Taiwan's Nuclear Memories
The tragic forty-year history of Taiwan’s Fourth Nuclear Plant yields key lessons on energy policy, democracy, security, and more
This piece is a collaboration with Spectacles media. Spectacles is a new politics publication for the stories that matter most for democracy and why. With short and long form writing and podcasts, Harry and Philip, along with a variety of guests, will help you better understand democracy, how it works, and its biggest challenges. You can subscribe for free at spectacles.news.
I hope that my regular Taipology readers enjoy the piece, and hop on to the link at Spectacles to check out the podcast I recorded with Harry and Philip, which is a companion piece.
When Taiwan’s Fourth Nuclear Power Plant was first proposed in 1980, the country was ruled by the autocrat Chiang Ching-guo, son of Taiwan’s first dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. There was only one party, by law: the Nationalist Party, better known locally as the Kuomintang (KMT).
41 years and three peaceful transitions of power later, on December 18th 2021, Taiwan went to the polls to decide that same plant’s fate.
Voters were asked whether or not they wanted to restart construction on the almost-completed, never-used 2,700MW Advanced Boiling Water Reactor plant, also known as Lungmen. It was part of a low-energy, low-turnout slate of referenda that broke along partisan lines.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—which wanted Lungmen, and the rest of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants, shuttered forever—mopped the floor with the KMT. The party that once had an iron grip on Taiwan now languished in the opposition, terminally out of touch and shunned by the youth.
In the leadup to the referendum, I tried to transcend politics. The fight to save Lungmen was a personal one for me, as a pro-nuclear activist. For months, I spread the word about why—for national security, climate change, and economic reasons—it was imperative for Taiwan to reverse course on abandoning nuclear power. The way I saw it, Lungmen was simply an unlucky plant, its development knocked off-track first by Chernobyl and then again by Fukushima. What mattered to me was that, by now, Lungmen should already have been producing ten percent of Taiwan’s power. With gangbusters economic growth in recent years, Taiwan is going to come up against an energy crunch. Our prized chip-making industry, for example, is an insatiable consumer of electricity. Other forms of manufacturing are little different.
Others, however, saw Lungmen and its history differently. I was vaguely aware that the plant was put on hold when some pro-democracy activist forced the hand of then-President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT with a hunger strike in 2014. I didn’t realize that “activist” was Lin Yi-hsiung, a man who was jailed, beaten and whose mother and daughters may have been murdered by the KMT during Taiwan’s martial law era. Long before his hunger strike, Lin was a prominent politician who explicitly linked denuclearization with democracy. For many of my fellow citizens, then, this referendum wasn’t just about energy policy.
I had hope in the months running up to the vote, with polls on the referendum sitting on a knife’s edge. However, the sheer star-power of Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, who stumped intensively for “four no’s”, overwhelmed the pro-nuclear forces.
The loss of the referendum was a hard pill to swallow, but what really broke me was learning that two of my closest friends voted to scrap Lungmen. I had spent hours educating them on the science and the economics of nuclear power. I even managed to dispel their fears about waste disposal.
“We’re sorry, we’re still pro-nuclear,” they said, “but we just couldn’t let the KMT have this one.”
The KMT is the out-of-touch, panda-hugging, martial-law-era-nostalgic opposition party that monopolizes the pro-nuclear position here in Taiwan. After all, in Taiwan’s authoritarian era they were the ones who built the nuclear power plants. Back then, nuclear accounted for as much as half the island’s electricity in the eighties and still provides ten percent to this day.
Under the dictator Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan embraced nuclear just as the oil crisis was starting to bite. Back when oil was a dollar a barrel, Taiwan burned it to generate electricity. The first price shock in 1973 drove the cost of oil up to US$10 a barrel. The First Nuclear Power Plant at Jinshan came on line in 1978: just in time. By 1979, per-barrel prices jumped again, to $40. The nuclear engineers who built the plant were feted as heroes for saving Taiwan from the energy crisis. Two more facilities were built in quick succession, on time and on budget. In fact, the Second Nuclear Power Plant at Kuosheng was built in seven years flat—four years faster than the American plant it was modeled after.
Thanks to these three nuclear power plants, along with a decent amount of hydroelectricity, Taiwan was running on as much as 50% low carbon energy back in the 1980s. Those heroic engineers probably couldn’t have imagined that the third plant at Maanshan would be their final triumph or that their industry would go from being the pride of Taiwan to the remnants of a feared and distrusted era.
In the spring of 1986, a portion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant melted down, precipitating the worst nuclear disaster in history. By the fall, the Taiwanese pro-democracy forces known as ‘dang wai’ (literally ‘outside of the party’) coalesced into the Democratic Progressive Party.
I can’t help but wonder, if it were not for that accident of history, whether the DPP would have ended up being so adamantly anti-nuclear. But as it is, that attitude is baked into the party’s DNA.
The DPP, if they play their cards right, might just achieve practically-total electoral dominance. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t shed a tear for the KMT if the DPP managed to send them the way of the dodo. Somehow, the party of Chiang Kai-shek wound up becoming disquietingly pro-China in a way the despotic strongman himself surely couldn’t have predicted. Various chairpersons of the KMT can be found in beaming photo-ops next to Xi Jinping, and in an opinion poll, only about half their supporters say they would make sacrifices to protect Taiwan in the event of an attack: in contrast to 85% of DPP supporters.
Some make the case that the biggest threat to Taiwan’s democracy would be a KMT political comeback, that they have been so thoroughly infiltrated by Chinese interests that a KMT administration could somehow hand Taiwan over to China on a silver platter.
So of course, “We just couldn’t let the KMT have this one.”
However, it’s frustrating, very frustrating, because to me the bigger threat to Taiwan’s existence as a democracy isn’t an ideological one, but one of national security. And one of the most glaring gaps in our national security armor is our precarious energy situation that threatens to tip into crisis at any moment.
I am in fact a great fan of current President Tsai Ing-wen. In my view, she’s a once-in-a-generation political talent who managed to bring Taiwan out beautifully on the world stage and navigated the COVID crisis with aplomb. However, her energy policy is an epic fail. A lover of grand, inspiring visions, she went with an energy policy of nice round numbers, often the sign of a politician who didn’t dig deep into the nuts and bolts of an issue.
In my more cynical moments I do find myself wondering if Tsai truly doesn’t see the folly of her energy policy. Is she seriously convinced that her plan will work? Or did she just optimize it to get herself elected? Our cat-loving president’s cool-as-a-cucumber persona is hard to read.
Tsai declared that Taiwan would go nuclear-free by 2025. Conveniently, she claims that renewables will account for, say, 20% of Taiwan’s energy, making up for the loss of nuclear. But by replacing one source of low-carbon energy (nuclear) with another (renewables), Taiwan would be running just to stay in the same place. Even worse, Taiwan’s renewable energy development is behind schedule. This means Tsai, the president who boldly declared that Taiwan would achieve Net Zero by 2050, will almost certainly leave office having increased Taiwan’s carbon emissions.
This isn’t even the most lamentable part of her plan. Renewables like solar, wind, and hydro are of course intermittent. Added to that, our grid would be running on 50% liquid natural gas (LNG). Due to limited receiving terminal infrastructure, we can only hold 7 to 11 day’s worth of LNG in Taiwan, depending on the season. Thus, Taiwan would be a couple of bad typhoons away from rolling blackouts. Every single molecule of hydrocarbon used in Taiwan must be imported. The goofy-looking vessels ferrying the superchilled LNG to us from the US, Qatar, or Australia do not do well at all in stormy weather.
All that’s before we consider whether the Chinese would ever want to mess with us deliberately with a blockade.
While defense experts used to expect an attack from China to come in the form of a full D-day style invasion, the blockade scenario is now taken increasingly seriously. If China chooses to deny passage to our energy import vessels only, is that war? No shots fired. Would the 7th fleet come to our rescue as if Taipei had been bombarded? It would surely bring Taiwan quickly to our knees in the absence of contingency plans. Could nuclear power make the difference between holding out and capitulating during a siege?
These are crucial questions, yet when you say you’re pro-nuclear in Taiwan, a label is put on you. In a slightly disquieting way, assumptions are made about your political leanings: pro-KMT, anti-environment, maybe even pro-China. In all my advocacy, I’ve tried to create a space in mainstream Taiwanese politics to accommodate pro-nuclear ideas. It’s a lonely and thankless task.
In a way, I can’t let the KMT have this one.
Taiwan isn’t the only country in the world where nuclear has become hopelessly politicized and is either dead or caught up in a tangled snarl of regulations. While the authoritarian legacy of nuclear power is specific to Taiwan, most democratic countries have seen the rise of powerful anti-nuclear forces that paralyzed the development of atomic power. NIMBYs and environmentalists sensationalize difficult-to-understand concepts, and regulations follow that make plants harder and harder to build.
Meanwhile, we are giving Russia and China a clear lane to take the lead on nuclear technology.
China’s Shidaowan made the news last December for being the first commercial reactor using “pebble bed” technology. With this, China has arrived at the doorstep of some highly consequential innovations. As it happens, pebble bed reactors aren’t anything the United States didn’t have at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory back in the 70s. In fact, the world was expecting massive progress in nuclear energy involving fast neutron reactors until President Jimmy Carter put a stop to it out of proliferation concerns. He didn’t even want America to develop it, out of a misguided desire to be fair.
China, however, isn’t alone in picking up where the US left off. Russia has also seen big leaps in nuclear development, with Rosatom’s REMIX fuel capable of being recycled five times, dramatically reducing the volume of high-level waste.
Is there any scenario in which we won’t regret turning our backs on nuclear in 20 years?
We might not have to wait that long. After scrapping its nuclear program in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas has put it in a serious bind. The natural gas gun that Russia has been holding up to Germany’s head suddenly became very salient with the invasion of Ukraine. To its credit, the German government wasted little time in scrapping the Nordstream 2 pipeline in response, but it will pay a high price—literally. “Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2.000 for 1.000 cubic meters of natural gas!” tweeted Dmitry Medvedev, former president of Russia.
And to think, if Germany only restored its nuclear energy production to 2006 levels, it could stop using gas for electricity generation all together. Its remaining three reactors still account for more than six percent of its electricity mix. Germany is now trying desperately to buy hard coal worldwide and to cut down on Russian gas. Unfortunately, the Germans won’t reconsider their abandonment of nuclear even now. The three plants are still on track to shut by the end of the year, a move in the wrong direction not just for the climate but for Europe’s energy security.
Once you think it all the way through, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s a blind spot in the democratic process regarding energy policy. The resistance to nuclear power is only one aspect. Nobody wants to live next to any kind of power producing facility, including wind turbines and solar panels. But bad things happen to countries when their energy supply isn’t right. This situation becomes especially dangerous when there’s a geopolitical threat involved.
My hope is that it’s still not too late – if we can extend the life of the Second and Third Nuclear Power Plants, we can keep 10 to 15% of Taiwan’s grid running on nuclear power well into the future. Nuclear enables stockpiling plenty of fuel in advance too. That little bit of power that won’t run out could make all the difference in a siege scenario.
It’s time for democratic nations all over the world to take a hard look at how we generate our energy policy. How do we overcome NIMBYism, fearmongering, and the information asymmetry between voters and experts? How do we prevent politicians from putting rhetoric before policy? If we can’t fight misinformation or logical fallacies, they’ll continue to contaminate public preference to the detriment of democratic policy-making. I don’t know exactly how we can surmount them, but I do know these are the key challenges we face.