” Three years after the meltdown at Fukushima, the future of nuclear energy in East Asia is coming into view. Voters everywhere remain jittery about safety, but Japan and South Korea continue to invest in new capacity. The exception is Taiwan, which may soon exacerbate its own economic and strategic vulnerabilities by abandoning domestic nuclear-power production.
Large street protests and a hunger strike by a 72-year-old former opposition leader prompted Taiwan’s government last week to halt construction of a nuclear plant 20 miles outside Taipei. Though the facility is three decades in the making and more than 90% complete, protesters insist that Taiwan is too earthquake-prone given its position on the Pacific Rim’s “ring of fire.”
The island’s three existing nuclear plants have operated safely for decades, but critics note that those were built by expert foreign firms. The controversial fourth plant is being built by state-owned utility Taipower.
President Ma Ying-jeou supports nuclear power but is hamstrung. His approval rating is around 10% and his signature initiative, trade-focused détente with China, was derailed by a student-led occupation of the legislature last month. With important municipal elections due in November, he can’t afford to ignore the anti-nuke movement.
Mr. Ma would like to kick the issue over to the electorate via a referendum, but he can’t get the opposition to agree on the rules of the vote. For now they promise more protests—aimed not only at killing plant four but at shuttering the other three before their scheduled decommissioning dates.
If plant four never opens, Taipower says it would go bankrupt, with more than $9 billion wasted on the project. The site was meant to deliver up to 10% of Taiwan’s power, adding to the 18% share of national energy already provided by nuclear.
If all four plants are taken offline, the government estimates, electricity prices would jump 40% from additional imports of coal, natural gas and oil. Renewables such as solar and wind, which today produce less than 2% of Taiwanese power, would be of little help.
A post-nuclear Taiwan would also be worse-equipped to withstand coercive pressure from China, such as a ban on cross-Strait coal exports or a blockade in the event of war. The island currently holds about two weeks’ worth of strategic energy reserves.
The Taiwanese public’s aversion to nuclear power appears far stronger than Japan’s, despite the latter’s trauma in 2011. Tokyo initially responded to Fukushima by idling Japan’s 50 reactors. Prompted by street protests, the government promised to replace nuclear’s 30% pre-meltdown share of the national energy mix.
However, after Japanese found themselves spending an extra 9.2 trillion yen (more than $100 billion) on energy imports in the first two years without nuclear, they changed their minds. Since 2012 voters have repeatedly rejected the closure of nuclear plants. Tokyo now plans to restart some idled reactors as soon as it gets the green light from its new, reputedly more independent nuclear regulatory authority.
South Korea meanwhile approved construction of two new reactors in January, the first since Fukushima, and restarted three reactors that were idled last year due to a scandal over fake safety certificates. Seoul plans to increase its reliance on nuclear to as much as 45% by 2035 from about 33% today.
That’s less than the 59% target Seoul had before Fukushima, but it will still require doubling domestic nuclear capacity and building 16 new reactors over the next two decades. If popular confidence in nuclear returns to pre-Fukushima levels (over 70%), so may Seoul’s ambitions for majority-nuclear energy production.
All of which is a challenge both to Taiwan’s economic competitiveness and its politics. While Tokyo and Seoul are pursuing regulatory reform and a balanced energy mix, Taipei is moving toward increasingly radicalized street politics and nuclear zero. That’s risky territory for any nation, let alone one stuck in China’s shadow. ”