By: Jens Kastner

An overenthusiastic electorate appears to have shattered Taiwan’s energy policy with referendum results that have stipulated the end of the end of nuclear power generation and obliged the government to shelve additional coal-fired plants over air-pollution and electricity shortage concerns. Opposition to wind and solar power facilities as well as additional LNG terminals and storage tanks is also high.

Accompanying the November 27 elections in which the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was drubbed, with the Kuomintang winning 13 jurisdictions while the DPP won only six, voters put 10 referenda on the ballot dealing with gay rights and other issues in addition to the energy measures. The ones dealing with power succeeded in stipulating that thermal power plants should cut their output by at least 1 percent per year, that Taiwan establish an energy policy not to build any new coal-fired plants, that foods from Japanese areas affected by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and nuclear plant meltdown should continue to be banned, and that an earlier edict that all nuclear plants cease operations in Taiwan by 2025 is nullified. 

The four passed resoundingly, leaving the government with daunting stumbling blocks in every direction.

To begin with, two of Taiwan’s three existing nuclear power plants can neither simply keep running beyond 2025 nor be decommissioned, owing to a lack of interim storage facilities for spent fuel rods. Any extension of service life or decommissioning would entail removing the spent fuel rods from the reactors to on-site interim storages, but local government is withholding permits over fears that “interim” would turn into “permanent,” given that Taiwan has yet to find a final disposal site. Its only existing one, on outlying Orchid Island, hasn’t accepted additional nuclear waste since 1996. 

“The construction of a platform for the [interim] dry storage casks of the Jinshan plant [No.1, in New Taipei City] has been completed long time ago, but the local municipal government refuses to grant the license, as it does with the construction permit of the platform of the Guosheng plant [No.2, also in New Taipei City],” said Lee Min, the nuclear engineering professor who initiated the pro-nuclear referendum, in an interview with Asia Sentinel.

“The storage of spent nuclear fuel in the dry cask is a common practice around the world, meaning the refusal to grant licenses is a purely political issue,” he added. Lee stressed that of 454 nuclear reactors operated around the world, 94 have been operating for more than 40 years, making them older than Taiwan’s oldest nuclear power plant Jinshan, which went into service in 1978.

In the US, he says, 84 of 98 units in operation have licenses of 60 years, and the US’s Turkey Point and Peach Bottom plants have just submitted their respective application for life extensions to 80 years.

“All operating records of all Taiwanese plants are definitely good enough to qualify for life extensions to 60 years,” Lee said.

But Lee’s main antagonist, Green Consumers’ Foundation chairman Jay Fang, argues that if New Taipei City were hit by a similar disaster to Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in 2011, it would require a 1,000 km-radius evacuation.

Fang’s estimation is based on the comparatively large number of fuel rods – over 15,000 bundled in Jinshang and Guosheng combined, totaling over 2,500 tonnes of uranium.

He says that evacuations could potentially be needed in Shanghai as well, depending on wind activity if and when a disaster occurs.

“There is no other country regulator that allows more than two decades of over-density of spent fuel rods crowded in the spent fuel pools beyond original safety design,” Fang told Asia Sentinel.

The genie is out of the bottle

Simona A. Grano, a senior lecturer at the Department of Sinology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who has recently done research on Taiwan’s environmental NGOs, said the referendum result could be seen as an indication that Taiwan’s society is losing progressiveness, given the island’s lack of energy resources.

On the other hand, she noted that the environmental movements were closely aligned with the DPP in the 1980s and 90s when the Kuomintang ruled by martial law although ties soured when the DPP was the governing party (2000-8) as it stuck to industrial and energy policies detrimental to the environment.

“After the DPP then regained power in 2016, it again betrayed the environmental groups by reactivating nuclear reactors as a response to large-scale power outages in the summer of 2017,” Grano said.

NIMBY

“This is hand in hand with local movements across the island opposing wind and solar installations over the perceived spoiling of the natural landscape,” she added.

Similarly, under pressure by anti-air pollution sentiment, the government in October shelved a project to expand capacity at an existing coal-fired in New Taipei City, arguing that the completion of a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal nearby would make the expansion to the coal-fired plant unnecessary.

However, although LNG causes much less air pollution than coal, residents have vehemently opposed additional LNG terminals and big LNG storage tanks, their emotions fueled by an industrial gas pipeline explosion in 2014 that destroyed a part of the southern city of Kaohsiung. 

Fang predicts that generation with nuclear, coal and gas will prevail over renewables, “owing to fuel procurement facilitating kickbacks.”  But although renewables passed the 10 gigawatt-mark this year, he expects their expansion in the energy mix to be hindered by Taiwan’s outdated grids.

“Renewables involve much lower voltages than conventional sources, and Taiwan is far from having the smart grids that are needed to handle this,” Fang said.

That confluence of conditions leaves the island with few choices if it is to remain competitive. Currently, according to a study by Huang Yophy, Jeffrey Yunghang Bor and Peng Chieh-yu, per-capita power consumption of 9,500 kwh is 3.7 times the world average. Energy use is rising at a rate of 5.5 percent annually. Something is going to have to give.

Jens Kastner is a Taiwan-based regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.