Less than a month after the unprecedented occupation of the Legislative Yuan by the Sunflower Movement, riot police and water cannons were once again deployed on the streets of Taipei. But this time, the object of the protests wasn’t a controversial services trade pact with China, but rather nuclear energy, a major point of contention since the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant in Japan.
At the center of the storm is the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant currently under construction in Gongliao, New Taipei City. Though ostensibly a much safer design than earlier generations of reactors, fears remain that the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) at the Fourth power plant is an unstable assemblage of various systems — a nuclear Frankenstein monster, if you will. Moreover, opponents of the project argue that Taiwan, a highly active seismic area, is too vulnerable to natural catastrophes, including tsunamis and powerful typhoons. Also, they argue that the small size of the island and proximity of nuclear power plants to high-density urban centers raise questions about the ability of the government to evacuate the population in case of a nuclear emergency.
According to the Central Weather Bureau, which also monitors seismic activity, Taiwan experiences an average of 2,200 earthquakes annually, of which more than 200 are actually felt. Based on statistics, the island was hit by 96 “catastrophic” earthquakes since 1900. On September 21, 1999, central Taiwan was ravaged by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that killed 2,415 people and injured more than 11,000, while causing more than $10 billion in damage and disrupting the global supply of key computer components.
Three nuclear power plants are currently in operation in Taiwan — two early Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) designs built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) completed in 1985. Following the Fukushima disaster, a nationwide mass movement called for the phasing out of nuclear energy and an end to construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, which has been hit by repeated delays since the early 2000s. To date, Taiwan has spent an astounding NT$283 billion ($9.3 billion) on the power plant. Reports of poor maintenance and lack of oversight at existing power stations — two of several factors that led to the catastrophe at Fukushima — have compounded doubts about the ability of Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) to ensure nuclear safety. In addition to scrapping the Fourth nuclear power plant immediately, the movement, which includes environmental organizations, concerned citizens, artists, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wants the other three plants to be deactivated as quickly as possible. Activists have also requested amendments to the Referendum Act lowering the threshold necessary to initiate plebiscites.
Large protests were held in 2012 and 2013, attracting tens of thousands of people. On April 22, former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung began an indefinite hunger strike to force the government to cease construction at the plant. The 72-year-old Lin, a political prisoner during the Martial Law era whose two daughters and mother were murdered on Feb. 28, 1980, was continuing his fast as of this writing. Lin had planned to launch his hunger strike in March but was forced to delay following the occupation of the legislature by the Sunflower Movement.
Taiwan, the world’s 20th largest economy, relies almost entirely on imports for its energy generation. Proponents of nuclear power argue that this form of energy generation helps diminish the island’s reliance on imports, while bringing down energy costs.
Over the weekend, as many as 50,000 protesters gathered on Ketagalan Blvd in front of the Presidential Office — the site of many protests in recent months — and threatened various actions until the government met their demands to halt work on the Fourth power plant. President Ma Ying-jeou and various officials and mayors from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) held a meeting on the afternoon of April 27 and announced that work on reactors 1 and 2 of the power plant would be “halted.” Moreover, although safety inspections of the first reactor, which is nearly completed, would still be carried out, the power plant would not be activated. Immediately after the announcement, Hwang Jung-chiu, the chairman of Taipower, bemoaned the decision, saying that the move was tantamount to announcing the state-owned company’s bankruptcy. Hwang said the company’s debt would exceed its capital of NT$330 billion ($10.9 billion).
While the decision appeared to meet the protesters’ demands, critics immediately pointed out that it was the responsibility of the government, not a political party, to make such decisions and to announce them to the public. The language used in the announcement also raised doubts, as the KMT used the term “mothball” rather than “terminate” when referring to construction at the Fourth power plant, which they said left the door open for future reactivation (those doubts were confirmed in a Facebook post by President Ma the following morning, which said that the nuclear option should never be completely closed to future generations).
Feeling that their demands had not been met, thousands of activists — including many families with young children — walked over to Zhongxiao West Rd on April 27 and occupied the area, a major thoroughfare in front of Taipei Main Station that serves as the city’s transportation nerve center with subway, bus, train and high-speed rail stations. Defying rows of police who told them to leave, the protesters lay down on the road at 4pm and played dead as an emergency siren wailed in the background. Later in the evening, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin announced that the protesters would be removed before opening business hours on Monday morning.
The order was given at around 2:30am, with hundreds of riot police, assisted by water cannons, descending upon the several hundred protesters who remained on the road. By 7am, most of the area had been cleared of protesters, some of whom were taken away in police buses. Although police handling of the crowd was not as violent as that used during the occupation of the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23-24, some of their measures were not uncontroversial. Mothers warned police that some children remained in temporary tents by the roadside as water cannons fired in their direction, pointing out that this endangered their safety. Two photographers for the Apple Daily have filed complaints with the authorities after their cameras were damaged by police cudgels.
In a morning press conference on April 28, Premier Jiang Yi-huah reaffirmed the KMT announcement regarding the “mothballing” of reactors 1 and 2, though he added that the nuclear option should not be dropped altogether and could be brought back to the table once public consensus had been reached, a not unusual tactic of the Ma administration that often argues it needs to do a better job explaining controversial (but in its opinion sound) policies to a skeptical public. Jiang denied the government had made a U-turn on its nuclear policy.
Activist groups that had hoped for a clear stance on abolishing nuclear energy have vowed to continue their protests until May 1.