Nukes Or No Nukes? Taiwan Searches For Answers

Taiwan’s government has cooled anti-nuclear protests by agreeing to stop construction of two reactors at an unfinished power plant. But because the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou rarely caves to protests – consider its continued resolve to sign deals with China despite occupation of the legislature – the no-nukes camp is raising questions about the change of course. “Whether nuclear power is going forward or not, we haven’t gotten a clear answer,” says Chiu Hua-mei, anti-nuclear activist and assistant sociology professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.

The tentative conclusion: Ma is putting nuclear power on hold to keep protesters from melting down the ruling Nationalist Party’s odds of winning the 2016 presidential race.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident in Japan after the earthquake of March 2011, tens to hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese have held a series of colorful demonstrations demanding that their island’s $9.3 billion fourth plant stop after 15 years of off-again, on-again construction. Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, they say, and the 23 million population is too dense to withstand an accident. Now the no-nukes movement is mainstream. Neighborhood cafes in Taipei give away no-nukes stickers, and some people walking down the streets on normal days sport the protest campaign’s signature black-and-yellow armbands or bandanas. From 55% to 70% of Taiwanese oppose nuclear power, surveys have found. The government couldn’t pretend the issue was a marginal one.

After three days of late April protests that rallied tens of thousands behind a former opposition party chairman’s hunger strike, the cabinet suddenly said work on the unfinished nuclear plant’s first reactor would stop and would go into “protective storage” after safety checks. Work on a second reactor will be stopped, the cabinet said, and whether to resume will depend on the results of a voter referendum. The government froze construction to “keep energy options open for the next generation,” it said in an April 28 statement, citing Premier Jiang Yi-huah.

“Presently, many people who take an anti-nuclear-energy stance do not believe the (No. 4 power plant) is safe and are demanding the immediate abrogation of the facility,” the statement says. “However, studies received by government agencies show that scrapping (the plant) and terminating operations of the nation’s first three nuclear plants would have severe ramifications for Taiwan’s energy supply.” About 12% of Taiwan’s power comes from nuclear energy.

No-nuke advocates have left the streets to seek meaning in the premier’s comments. They want to know how government-run utility company Taiwan Power will ensure safety of the first reactor and pay for preserving it. Money for preservation might be better spent developing the island’s mere trickle of renewable energy, the advocacy group National Nuclear Abolition Action Platform says. The power company may also expand one of Taiwan’s three existing plants, the anti-nuclear platform fears. Taiwan Power advocates nuclear energy as a cleaner, cheaper alternative to fossil fuel imports, the majority source today. “Our interpretation of the government’s statement is that the option for nuclear energy is not completely ruled out, although the construction of nuke 4 was halted,” a spokeswoman for the platform said in a statement for this blog.

But more than anything, no-nuke activists want answers about the prospect of a referendum. Passing a ballot initiative in Taiwan requires turnout of half the eligible voters followed by a majority vote in favor. As loud as the anti-nuclear cause is, no small number of Taiwanese are quietly apathetic about the issue, killing prospects of a 50% turnout. Opposition leaders, who are allied with the no-nuke movement, want laws changed to make a referendum easier. “Whether there will be enough voter turnout to make the referendum valid, that has been the (government’s) major point of contention with the opposition,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence.

A continued impasse on the referendum law would mean no ballot initiative until at least 2016, the opposition’s next chance to take the presidency and a legislative majority.

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