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Taiwan's Nuclear Dilemma

Coping with Nuclear Power's Downsides


Coping with Nuclear Power's Downsides


Taiwan faces considerable risks if it blocks completion of its fourth nuclear power plant. But operating the plant may pose just as many questions, judging from other countries' experiences.



Coping with Nuclear Power's Downsides

By Yuan Chou, Sophie Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 517 )

At the end of January, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou met Andre-Claude Lacoste, the former president of France's nuclear safety authority, hoping to learn from France's experience to enhance nuclear power safety in Taiwan.

Ma praised the scale of France's nuclear power generation and the people's support for nuclear energy. During the discussion, rising anti-nuclear sentiment in France was only touched on briefly.

Unmentioned was an article in French daily Le Monde in February 2012 titled "Taiwan: Nuclear Power's Sorcerer's Apprentice," which portrayed Taiwan's nuclear waste storage as severely inadequate, chaotic and potentially extremely dangerous.

As Taiwan prepares for a referendum on the fate of the nearly completed Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant on the island's northeastern coast, an anti-nuclear wave is sweeping the world. Governments and citizens around the globe have kindled major shifts in attitudes on nuclear power, but Taiwan still suffers from misconceptions on the issue's evolution abroad. 

Misconception No. 1: France is a nuclear power model

Fact: France is reducing its nuclear power capacity faster than Germany

France gets more of its electricity from nuclear power (over 75 percent) than any other country in the world, according to World Nuclear Association figures, but that will soon decline.

Mycle Schneider, who visited Taiwan in November 2012 at the invitation of the Green Citizens' Action Alliance, is an expert on French nuclear policy and in 1997 won a "Right Livelihood Award," which is often referred to as the "Alternate Nobel Prize."

In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Schneider immediately set the record straight, saying, "There has always been the myth that all the French love nuclear energy, which was never true."

Before the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in March 2011, French public opinion on nuclear power was evenly split, but following the disaster, nearly three-quarters of the public favored abolishing nuclear power.

When French President Francois Hollande took power in May 2012, he became the first French president in history to support scaling back nuclear power generation. His energy policy envisions cutting nuclear power to 50 percent of the country's electricity mix by 2025, which will involve decommissioning at least 20 of France's oldest 58 nuclear plants without replacing them with new capacity.

If France sticks to Hollande's phaseout plan, it will shutter nuclear plants at a faster pace than Germany, which plans to close nine nuclear power facilities by 2022.

Hollande even promised to decommission two older nuclear power plants during his term. An ongoing debate on the country's energy policy is expected to reach a conclusion by July, and if the Socialist government's position on scaling back nuclear power remains unchanged, a nuclear power station scheduled to be completed in Normandy in 2016 will be the last to be built in France.

Yet can a country in which three out of every four light bulbs are powered by nuclear energy so easily reduce or eliminate its dependence on the power of the atom?

Schneider contends that as early as the 1980s, the French government realized that its nuclear energy policy had gone overboard, generating far more electricity than was needed. But the government did not want to shutter new nuclear power projects, Schneider says, so it decided to pump up energy demand through a number of measures, including installing heating devices at public venues.

As a result, every winter, for every 1 degree Celsius fall in the temperature, France consumes an additional 2.3 million kilowatts of power per hour, roughly the generating capacity of a new nuclear power plant and four to eight times power consumption's sensitivity to temperature seen in neighboring countries, Schneider says. With nuclear energy so abundant, the French have no incentive to conserve energy, which ultimately results in a more fragile electricity system.

Misconception No. 2: Japan Must Have Nuclear Power

Fact: Japan survived without nuclear power for 670 days

Following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, the country's 50 nuclear reactors were shut down for safety checks and only two have resumed operations. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has clearly indicated that nuclear power is an indispensable part of his country's energy mix.

At the beginning of January, Abe said his government will endorse the construction of new nuclear plants, and, in a policy speech to the Diet on Feb. 28, he pledged to restart idled nuclear power facilities as long as they met new safety guidelines.

In reversing the policy of his predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, to phase out the use of nuclear power in Japan, Abe advocated assessing within three years whether the country's idled plants meet the new safety regulations.

That may be overly optimistic. Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun found in a survey of the country's utilities that none of Japan's 16 undamaged nuclear power plants currently meet the more stringent safety guidelines. The New York Times reported that it could be many years before some of the plants are restarted because of the tough standards and high costs of implementing them.

Even with Abe's high popularity, his support for nuclear power may have trouble overcoming rising anti-nuclear sentiment in his country, especially because local governments have the final say on whether or not nuclear power plants can be restarted.

Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, whose town lies 25 kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant site and had to be evacuated after the plant's meltdowns, was one of the first to criticize Abe's approach.

"Is it the ideas of Abe and his government or the ideas of people like us living in the disaster area that better reflect reality?" he asked.

Polls indicate that nearly 80 percent of Japanese oppose nuclear power, which is why only two of the country's 50 reactors have been restarted since they were idled following the nuclear disaster. Global energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie said it doubted any other reactors would resume operations this year.

Before the nuclear disaster occurred, nuclear power accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's electricity generation. After the accident, the country completed its nuclear shutdown by May 5, 2011. It then restarted the Ohi Nuclear Power Plant (located in Western Japan north of Kyoto and Osaka) on July 1, 2012 but has essentially survived without almost no nuclear power for 670 days and counting.

Japan has compensated for the loss by greater reliance on thermal power plants using liquefied natural gas and oil, leading to an increase in annual energy costs of 3 trillion yen (NT$930 billion; US$31.2 billion) and record-breaking trade deficits that have hurt the country's economy.

But it has also sparked a concerted nationwide campaign to conserve energy. The penetration rate of LED lighting in the Japanese market has risen to 50 percent, and the country's solar power market has become one of the world's four biggest, trailing only Germany, China and the United States.

At the end of last year, Taiwan's Bureau of Energy led a delegation of domestic solar cell manufacturers to Japan in search of opportunities, and companies such as Motech Industries and Gintech Energy Corp. have experienced strong sales as demand in Japan has grown.

If Taiwan were to join the energy conservation wave, it could have similar results, at least according to one market intelligence provider.

In a recent report, TrendForce Corp. said lighting accounts for 18 percent of Taiwan's total energy consumption and estimated that converting half of the country's lighting to LEDs would save half the power that would be generated by the nearly completed fourth nuclear plant. A 100 percent LED penetration rate would save the power currently generated by Taiwan's first and second nuclear power plants, the report contended.

Misconception 3: Nuclear Costs Low

Fact: Costs of Managing Nuclear Waste Higher than Imagined

Almost all developed countries rely on cheap nuclear power to prop up their economies. Attracted by that same promise of inexpensive electricity, India wants to expand its use of nuclear energy, and Vietnam and Indonesia are currently planning nuclear power installations. 

But they will have to factor in the hidden costs of nuclear energy, which appear to be higher than many have estimated. Recent problems in managing nuclear waste in Germany and the United States clearly illustrate those costs.

The biggest nuclear waste storage facility in the United States, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the state of Washington, was built during World War II. Two-thirds of America's radioactive waste is stored there in 177 tanks, but the integrity of those tanks, which contain radioactive liquid and sludge, have now come into question. Governor Jay Inslee announced on Feb. 22 that six of the underground tanks had been leaking waste for undetermined periods of time.

"There is no immediate or near-term health risk associated with these newly discovered leaks," Inslee said, but he also acknowledged that it was unclear how much sludge had leaked and that there was no available technology to plug the leaks.

Five days later, on Feb. 27, Inslee put the rate of leakage at about 1,000 gallons of waste a year per tank.

The United States spends US$2 billion to US$3.5 billion a year – roughly a third of its waste treatment budget for the entire country – to manage Hanford's 53 million gallons of radioactive waste generated by weapons production at the site during World War II and throughout the Cold War. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that cleaning up the leaks will take decades and cost more than US$100 billion.

Germany's Soaring Nuclear Cleanup Bill

Moving to Europe, Germany announced in 2011 that it would scrap nuclear power and further develop renewable sources of energy. It is already the world's biggest solar power market, though by the end of 2011, solar power still only accounted for 3 percent of the country's total power output, according to the Bundesverband Solarwirtschaft, a solar power lobby group.

Part of the impetus to move away from nuclear power was the problem of dealing with waste. Der Spiegel, which has reported for years on leaks of radioactive waste at the Asse II salt mine, wrote in February that many of the126,000 barrels of nuclear waste dumped at the site over the past 50 years have been rotting away since possibly the 1980s.

The German government is studying how to retrieve the waste buried deep in the mine and store it somewhere else, but the technical obstacles are daunting. To avoid setting off an explosion of gases that have potentially built up in underground cavities, for example, drills must operate at extremely slow speeds as they try to bore a hole into one of the excavation chambers of the mine that contain the rotting drums. Der Spiegel reported that the effort would cost at least 4 billion euros (NT$154 billion), but more likely somewhere between 5 billion and 10 billion euros.

A Hole the Size of Three Daan Parks

Dealing with nuclear waste has even become a hot-button diplomatic issue. A report published in the American journal New Scientist noted that there are 437 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries around the world, but not one repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The article said finding a site with a volunteer community and consenting neighbors and that is geologically suitable is fraught with difficulties, citing, among others, the experience in Cumbria in the United Kingdom. In February, the Cumbria County Council vetoed a plan for a nuclear waste repository that had seemed to have local support over concerns about tourism in its lake district and possible future leaks. That has left England in the same bind as other countries around the world.

Looking at the bill for managing and storing the nuclear waste generated by Taiwan's three operating nuclear power plants, state-run utility Taiwan Power Co. has estimated the cost at NT$335.3 billion, roughly NT$15,000 per capita for essentially dumping garbage.

If one calculates the costs based on the more exacting standard for nuclear waste storage adopted by Finland, which seems to be close to opening the world's first nuclear waste repository, then the cost per capita in Taiwan would rise to NT$25,000, without any guarantees that there will not still be concerns.

Like other countries, Taiwan does not have a repository for high-level nuclear waste, with much of it currently buried underground at the power plants themselves. The 100,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste buried on the remote Orchid Island off Taiwan's southeastern coast has also sparked resistance.

Storing all of the high-level radioactive waste that has been produced or could be produced in the future by Taiwan's four nuclear plants (if the fourth nuclear power plant becomes operational) would require an 85-hectare underground repository that is 500 meters deep, the equivalent of three underground Daan Forest Parks or two Taipei 101s.

These are all issues that Taiwanese citizens must consider before casting a vote on the future of the country's fourth nuclear power plant.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier