TAIPEI - A year after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Taiwan finds itself, like many countries around the world, having to make a difficult choice between retreating from nuclear energy or committing further to it.
Yet no other country faces quite the same set of circumstances shared by the two East Asian neighbors, a combination of need and risk that guarantees whatever decision is made will be painful.
Although Taiwan has never suffered an accident like Fukushima, the crisis has cast a pall over Taiwan’s existing nuclear facilities and plans for future development, and has caused the government of President Ma Ying-jeou to adjust its position as it tries to navigate between public opinion and energy reality.
Taiwan has three nuclear power stations, two in the north and one in the south. All have operated safely and profitably for many years while providing nearly 20 percent of the island’s electricity.
But the facilities are getting old — the oldest is slated for decommissioning in 2018 and another in 2019.
Construction of a fourth plant began in 1998 in New Taipei City on the northeast coast, but various shutdowns due to engineering problems and policy reversals have delayed its completion.
The builder and operator of the facility, Taiwan Power Co., recently agreed to hire Japanese technicians to resolve problems discovered during construction, with officials hoping the new facility will become operational by 2014.
These technicians will be available because of the Japanese government’s freeze on new nuclear projects following the Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns — a policy many in Taiwan wish their government would also adopt.
Many of the arguments against the new plant in New Taipei City are the same ones made by opponents of nuclear energy worldwide. Some say it is too expensive, with overruns pushing the cost to nearly 300 billion New Taiwan dollars ($10 billion), nearly double initial projections.
Others point to the irresolvable problems of radiation leaks and disposal of nuclear waste.
Some criticize the facility because of its proximity to the island’s densely populated north. Others point out the length of time the project has taken to complete, meaning that its design and equipment have already become outdated.
Taiwanese authorities have tried to address the concerns, heightening official oversight and granting access to the press and nongovernmental agencies. A temporary facility for low-level radioactive waste is already operating on Orchid Island off Taiwan’s southeastern coast and the first interim dry storage facility for spent fuel rods will be completed at the reactor site in the latter part of this year for operation from 2013.
Opponents are skeptical, however, and none more so than those who live near the new plant. They question the lack of a comprehensive disaster-management plan and express a deep distrust of authorities from whom they foresee the same slack regulation and industry-government collusion that doomed Fukushima No. 1.
“A lesson we learn from Japan’s nuclear disaster is that we can only depend on ourselves,” said a local resident who gave only his surname, Wu.
Of course, the most glaring similarity with Japan is not Taiwan’s regulatory shortcomings, but their mutual geological instability — both are at the convergence of major tectonic plates on the western Pacific Rim.
The Fukushima accident occurred after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck one of those fault lines, triggering the massive tsunami that wrecked the plant. Similar natural disasters have occurred in Taiwan in the past and some worry about history repeating itself.
Proponents of the New Taipei City power plant defend the project by pointing to the nuclear industry’s safety record, which they say is second to none as reactors are constructed at extremely high standards, subjected to extensive testing and have multiple redundancies in their backup systems.
Indeed, proponents point out that “disaster” is a misnomer for what occurred at Fukushima as most of the damage and loss of life was caused by the earthquake and tsunami, while the No. 1 plant’s reactors and their technicians averted a wider catastrophe despite extreme conditions on the ground.
The most compelling argument in favor of nuclear development in Taiwan is again one it shares with Japan — there is little alternative.
As a modern industrial economy, Taiwan, like its neighbor, depends on cheap, reliable electrical power while possessing virtually no indigenous sources of fuel for generation.
Taiwan imports 99 percent of its energy, most of it coal, oil and natural gas. If it phases out nuclear power production by 2025, as critics propose, the Ministry of Economic Affairs estimates the additional cost to generate electricity with alternative energy sources would be more than NT$480 billion from 2014 to 2030.
If the electricity generated by the three nuclear power plants were eliminated, reserve capacity would drop from 20 percent to 6 percent, Taipower claims.
Wu Tsai-yi, superintendent of the Taiwan Research Institute and one of Ma’s energy advisers, dismisses opposition party proposals for a nuclear-free Taiwan by 2025 as unrealistic.
The security and stability of other energy supplies are not guaranteed, he said, and new sources would require massive investment in technology of the sorts touted by advocates of renewable energy, mainly solar and wind.
To date, these technologies don’t have the capacity to replace nuclear or fossil fuels and it is unlikely they will anytime soon.
In the meantime, Taiwan, like Japan, needs power, and it needs to be assured of that power for the foreseeable future.
This leaves the Ma government unwilling to promise any across-the-board shutdown as in Germany or even a conditional withdrawal as in Japan.
The New Taipei City nuclear generating facility will proceed, with Ma and the various agencies of his administration seeking to reassure the public, and itself, this is the best way forward.