Taking Taiwan's Pulse on Nuclear Power
An Ambivalent No to Nuclear Four
Popular pressure has forced Taiwan's fourth nuclear power plant to be put on hold. CommonWealth Magazine's latest survey looks more closely at what the public was thinking and if it is ready for the consequences.
An Ambivalent No to Nuclear FourBy Wu Ting-feng, Kwangyin Liu, Jung-Shin Ho
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 546 )
This controversial project has been around for 30 years, but its future has come to a head.
The storm over Taiwan's nearly completed fourth nuclear power plant, known formally as the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant and colloquially in Chinese as "Nuclear Four," has again enshrouded the country. This time, former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Lin Yi-hsiung went on a hunger strike to protest the plant, thousands of people protested on Taipei's streets, and President Ma Ying-jeou eventually bowed to public pressure, agreeing on April 27 to mothball the facility and let future generations decide its fate.
The activists opposed to continuing work on and operating the facility insisted that popular opinion was on their side, but what do people in Taiwan really think?
To find out, CommonWealth Magazine conducted a poll by telephone over three nights from April 23 to 25 and found that 59 percent of respondents supported stopping construction on the fourth nuclear power plant, 27 percent supported continuing it, and 14 percent had no opinion. (Table 1)
"Stopping work on the fourth nuclear power plant has become a popular consensus supported by a stable majority," says National Taiwan University political science professor Wang Yeh-li, interpreting the results of this recent poll.
Yet the results also reflected some contradictions. The Ministry of Economic Affairs has said that if the plant is not operated and nuclear power is eliminated in Taiwan, electricity prices will increase by 40 percent. CommonWealth Magazine asked respondents if they could accept that. More than half, 58 percent, said they could not, while 37 percent said they could. (Table 2)
The result revealed respondents' ambivalence – 59 percent supported the plant's shutdown, but 58 percent were unwilling to accept the potential consequence of higher electricity prices.
Brave Choice, Bravely Pay the Price
That dichotomy underpinned Premier Jiang Yi-huah's worries about a national referendum on the plant.
"If a referendum is held to decide the fate of the fourth nuclear power plant, the problems related to electricity prices and power rationing have to be clearly explained," he said at the Legislative Yuan.
A cross-analysis of the results revealed that among the respondents who favored a moratorium on the plant, 46 percent said they could accept a 40 percent hike in electricity rates, while 50 percent said they could not.
A public that wants to block the plant but does not want to pay the resulting price of higher power rates represents a classic policy stalemate. Based on the experiences of other countries, eliminating nuclear power has often led to increases in electricity bills. If the public advocates keeping Nuclear Four closed but is unwilling to bear the consequences, the country's energy policy will only face more challenges. And responsible citizens should choose to shoulder the costs.
So are the Taiwanese people really prepared to pay the price for stopping work on the fourth nuclear power plant?
Actually, there are several reasons a majority of respondents may have not been willing to accept a 40 percent spike in electricity rates, Wang says.
"It could be that some people are skeptical of officials' contention that a 40 percent hike will be necessary, or they may want the government to develop alternative energy more aggressively," he explains.
Irving Huang, chairman of Tamkang University's Department of Public Administration, says that from an economic perspective, the 46 percent of those against the fourth nuclear power plant who were willing to accept higher power rates was "quite a high ratio."
On issues involving personal finances, Huang explains, most people tend to act in their own interests and resist measures that take money from their pocketbooks. If, after weighing the issue, nearly half the Nuclear Four opponents were willing to pay the price for their choice, that represents a signal the government should heed, Huang contends.
The Survey in Context
This survey was conducted within the context of two important factors.
First, to keep the poll from simply reflecting gut reactions to a single question, CommonWealth Magazine designed the survey's questionnaire to elicit the views of respondents on nuclear power-related issues, such as safety and nuclear waste disposal, and the possible consequences of scrapping the fourth nuclear power plant, such as higher electricity prices and power shortages. It then asked respondents for their opinions on a referendum on the controversial plant and whether work on the facility should continue or be halted.
Second, the poll was conducted just after Lin began his hunger strike on April 22. During the three days the survey was conducted, the Ministry of Economic Affairs presented a briefing on Taiwan's electricity capacity that was harshly criticized by anti-nuclear groups, and on the same day President Ma and DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang publicly locked horns on the issue. Those external events may have influenced respondents' answers.
So what is it that has led mainstream public opinion to favor stopping work on the fourth nuclear power plant? The answer in two words: nuclear safety.
The Lingering Shadow of Fukushima
The survey found that 65 percent of respondents did not believe the government could ensure the safety of the fourth nuclear power plant, compared with 23 percent who did, an extremely big disparity. (Table 3)
Even more notable, of the multiple choice answers to the question, the option most chosen by respondents (35 percent) was that they "completely disbelieve" the government can manage the plant safely, even higher than the 30 percent who "don't particularly believe," reflecting the intensity of the public's safety concerns.
On nuclear waste disposal, 68 percent of respondents said the government was not capable of dealing with nuclear waste, compared with 20 percent who said it was. (Table 4)
With respondents deeply concerned about nuclear safety, it was only natural that they would lean against operating the fourth nuclear power plant.
In fact, the public's loss of confidence in the government's nuclear safety pledges reflects an international trend. According to Ulrich Beck, a prominent German sociologist known for his research on risk, the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011 sent a clear message: governments can only deal with smaller-scale "normal" accidents with finite scopes but are ineffective at managing the risk associated with catastrophes that are "unlimited in space, time and the social dimension."
That heightened anxiety over nuclear safety has only put greater pressure on the government to provide transparent information and has subjected whatever information is released to greater scrutiny.
The survey confirmed that impression, with nearly 80 percent of respondents describing the information on nuclear power provided by the government as "not detailed." Only about 10 percent said the government had satisfied the people's "right to know." (Table 5)
Nuclear power represents an issue where the risks have to be communicated, and because major risk trade-offs are involved, public policies must be based on open information that addresses both the positive and negative sides of nuclear power.
Huang says that when a policy is discussed, the stakeholders involved should understand each other's preferences and level of acceptance before seeking consensus. Problems arise when the government dominates the discourse with top-down propaganda, making the conversation one-sided. This is not only ineffective but can easily fuel opposition when dealing with a highly sensitive public policy issue.
"Has the government released all negative information related to the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant? If Taiwan Power Co. volunteers this unfavorable information, isn't that in conflict with its role?" Huang asks, referring to the state-run utility responsible for the country's electricity generation and its nuclear power plants.
Huang believes Taipower's role is simply to execute policy and that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Taiwan's nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Council, should be the ones responsible for releasing all information, whether good or bad. But neither agency has done that so far, Huang contends.
Power Rationing a More Acceptable Option
The future of the fourth nuclear power plant has implications for the country's electricity supply and overall energy policy. Shuttering the facility could result in some difficult choices and potentially adverse consequences.
After former DPP chairman Lin began his hunger strike and Taiwan's anti-nuclear wave crested, former president Lee Teng-hui framed the questions as: "What will be used to generate electricity?" "How will industry develop?" and "How will people make a living?"
Lee's questions reflected the skepticism most often directed at anti-nuclear activists. Rock Hsu, chairman of the Chinese National Federation of Industries, wonders, if Taiwan decides not to move forward with nuclear power, "are the government and the public prepared for high electricity prices?"
That is why, in conducting its survey, CommonWealth Magazine was eager to gauge the public's willingness to pay a potential price for permanently halting Nuclear Four.
At present, nuclear power accounts for 18.8 percent of Taiwan's electricity production and renewable energy another 4.5 percent, according to Taipower figures. Taiwan's three active nuclear power plants are scheduled to be decommissioned between 2018 and 2025. The fourth nuclear power plant, with more than half the installed capacity of the first three plants, was expected to pick up some of the slack. Without it, the country could also experience a power shortage, something that a majority of respondents seemed prepared to deal with.
Asked if they could accept power rationing were the shutdown of the fourth nuclear power plant to result in a shortage of electricity, 54 percent of respondents said they could, compared with 40 percent who said they couldn't. (Table 6)
The finding indicated that people would be more accepting of power rationing than a 40 percent hike in electricity prices were nuclear power to become a thing of the past.
That still leaves former president Lee's question about future economic development and Rock Hsu's concern about attracting investment, which deal with the more sensitive question of how a nuclear-free Taiwan would cope economically.
The Lesser of Two Evils
The government has said in the past that if the fourth nuclear power plant is not brought online, it would be necessary to extend the lives of Taiwan's three active nuclear power plants, an alternative that seemed palatable to many respondents.
Some 48 percent said they could accept the idea, against 36 percent who said they could not and 16 percent who had no opinion. (Table 7)
That indicates that relative to the unknowns involved with the fourth nuclear power plant, respondents felt more comfortable extending the service life of Taiwan's three active plants, which have been around as long as 35 years, rather than accepting moderate potential power price hikes or power outages.
Tamkang University's Huang cautions, however, that opting for keeping the existing power plants in service does not eliminate the nuclear power risk but instead simply transfers it elsewhere. The public must understand that running the old plants longer is simply the lesser of two evils, he contends.
Looking at the survey results above from a broader perspective, it appears that if the fourth nuclear power plant is shut down indefinitely, the public is most willing to ration power to deal with the consequences, followed by extending the service life of Taiwan's three active nuclear power plants. Less palatable is a 40 percent hike in electricity prices, which does not have majority support.
Germany has already begun its journey on the non-nuclear road, leading to repeated hikes in power rates. That should have Taiwan's public prepared for the same prospect should the controversial Nuclear Four be shuttered for good.
Hold a Referendum to End the Discord
CommonWealth's survey found that a stable majority of Taiwan's citizens have little appetite for operating the nearly completed power plant and that their preferences are relatively clear as to how to deal with the potential consequences. The results also indicated that the time may have arrived to reach a conclusion on the project's fate, indicated by the 77 percent of respondents who supported the idea of holding a national referendum on the fourth nuclear power plant and the 49 percent who felt it should be held this year. (Table 8)
"This suggests that many people don't want the issue to drag on. The longer it drags on, the more it will lead to social instability," says NTU's Wang. The ongoing acrimony over the plant, rife with rhetoric and a lack of rational debate, and authorities' inability to reach a decision has left many unwilling to tolerate any further social costs being expended on the issue, Wang contends.
With the Nuclear Four controversy having already spanned three presidents without a resolution, Taiwan may have little social capital left to waste on the controversy, and a referendum seems to be the only real common ground between rival political parties.
Even that, however, presents difficulties. Taiwan's Referendum Act requires that at least 50 percent of the country's eligible voters must cast ballots for a referendum to be valid, a threshold that Premier Jiang acknowledges is relatively strict and that Wang says remains an obstacle. He suggests that the government consider lowering the threshold to make referendum a more viable arbiter on the issue.
Huang stresses that the government's construction of the fourth nuclear power plant has been conducted according to the law, but he argues that if surveys indicate that shuttering the plant is mainstream public opinion, then everybody needs to face up to "the huge chasm between representative politics and direct public opinion."
Adjusting Taiwan's Energy Structure
At the heart of the debate over the fourth nuclear power plant is the perception of risk. Supporting or opposing the plant is less a battle over the "truth" than a battle over differences in people's views of the risk the facility poses.
Huang suggests that the government should take advantage of the gradual crystallization of public opinion on the issue to improve communications and defuse the antagonistic relationship between the government and anti-nuclear activists. "Otherwise, a referendum that lacks a basic consensus will only result in continued division," he says.
Even more importantly, Taiwan has only just begun to develop the renewable energies that are playing increasingly important roles in advanced economies. Adjusting the country's energy policy appears to be more pressing than ever.
The CommonWealth Magazine survey found that only 43 percent of respondents were confident in the government's ability to develop renewable energies to gradually replace nuclear energy, compared with 49 percent who lacked such confidence, an indication that the public is not as bullish on renewable energy as it might be. (Table 9)
Figuring out how to adjust Taiwan's energy structure in the future will require a dialogue between political parties and all walks of society to achieve a consensus.
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, nuclear power's share of the country's power generation went from 28.6 percent to a mere 1.7 percent overnight, but renewable energy still has only a 1.6 percent share. More recently, because it cannot accept such high dependence on imported energy, the Japanese government is planning to restart several nuclear power plants and restore its importance in the country's energy mix. It's a lesson that Taiwan may have to learn.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
About the Survey
The public opinion survey was conducted by the CommonWealth Survey Center between 6:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. on April 23-25, 2014, covering residents throughout Taiwan, as well as the outlying island counties of Penghu, Jinmen and Lianjiang. A total of 1,069 valid responses were obtained via telephone using random sampling of the last two digits of residential telephone numbers. The poll has a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. All information was weighted to reflect Taiwan's regional, age and gender distribution, based on March 2014 data from the Department of Household Registration, Ministry of the Interior.