Taiwan's Nuclear Future?
Image Credit: Impaulsive

Taiwan's Nuclear Future?


After an exceedingly close fought election, Taiwan’s incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou this month defeated his opponent to secure a second term in office. Besides the recurring theme of relations with China, the election was characterized by socio-economic issues and the re-emergence of the traditionally contentious nuclear energy issue. Not only was the outcome a vote in favor of cross-strait stability and economic prosperity, but it also partially decided the future of the island’s energy infrastructure.

For decades, activist-, local- and religious groups have supported the removal of nuclear power – generated by six reactors – from Taiwan’s energy mix. However, last year’s Fukushima crisis in Japan catapulted the negative consequences of atomic energy into the pre-election spotlight. As polls were so closely contested, both the environmentally-conscious opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP), and the ruling pro-business Kuomintang  (KMT), were eager to jump onto the anti-nuclear bandwagon in response to rising public opposition. Many analysts had predicted the election would be won on the margins and indeed all parties were keen in keeping activist issues at the forefront. DDP candidate Tsai Ing-wen was the first to champion anti-nuclear policies, reviving her party’s commitment to a “nuclear-free homeland” by 2025. As the campaign unfolded, both the DPP and the KMT pledged to do away with nuclear energy at some point in the future, initially by separately proposing to scrap advanced plans to extend the operational life of the Chinshan, Kuosheng and Maanshan nuclear plants. Moreover Tsai promised not to take the fourth Longmen power plant into operation if elected.

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As a result of Fukushima, it seemed public opinion was fanned against nuclear power generation, as people from all sides of the political spectrum were united in their concern. Initially, fears that a radioactive cloud would blow over abounded. This transformed into a broader concern that, because of its size, the island would be prone to widespread devastation in the event of a nuclear disaster on its territory.Taiwan is vulnerable to earthquakes and its nuclear plants lie within less than a dozen kilometers of active seismic faults.

Moreover, an initial analysis made the Taiwanese authorities aware that current safety measures at atomic plants are inadequate to guard against a Fukushima-type event. Quickly evacuating Taipei’s vast metropolitan area would also be problematic, they acknowledged.

Last, there have been fears about possible nuclear waste leakage on Orchid Island. Despite the island’s familiarity with this concern, the wider issue is that Taiwan has little space to expand storage and waste management facilities for spent nuclear fuel, and current depots are reaching their capacity. These concerns formed the technical impetus for partisan plans to phase-out nuclear energy. Overlooked by Tsai and other proponents of a nuclear-free homeland, however, ishow to compensate for the electricity generation capacity that would be lost if reactors were decommissioned by 2025. At present, nuclear energy account for roughly 20 percent of the island’s energy mix. 

Ma’s re-election means the No. 4 power plant will likely commence operation by 2016 with an expected lifetime of approximately 35 years pending “all safety requirements are satisfied”. This will provide the government with enough breathing room to switch to alternative fuels and diversify existing supply sources. The KMT will therefore be able to implement its election promise of  a “pragmatic” way forward that will “ensure nuclear safety, gradually reduce reliance on nuclear power, and create a green power and low-carbon environment to gradually become a nuclear-free country” without bringing repercussions for the economy or energy supply.

Taiwan has an isolated energy grid and almost 99 percent of energy sources are imported. As natural resources are scarce in Taiwan, nuclear energy remains economically appealing (although uranium needs to be imported from the United States, other forms of energy imports render the country less self-sufficient).

The recent standoff between Tehran and Western countries poignantly illustrates the significance of energy dependency. Taiwan has already begun to draw down its reliance on Iranian crude. That being said, the dispute will have an effect on Taiwan; if a total blockade of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran were possible, the 85 percent of crude  that travels through the Strait destined for Asian markets wouldn’t arrive.Alternatively, a total boycott of Iranian oil or a cessation of its production would mean that the 65 percent of Iran’s oil exports earmarked for their Asian refineries would fall through. What is more, 28 percent of world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) transits the Strait. Taiwan has limited indigenous natural gas reserves and presently this is the main source of LNG for the island.

Taipei has started to diversify its LNG imports and bulk up storage capabilities. Though this might not make up for any prospective loss in nuclear, as back in May Shih Yen-hsiang, Minister of Economic Affairs, seemed reluctant to adopt such proposals. Besides renewed interest in Indonesian coal and natural gas, a major LNG deal was concluded with Qatar recently in addition to a long-term contract with Australia. Moreover, Singapore is set to become a major hub for natural gas, and Russia is expanding its activities in this area. Diversification might rectify some of the short falls if supply from the Middle East if blockaded. Still, supply might become constrained if adjacent producers in the Persian Gulf fail to meet rising demand or give way to pressure from Iran against increasing their output. Finally, increased reliance on hydro-carbon fuels, including coal, will make it hard for the government to reach its carbon emission reduction goals outlined in the new policy.

Closer to home, any deterioration in relations with China, or a perceived slowdown in reunification efforts could, in the worst case, cause Beijing to blockade vital energy and resource supply lines. The scenario looks even bleaker were China to succeed in affirming its control over the South China Sea, or even the Straits of Malacca. The recent missile tests serve as but a small reminder of the possibilities. Analysts agreed a win for Tsai would have brought with it tenser relations with mainland China given the DPP doesn’t accept the 1992 consensus.

In contrast to the DPP, the KMT’s acceptance of the “one China policy” has made it possible for Ma to achieve the completion of his landmark trade agreement with Beijing. Not only has this brought major economic benefits, one of the main reasons for his re-election, but hisrapprochement has made an agreement on nuclear safety possible. Worryingly, many of China’s existing and planned nuclear sites are located along its southeastern coast, opposite Taiwan. Any accident would therefore have repercussions for the country. It would be uncertain how far these plans would have continued if the DPP had come to power as Tsai criticized the deal, saying it would compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty by allowing China to exercise influence over Taiwan’s domestic affairs.

At one of her last campaign rallies, Tsai urged voters to use their ballots to change the government “for the sake of Taiwan’s next generation.” However, at present, lower tensions with China through pragmatic consultation and cooperation outweighed calls for immediate cessation of nuclear power production or apprehension that deepening economic integration with the mainland will lead to absorption by default. Ultimately, it remains to be seen if the KMT will be able to honor its anti-nuclear pledge or if the public will want the government to go nuclear free once the immediate shock of Fukushima has subsided. In the past, the KMT has resisted efforts to rein in reliance on atomic energy and successfully rolled back DDP policy to do so. Indeed, at the start of his first term in office Ma re-energized the prospects of this power source.

What is clear is that a gradual phasing out of nuclear energy is feasible and has merit, but it’s unclear where future supplies will be secured, or exactly what sources will comprise Taiwan’s energy mix, while at the same time upholding Ma’s three major principles of “no power rationing, maintaining reasonable power prices, and making good pledges to the international community to reduce carbon emissions.” Given the long lead times, fluctuating levels of output, large financial investments, long pay back times and building space needed on the small island, renewable energy won’t be sufficiently available in the short to mid-term. Savings from energy efficiency and conservation won’t be enough, and with electricity demand set to grow, heavy investments needed in energy infrastructure, the projected price rises of fuel and given the political and economic realities in Southeast Asia, it remains to be seen if nuclear energy might make a comeback in the Republic of China.

Henry Philippens holds an MA from the War Studies Department, King's College London. He currently is a trainee at NATO. The views expressed are his alone. This piece is based on a longer article that originally appeared in Global Asia.

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