lead Energy Department,” McClatchy Newspapers, 4 March 2013,  http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/03/04/184773/obama-taps-gina-mccarthy-ernest.html

[xv] As far as my research could reveal, Dan Rather didn’t issue any update or statement in the weeks following his 2 March 2011 piece, “Nuclear Reactors,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-rather/nuclear-reactors_b_830392.html