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September 24, 2017

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It's time for Taiwan to pick a power plan

The mass blackout on Aug. 15 has gotten the nation talking about nuclear power again. The public discourse over Taiwan's power policy seems to point to only two bad options: have nuclear power and face calamity down the road, or abandon it and suffer more power instability in the future.

The nation seems to be frozen by the tough choices it faces. While the government has advocated for a nuclear-free future, it has yet to take concrete steps toward it. Case in point: no action has been taken on the future of Nuclear Power Plant No. 4, the technically unfinished plant that has been suspended for years with no clear resolution in sight.

Meanwhile, measures toward building replacement power sources have been less than robust. The government clearly does not regard the current power crisis as a symptom of a profound trouble, but instead seems to dismiss it as just an accidental short-term inconvenience. President Tsai Ing-wen told business leaders last week that power crisis was caused by natural disasters and not human decisions.

Premier Lin Chuan referred to the Aug. 15 blackout as "something that just lasted for a few hours" and something that had nothing to do with the nuclear-free policy.

Both Tsai and Lin seemed to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge one of the main causes of the summer power crisis -- the country's dangerously low power reserve capacity.

Good governance is less about finding the perfect solution then about being able to make the best out of all situations. To solve the true long-term power crisis, Taiwan needs to make a choice and act fast.

Here are the choices it has and how to approach them:

Keep Nuclear Power

The case for it:

1. Nuclear power is stable, cheap and environmentally friendly.

2. It is reliable. Nuclear power plants can run at full capacity almost all the time.

3. Despite the high-profile disasters, nuclear power plants have a good safety record.

How to do it:

First, address the safety issue. Meltdowns are very rare but their consequences are too devastating to be ignored. The biggest risk element is not actually earthquakes (power plants are built to withstand most of them -- the Fukushima meltdown was caused by tsunamis triggered by a 9.0 earthquake, the fourth largest on record) but rather human error. To reduce that risk, the government needs to change its way of regulating nuclear power. Currently the Atomic Energy Council is responsible for both developing and regulating atomic technologies. It is like being the referee and the coach at the same time. That needs to be changed. Regulation and development should be handled by two separate bodies, both subjected to robust oversight by professionals outside the government.

All nuclear generators, especially those in the idle Plant No. 4, need to be closely examined before they can be used.

The government also needs to do more about nuclear waste management than just dumping waste at Orchid Island.

Scrap Nuclear Power

The case for it:

1. Taiwan is too small and most of the nuclear power plants are located in densely populated areas. If a major nuclear disaster occurred, the people would have nowhere to go.

2. Taiwan is prone to natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons. Nuclear power plants might be able to withstand an earthquake or a typhoon, but can they withstand a combination of both?

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