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June 23, 2017

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Don't call on the Pythia for nuclear power referendum

The government recently announced a referendum to resolve the prolonged controversy over the fate of the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (核四). The decision came amid growing domestic opposition to continued construction on the US$10 billion plant, which is nearly complete and slated to begin operation in 2015.

Given the complexity of the issues involved in the project, however, we believe that Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) needs to exercise more prudence and wisdom in the run-up to the referendum. Above all, he must warn both Nuke 4 opponents and supporters of the potential economic losses for scrapping the project, while also commit to ensuring the safety of the plant if a yes vote is secured.

Given Taiwan's extremely polarized political opinions, however, it is unlikely that a referendum will resolve the 20-year debate over the power plant. It is more than likely that it will fail to reconcile the opposition and ruling parties on the country's future energy policy. In other words, we shouldn't rely on the oracle of Delphi to decide on the country's future.

In ancient Greece, people came from all over Europe to call on the Pythia at Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. The oracle of Delphi could determine when farmers should plant their fields or when cities should declare war. But what do to about rising anti-nuclear sentiment? That it is a much more difficult question to answer.

The government first suspended the nuclear project in 2000, only to resume its construction shortly afterward as power-shortage concerns sent share prices plunging. The decision sparked a nuclear storm of immense magnitude in Taiwan and seriously damaged relations between the opposition and ruling parties.

The planned vote is unlikely to quell the squabbling, with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vowing yesterday to assist civil anti-nuclear groups to initiate their own referendum on the subject. They also won't rule out the possibility of initiating such a referendum on their own, adding more confusion to the public debate.

We certainly understand the growing concerns over nuclear energy, especially following 2011's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster. The disaster has prompted more people to question whether similarly earthquake-prone Taiwan should be host to yet another nuclear power plant.

We also admit that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant has not been built in a turnkey style but has been constructed by many contractors, resulting in a number of construction flaws and deficiencies. Opponents are right to blame the government for failing to guarantee the plant's safety. The Atomic Energy Council's credibility in overseeing nuclear plants has certainly been called into question by the plant.

The government should nevertheless understand that a referendum is by no means a panacea for such controversy. Recall that all six previous referendums in Taiwan's history failed because of insufficient voter turnout. If the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) believes a referendum on whether Taiwan should discontinue the construction of the nuclear plant is doomed to fail, it won't end the anti-nuclear movement.

On the contrary, the government should come up with convincing arguments to address Taipei and New Taipei residents' apprehensions about the safety of the plant located in their vicinity, as well as clear goals to guarantee energy independence in the future.

Opposition and ruling parties should refrain from using the question in the referendum to get an upper hand politically. Even if a referendum gives the DPP or the KMT more legitimacy to complete their agendas, you don't have to call on the Pythia to know it is not going to help them mend fences.

The right thing to do right now is to complete the design of the new nuclear plant and engage in a moratorium to shut down the other nuclear plants that are older, less efficient, and obviously more dangerous.

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