Despite Referendum, Nuclear Power Faces 2025 Deadline

Construction of the controversial Lungmen nuclear power plant was never completed and the plant has now been mothballed. Photo: PiChi Chuang

The combination of political and physical obstacles will almost certainly forestall any extension of Taiwan’s nuclear power sector.

Last November, Taiwan seemed to do an about-face on the issue of nuclear power. Although Tsai Ing-wen of the anti-nuclear Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had been elected president in 2016, voters approved a referendum negating the amendment to the Electricity Act that mandated that the island be free of nuclear power by 2025. Nearly 60% of those voting in the referendum agreed to abolish the clause stipulating that “all nuclear-energy-based power-generating facilities shall completely cease operations by 2025.”

On May 7, the Legislative Yuan duly removed the paragraph in question. As a result, Taiwan is no longer obligated by law to eliminate nuclear power by 2025. In theory, this change could pave the way for the continued use of nuclear power after that date through life-extension of the currently operating nuclear power plants and even resumption of the mothballed Lungmen Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (NPP4) project.

The referendum, however, has done little to change the reality on the ground. The Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower), the state-run monopoly power utility and sole operator of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants, continues to generate power from just two nuclear power plants, each with two reactors. Nuclear power currently meets about 8-9% of Taiwan’s total electricity demand.

Minister of Economic Affairs Shen Jong-chin has expressly rejected life extensions of the operating nuclear power plants, the last of which will reach the end of its licensure on May 18, 2025. He has likewise rejected restarting the Lungmen project.

“We took out the paragraph in the Electricity Act, which we thought might lift the barrier for continued use of nuclear energy by the government, but they didn’t pay attention to that and they insist on a nuclear-free policy,” says Yeh Tsung-kwang, a professor of nuclear engineering at National Tsing-Hua University and a major driver of the referendum. The organization Nuclear Mythbusters formed by pro-nuclear activists successfully campaigned under the slogan “Go Green with Nuclear.”

The government’s resistance to nuclear power is not the only obstacle to continued reliance on that energy source. One of the knottiest issues involves how to dispose of radioactive spent fuel.

Over the past 40 years, Taiwan’s three operational nuclear power plants have accumulated tons of radioactive spent-fuel waste. In the absence of a solution on how and where to safely store it, the waste remains on-site in the plants’ spent-fuel cooling pools. At the Jinshan (NPP1) and Kuosheng (NPP2) plants, both located in New Taipei City, these cooling pools have reached or even exceeded their storage capacity.

Jinshan, in fact, was forced to shut down before its 40-year licensures ran out because it lacked the space to remove the spent fuel in the core in order to refuel the reactors. Spent fuel remains in its reactor cores, forcing Taipower to continue operating the plant’s coolant and other emergency systems as if its shutdown were temporary rather than permanent, delaying efforts to decommission it.

The Kuosheng plant has expanded its spent-fuel storage capacity, enabling its reactor 1 to operate nearly to the end of its licensure on December 27, 2021, while reactor 2 can operate until its expiry date of March 14, 2023. 

Taipower has floated the idea of dry-cask storage as an interim solution for storing the spent fuel but consecutive New Taipei City governments under Eric Chu and now Hou You-yi, both with the Kuomintang (KMT), have refused to issue a license for this storage. They expressed concern that interim storage would become permanent storage, as few governments around the world have actually resolved how to permanently store spent fuel. The Jinshan plant has dry-cask storage on-site, but the casks remain empty.

Passage of the referendum has given nuclear power renewed credibility within the KMT as the 2020 elections approach. The party’s presidential candidate, Kao-hsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, last month told an AmCham Taipei luncheon audience that he could accept nuclear power under two conditions: that it be proven safe and that it have public support.

Yeh of National Tsing-Hua University says he is optimistic that the current administration in New Taipei City would approve interim dry-cask storage on site if given assurances by a pro-nuclear administration that the spent fuel would be removed when an appropriate permanent storage site becomes available. Yet even Yeh admits that geological conditions in New Taipei City are not appropriate for spent-fuel storage, and that Taiwan has so far been unable to find a suitable site for permanent spent-fuel disposal.

Even if dry-cask storage were to be approved by the New Taipei City government and Jinshan’s spent-fuel pools were able to be cleared, the Jinshan plant is an unlikely candidate for life extension because of its already expired licenses, outdated design, and low power output.

Kuosheng, for its part, lacks interim storage on site. Dry-cask storage facilities would need to be constructed, the cooling pools emptied, and then the license-extension application submitted to the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) for approval. The best-case scenario for all of this being completed would be 2026, according to Yeh.

Restart of the epic Lungmen project, said to be up to 95% completed, is also extremely unlikely. The plant was mothballed by the Ma administration in 2014 after years of widespread protests that accelerated following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Reviving the project would entail costs estimated at NT$10 billion (US$316 million) and take 2-3 years for reactor 1, while reactor 2 would cost NT$40 billion (US$1.2 billion) and require 5-6 years before it would be commercially available. All of that would be on top of the estimated more than NT$300 billion (US$10 billion) already spent.

This leaves only the Maanshan plant (NPP3) in Pingtung as a viable candidate for life extension. Its two reactors’ licenses run out on May 18, 2024 and May 17, 2025, respectively, within the five-year inspection and review process stipulated by the AEC. Maanshan, moreover, has sufficient space in its cooling pools for another 20 years of spent fuel. Minister of Economic Affairs Shen has dismissed the possibility, however, on the grounds of public opposition.

At the same time, Taiwan’s nuclear proponents have not given up. Nuclear Mythbusters is currently gathering signatures for an additional two referendums in 2021, one aimed at restarting the Lungmen project and the second mandating that nuclear-power generation “must not be lower than the energy generated from coal before the year 2030.” 

Meeting that target would require either dramatic increases in nuclear power supply – probably several new nuclear power plants – or equally dramatic curtailment of coal-fired power generation. Coal currently accounts for some 45% of Taiwan’s electrical power supply. The administration’s goal for the fuel mix for power generation in 2025 is 50% natural gas, 30% coal, and 20% renewable energy.