Nukes and Reefs in the News

Archaeological dig at Tainan’s Chihkanlou exposes artifacts from the Dutch and early Qing eras.

This week The News Lens reported on President Tsai Ing-wen’s statement that the aborted Fourth Nuclear Plant could not be re-opened.

“In the Facebook post, Tsai said any city or county government will oppose having the fourth nuclear power plant in its backyard or having to deal with nuclear waste. “We need to take safety, costs, and time into consideration when it comes to restarting the power plant,” she said. “Based on these aspects, it is not an option.”

The nuclear power issue has been revived in part as a result of Kuomintang (KMT) pushing to have the plant re-opened via a referendum, and partly as a result of a controversy over the new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in Taoyuan. The terminal is being built near an ancient algal reef that lines the coast north of Taoyuan (Taiwan Insight with more).

Despite its recent appearance in the news, the reef has long been a point of contention between environmental activists and scientists on one side, and Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which always jumps on environmental cases with the speed of tranquilized sloth. Back in 2009 the China Petroleum Corp (CPC), the state-owned oil firm, shoved an undersea LNG pipeline through the reefs. The head of the CPC, responding to the negative publicity from the destruction of the reefs, observed that they weren’t under protection, and thus, cleared the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)(Disclaimer: at that point, no project had ever been killed as the result of an EIA).

The reefs once lined 27 kms of the coast, now reduced to a stretch of 5 kms with a width of a few hundred meters), and even that is threatened. In 2008 a large chunk of algal reefs was discovered. Researchers noted that Taiwan’s reefs had largely escaped bleaching because of the cold currents around the island, which keep water temps low. Instead, waste from Taoyuan’s innumerable factories, which has historically run untreated into the sea, has killed them.

Panorama of Taoyuan with its numerous factories, taken from Mingchuan University.

The pro-nuke side, which includes environmentalists, argues that the Fourth Nuclear Plant should be restarted. This might help save the reefs, they contend. Alas, the reefs were not killed by the LNG terminal, but by factories (which nobody on either side of the nukes vs LNG debate mentions), which will go right on killing them (see this 2012 Taipei Times piece about a plume of waste a km long at the site). Local environmentalists have complained repeatedly to the EPA, but nothing ever happens because, as I have long noted, the ‘E’ in EPA stands for “Entrepreneur”. Indeed, one could argue that the whole gas vs nukes debate is simply a smoke screen to enable factories to go on polluting. Whichever energy route Taiwan chooses, the reefs are doomed unless someone forces the factories to process their waste and dispose of it properly.  

The Tsai government objects because it holds the conventional view that LNG power is needed to cover the transition from nuclear power — to be phased out in 2025 — to renewables. The nuke plants have reached the end of their useful lives and there is no place to put the spent nuclear fuel. A facility has been designed for New Taipei City but has been criticized by both the DPP and the local KMT officials for design problems (for more on the spent fuel issue, see my two parter in the Taipei Times which begins here). At present there is no widely agreed upon solution to the spent fuel problem.

This is not the first time that the LNG plant at Datan and the Fourth Nuke have been brought together over a controversy. Remember the Great Blackout of 2017? When the gas plant at Datan tripped during ill-advised repairs conducted when the plant was operating without reserve capacity (because of nuclear power plant problems reducing nuke output), there was an island-wide blackout. The answer to any power problem, for the pro-nuke types, is always more nukes. As I noted at the time:

In June of 2017 rain brought down a power tower, so a nuke plant went into emergency shutdown. How many of you know that one reactor at the first nuke plant has been offline since 2014?  Or that the nuke plant in Pingtung was damaged via operator error in May of this year? The reactor at Jinshan accidentally tripped last year, putting pressure on the power supply… since 2002 the nation’s reactors have suffered 29 trigger events.

These failures are not a new trend. But as the plants age, these problems will only grow.

So actually, one of the reasons we have so much pressure on the power supply is, in fact, the less than stellar reliability of our nuclear power plants. But the answer, according to the nuke cult, is always more nukes. Then with enough nukes, we will finally reach that blessed future in which we will all be made whole by the grace of nuclear power…

The clear lesson of the Datan debacle is not that we need more nukes. It is that institutionally Taiwan is not ready for a nuke future. Especially given the lack of oversight the legislature gives our state-run firms and their all-important budgets.

Re-opening the Fourth Nuclear Power plant is a political fantasy. The plant has numerous problems, from earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis (go here) to issues with its construction. In the event of disaster, there are no plans for the evacuation of Taipei (how? To where?). Its fuel rods were shipped back to the US in a series of shipments that ended last year. It will be years before it could be opened, years of public protest and controversy and years of expenditures the budget can ill afford. Saddest of all, the plant will once again become a sink for development dollars that could have been spent solarizing buildings and spurring renewable and geothermal development.

Reefs vs Nukes? In every way, the wrong debate.

Daily Links

  • Photos of Taiwan in French archives that most of you will not have seen, sent by a friend: “These 32 pages are a reprint, in 1898, shortly after the Treaty of Shimonseki in 1895, of a small part of the work (including the account of a trip by William Hancock) on the island of Formosa in Camille Imbault-Huart (1857-1897) French diplomat and orientalist. This booklet, poorly printed, is above all a reminder to the opportune upload in 2016 by the Department of Prints and Photography of the BNF of the entire original iconographic file of the book – including several photographs by St-J. H. Edwards and John Thomson: 18 drawings and maps, 67 albumen album photographs, among the very first on the island.”
  • Reuters: Taiwan deploys more troops to South China Sea, gets approval for submarine tech from US
  • Global Taiwan Institute podcast with Didi Kirsten Tatlow on Hong Kong and implications for Taiwan.
  • Can semiconductors shield Taiwan? People somehow imagine that Beijing is going to be rational when it considers invading Taiwan. You know, the way that Japan was rational in avoiding attacking the US, the nation it depended on for oil, metals, and machine tools, among others, or the way Nazi Germany didn’t attack Soviet Russia because it was dependent on Russia for food and other war-critical islands. Economic dependence does not make you safe — it makes you more threatened.

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