Phasing Out Nuclear Power in Taiwan

A “nuclear free homeland” may be the goal of both major political parties. The difference is how – and how fast – to achieve it.

Few would deny that nuclear power has been vital to Taiwan’s development into an industrial powerhouse. Always highly dependent on imported energy, primarily crude oil, Taiwan responded to the oil crises of the 1970s by embracing nuclear power as a way to at least partially insulate itself from the vagaries of the global oil market.

Nuclear power was always controversial, though. Especially following the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979 and Chernobyl’s actual meltdown in 1986, nuclear power was increasingly viewed as a hazard by large segments of the public. The government’s staunch defense of nuclear energy turned the power source into a symbol of the top-down decision-making characteristic of an authoritarian regime that seemed to favor industrialization over social welfare.

Opposition to nuclear power in Taiwan became intertwined with dissatisfaction with the prevailing political system, and from its very beginnings the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) “vowed to challenge the KMT’s pro-nuclear stance,” according to a study by Ho Ming-sho, a sociologist on the faculty of Nanhua University, that was published in the journal Modern Asia Studies under the title “The Politics of Anti-Nuclear Protest in Taiwan: A Case of Party-Dependent Movement.” One of the first major moves made by Chen Shui-bian after being inaugurated as president was to stop construction of the fourth nuclear power plant (NPP4) in Longmen, New Taipei City. Later the project was reinstated – in the face of overwhelming opposition in the legislature and despite a ruling by the Council of Grand Justices that the decision to halt construction, though not unconstitutional, was procedurally flawed.

The government’s staunch defense of nuclear energy turned the power source into a symbol of the top-down decision-making characteristic of an authoritarian regime that seemed to favor industrialization over social welfare.

What followed for the Longmen plant was a decade of monumental cost overruns, with the total cost of the project now put at NT$283 billion (US$9.3 billion). Lawsuits among the various contractors and subcontractors, allegations of shoddy construction, and a host of other widely publicized ills transformed the plant into a lightning rod for antinuclear sentiment. The controversy continued into the Ma administration, which assured the public that the plant would go into operation only if the safety could be unequivocally assured.

Antinuclear sentiment rose as President Ma Ying-jeou’s popularity waned and the horrors of the Fukushima disaster in neighboring Japan seized media attention. Massive protests against the Longmen plant occurred in 2012, 2013, and 2014, with opponents of nuclear energy stressing the numerous risk factors Taiwan shares with Japan. They predicted that a similar disaster at one of the nuclear plants in northern Taiwan could force an evacuation from Taipei, the political and business capital. The government responded in 2014 by indefinitely suspending construction of the NPP4, though it was more than 90% completed, and ruling that the ultimate fate of the plant would be decided by popular referendum. No such referendum has yet been held due to interparty disputes over how it should be organized.

Construction of nuclear power plant NPP4 in Longmen

Opposition to nuclear power has now become a mainstream position, with the KMT joining the DPP in adopting the concept of a “Nuclear Free Homeland” as the eventual goal. The New Energy Policy of the Bureau of Energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), for example, declares the government’s intention to “steadily reduce nuclear energy dependence, create a friendly low-carbon green energy environment, and gradually move towards a nuclear-free homeland.”

With the NPP4 plant seemingly permanently on hold, the timeline for achieving such a nuclear-free homeland is now a lot shorter. All of Taiwan’s three operating NPPs are nearing the end of their licensed 40-year lifecycles, and the DPP’s Tsai – as well as President Ma – has committed to not extending them. (KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu has taken a somewhat different stance, however, supporting continued reliance on nuclear power, at least at this stage).

The three plants now in operation – each with two units of reactors – are Jinshan (NPP1) and Guosheng (NPP2) located in New Taipei City, and Maanshan (NPP3) in southern Pingtung County. Their total installed capacity amounts to 5.14 gigawatts (GW), or 12.5% of Taiwan’s entire installed power-generating capacity.

The government responded in 2014 by indefinitely suspending construction of the NPP4, though it was more than 90% completed, and ruling that the ultimate fate of the plant would be decided by popular referendum. No such referendum has yet been held due to interparty disputes over how it should be organized.

Over the past decade, the state-owned Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) has received international recognition for its nuclear power management. The plants operate at an average of 90% of their capacities, allowing nuclear power to generate 18% of Taiwan’s electricity despite the smaller proportion of installed capacity.

NPP1 faces the end of its licensure in December, 2018, but this date may be pushed back as one of its reactors has been offline since December 10 last year – originally for a scheduled refueling outage, but the situation was complicated by a broken connecting bolt on one of the fuel assembly rods supplied by global nuclear-power firm Areva, according to a source close to Taipower. After it was replaced, a Safety Evaluation Report conducted by Taipower and Areva for the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) – the cabinet-level nuclear regulator – cleared the reactor for restart. But members of the Legislative Yuan demanded that the reactor stay offline until the lawmakers could hear a report on the matter from the AEC. As of press time, the presentation had still not been placed on the Legislative Yuan’s agenda.

The AEC is not directly under the authority of the legislature but still accepts its oversight, and consequently the reactor remains idle. At this point, it is unclear whether the conclusion of its license would be according to the original date or instead be extended for a period equivalent to the time it has not been operational. NPP1’s second reactor is scheduled to be decommissioned in mid-July 2019, according to the AEC.

The two reactors at Jinshan are the smallest of the units, each with installed capacity of 636 MW and together generating about 4.2% of Taiwan’s total electricity production. The pain of losing nuclear energy would not be felt until later, when the Guosheng plant’s twin 985-MW reactors are retired, in late December 2021 and early March 2023 respectively, according to the AEC website. Guosheng supplies more than 7% of Taiwan’s total energy supply – some 16,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) – but more significantly, it supplies this power to the economic centers of Taipei City and New Taipei City. Taiwan currently lacks sufficient transmission lines to easily redistribute power from the south to the north.

The Maanshan twin 951-MW reactors, supplying some 7% of Taiwan’s total power generation, are scheduled to be retired in July 2024 and May 2025. Without license extensions for some or all of the existing plants, at that point Taiwan would be nuclear free. To date, Taipower has submitted an application to the AEC for license extension for NPP1.

Nuclear power plants are normally granted 40-year licenses not out of technological or safety concerns but for antitrust considerations. They are generally considered capable of running for another 20 or even 40 years, although the plants might need to undergo extensive refurbishment, with certain components replaced. Many nuclear plants have been granted license extensions in the United States, where building a new nuclear facility has been politically problematic since the Three Mile Island disaster.

A woman in a Pink Panther costume joins an anti-nuclear rally on March 14 in Taipei.

Nuclear waste issue

The day of reckoning for Taiwan’s nuclear power sector might actually come a good deal earlier, if issues surrounding the storage of spent fuel rods cannot be cleared up.

Nuclear waste, particularly the highly radioactive spent uranium fuel rods, is another thorny issue. Though no longer usable as fuel for the reactor, the spent fuel rods are still highly dangerous. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the rate at which radioactive elements in the fuel rods decay into harmless substances varies greatly. “Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly,” the NRC reports on its website. “Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years [meaning that half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years]. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.”

Managing this spent fuel is clearly a long-term endeavor. AEC Minister Tsai Chuen-horng says that national policy on spent fuel rods dictates that they undergo short-term storage in cooling pools in the power plant until they are cool enough to be transported to medium-term storage in dry casks. Long-term storage would be in a “geological repository” buried up to 5,000 meters underground, depending on geological and other factors.

Taiwan has never been able to put medium-term storage into effect, and long-term storage remains a dream. The AEC has given approval for dry-cask storage for the Jinshan and Guosheng plants’ spent fuel rods, but Mayor Eric Chu of New Taipei City (who is concurrently chairman of the KMT) has so far refused to grant a building permit for the construction.

AEC policy also permits spent fuel rods to be transported to another country for reprocessing, an operation in which four-fifths of the radioactive materials is recovered for recycling into new fuel rods, while the remainder is vitrified and shipped back to Taiwan as glass. Taipower last November attempted to open bids on an NT$11.25 billion plan to send 1,200 spent fuel rod bundles to a foreign country for reprocessing. Several countries are technically capable of such reprocessing, including France, Japan, Russia, and Britain, but the project was suspended by the legislature before any bids were placed.

Unless space in the cooling pools is cleared before the next refueling cycle, “Jinshan and Guosheng are going to face a situation in the future where they may not have enough space to store the fuel, in which case they would be unable to continue in operation,” explains Minister Tsai. “The number of spent fuel elements to be reprocessed overseas is designed to allow the plants to operate up to the expiration of the licenses.”

Due to lack of spent-fuel storage capacity, the first unit of the Jinshan plant might be forced to cease operations as early as next year.

The potential impact

A report commissioned by the MOEA determined that by 2025, if there is no longer a nuclear component to the energy mix, the impact on the Taiwan economy would be significant, and electricity consumers could be faced with substantial price hikes and possibly power shortages. The study reportedly forecast that under those conditions total GDP would decline by 0.5%, with economic growth rates down by 0.18%. It also projected that electricity bills would rise by 10%.

An increase in carbon emissions would also be likely, as the phasing out of nuclear power would presumably necessitate greater reliance on fossil fuels. Currently Taipower is in the midst of rebuilding a number of conventional coal and gas-fired power plants to augment its installed capacity. These will include seven new “ultra-supercritical” 800-MW coal-fired units that burn far more efficiently than older coal-fired plants and generate 40% fewer emissions, as well as seven combined-cycle units whose gas/steam turbines are also highly efficient.

Still, reduced emissions are not zero emissions. Without nuclear energy in the mix, MOEA sees total emissions rising by 15% by 2025, despite Taiwan’s commitments to reduce emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.

Power shortages are another risk. Most estimates see demand for power in Taiwan continuing to rise, and without nuclear power the island may lack sufficient energy. Taipower expects to have installed capacity of 51 GW in 2024 (including the final Maanshan reactor), but still sees demand as outpacing supply.

One reason is that Taipower’s original plans were based on the Longmen NPP being operational. With its twin 1,350-MW reactors, the plant was expected to supply 19,300 GWh of electricity annually. Without it, Taipower forecasts that reserve capacity will fall to 4.3%, deep in the danger zone for power shortages. In 2025, if the final Maanshan reactor ceases operation, the situation would be even more acute.

For industry, an uncertain power supply would be distressing. As AmCham Taipei has repeatedly emphasized in its annual Taiwan White Paper, Taiwan’s high-tech industries – which constitute the backbone of the economy – are heavy consumers of electrical power. Those companies, whether domestic or foreign-invested, cannot operate without assurance of a stable supply of energy at competitive prices.