Why cross-strait tension kills nuclear power in Taiwan
Nuclear energy played an important part in the development of my home country of Taiwan. During the 80s, it was our go-to source of power as the nation underwent a complete overhaul from top to bottom, catching up on a century’s worth of industrial development in a single decade.
It is quite perplexing then, that the country’s current leadership seem hell bent on throwing it out. To understand why, we need to talk about the social and political aspects of nuclear power, something which mainstream nuclear advocacy keeps claiming to be the source of all our problems, but seems somewhat reluctant to discuss in any detail.
Peaceful transition of political power, a milestone in any functional democracy, did not occur in Taiwan until 2000, where the voting age is 20. So in a way, 2020 is the year that our democracy comes of age. In the coming-of-age story of Taiwan, nuclear energy’s role is critical.
During the first half of January 2020, my brothers were momentarily back from their studies abroad for Election Day. Since getting the family together was only going to get harder as time goes on, my parents decided that we should take this opportunity to hike along Tsaoling Trail.
Tsaoling Trail is a historic footpath connecting my home county of Yilan to the capital city Taipei. After a steep climb through dense forest, the main portion of the trail runs some 10 kilometers along a wavy mountain ridge. To the west, a steep grassy slope with cows grazing here and there, to the east, a half-mile drop into the Pacific Ocean. Despite the cool weather and idyllic scenery, the hike turned out tougher than we expected and took us all day, and we were completely wasted when the trek ended.
It is humbling to think that my great-great grandfather would have taken this same path, carrying heavy wares on his back to buy and sell at the capital. A hundred years ago, travel between the agrarian countryside of Yilan to the capital meant a three day trek through dense forest and rough mountains. Today, Taipei is an hour’s drive away from Yilan, and most folks wouldn’t think much of popping over for some weekend shopping, but merchants like my great-great grandfather would’ve had to make this grueling trip weekly just to keep their family from going hungry.
In fact, until quite recently, Taiwan was not a stranger to poverty or oppression. My parents are old enough to remember when meals were cooked over wood fires, schools drilled nationalist propaganda, and critics of the Kuomintang would mysteriously vanish in the night. It is worth remembering that blood, sweat and tears alike had to be spilled for Taiwan to become what it is today: a thriving, advanced economy with a vibrant democracy.
To the north of Tsaoling Trail, sitting between deep, green hills and the bright blue sea, is the Dragon Gate Plant, better known as Nuclear Plant 4. Construction started in 1999 but was never completed, going through numerous stops and starts before finally being mothballed in 2014. While its fate remains uncertain, the current administration under president Tsai Ing-Wen called to abolish all nuclear power by 2025. Its turbulent history is a testament to the controversy of nuclear power in Taiwanese society.
Nuclear power has an interesting place in Taiwan’s journey from poverty and oppression to prosperity and freedom. Since the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang government fled across the sea and ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, presenting itself as the rightful ruler of China and vowing to reclaim the Mainland with military force. This all changed in 1971, when the United Nations recognized the Communists as the legitimate government in China. The Kuomintang had to reinvent itself, to justify its existence to the rest of the world and, most importantly, to its own people.
Thus began the Taiwan Miracle. A hard and fast modernization took place, with steelyards, highways, harbors, factories and other infrastructure built at breakneck speed. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, Taiwan saw nuclear as essential to its energy independence and maintaining its fast-paced industrialization. By the time Saddle Hill Plant (Nuclear Plant 3) was completed in 1985, over half the electricity of Taiwan was generated with nuclear power. At that time, nuclear’s share of the energy mix was planned to grow even further, with a host new plants proposed.
Also around this time, the Kuomintang sought to change its image from that of a illegitimate Chinese government-in-exile to a legit, Taiwan-focused democracy. Under President Chiang Ching-Kuo, the administration began to loosen its iron grip over the country, allowing first for freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, followed by limited local elections. This paved the way for the formal founding of an opposition party (the Democratic Progress Party) in 1986, the ending of martial law in 1987, the disbanding of the secret police in 1992, and finally, direct presidential elections in 1996.
In some ways, nuclear power is like the strange twin of the pro-democracy movement: both were born about the same time, both were essential in the making of Taiwan as we know it today, and, like many twins, they didn’t get along very well.
Throughout the 80s the Kuomintang, although reforming, remained authoritarian. Land for industrial projects, including nuclear infrastructure, was often acquired by underhanded means, sometimes without the consent or even the knowledge of their prior owners. Thus, from the beginning, nuclear projects faced significant local opposition, a fact which is not lost on the Tangwai (and later, the Democratic Progress Party), who are often desperate for support in these rural regions.
Perhaps the most damaging of these incidents to the public perception of nuclear power is the Lanyu Waste Storage Facility on Orchid Island off the east coast of Taiwan. The island is home to the indigenous Tao people, as well as a number of endemic plants and animals.
In 1982, Tao elders were tricked into siting a low-level waste storage site on their land by exploiting their poor Chinese literacy, allegedly being told that the site was for a “canning factory”.
After fierce protests erupted in 2002, a vicious cycle of Tao distrust and Taiwanese NIMBY-ism has turned the situation into a PR nightmare. Even though the risk to the public posed by such a low level waste site is vanishingly small, the Tao’s total loss of trust in the Taipei government means no amount of reports and investigations will ever likely bring them to accept the site’s existence.
Such injustices incurred during the complete overhaul of the country’s infrastructure were by no means unique to nuclear energy. However, in 1986, something happened that would single out nuclear energy as the symbolic enemy of democracy: the Chernobyl accident.
The opaqueness and close-mindedness displayed by the Soviet regime in dealing with the incident left a definite impression on the Tangwai, themselves just beginning to crawl out from under the shadow of a similarly-minded regime. Radiation from nuclear accidents offered a visceral metaphor for the terror of living under an authoritarian dictatorship. Five months after Chernobyl, the Tangwai formally coalesced into the Democratic Progress Party. The party’s founding constitution set the goal of a nation-wide nuclear phaseout.
The fear of nuclear power as an instrument of oppression runs deep in the minds of the Taiwanese, even more than the fear of nuclear disaster itself. The rapid rise in public opposition to nuclear power in Taiwan during the 2010s is often attributed to the nuclear accident at Fukushima. However, despite considerable effort from anti-nuclear groups, for three years after March 11 of 2011, the public showed little interest in the subject. A nuclear accident, by itself, didn’t seem capable of triggering widespread fear and disgust of nuclear technology.
Then, in March 17th of 2014, the Kuomintang controlled legislature attempted to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without the reviews promised to the opposing Democratic Progress Party. The Kuomintang in 2014 was not the one-party state it was in the 80s — they won a legislative majority in fair elections — and breaking an unofficial agreement with the minority opposition wasn’t technically illegal. Nevertheless, this move was interpreted by many as an underhanded Kuomintang move to bring Taiwan closer to China.
Fearing Chinese annexation of Taiwan by the backdoor, hundreds of university students occupied the Legislative Building for a period of several weeks in what later became known as the “Sunflower Movement”.
Almost immediately afterwards, Democratic Progress Party founder Lin Yi-Hsiung went on hunger strike calling for the abandonment of Dragon Gate Plant. Lin had precedent: he was one of the first to claim that nuclear power in Taiwan was a symbol of government oppression. He became an icon for pro-democracy activists when his family was murdered in 1980, allegedly under orders from the Kuomintang.
Sunflower Movement leaders were keen to offer their support. Traffic in Taipei stagnated as tens of thousands took to the streets. Clashes with riot police ensued. In the end, President Ma Ying-Jiou caved to pressure from the Sunflower Movement and called for Dragon Gate Plant to be mothballed.
Rather than fear of nuclear power itself, the recent rise in anti-nuclear sentiment should be understood as a post-traumatic reaction to living under an authoritarian regime, one still very much in living memory, with which the development of nuclear power is inextricably linked. It doesn’t help that remnants of the regime still hold positions of power today.
It also doesn’t help that many nuclear advocates believe that the public can be convinced about nuclear by bombarding them with data about how safe it is. Data will not calm down angry aborigines who’s backyards have been turned into a dump for other people’s garbage.
In 2019, protests erupted in Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill allowing Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to Mainland China for trial and punishment. Protesters fought for their lives and freedom against riot police deploying tear gas, water cannons and even live rounds.
It was clear that Beijing was stressing the “One Country, Two Systems” model of Hong Kong autonomy to breaking point. With China claiming Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, many Taiwanese watched pictures from the protests with horror, fearing the same might happen to them should their two countries be united.
It frustrates me that, at this worst of all moments, in their desperation to find support for the technology, nuclear advocates became campaign consultants to presidential candidate Han Kuo-Yu. Han Kuo-Yu might have called out human rights abuses committed by China, but it’s also clear he’s set on closer ties to Beijing.
It also frustrates me that his opponent, incumbent president Tsai Ing-Wen, a vocal supporter of Taiwanese independence and of Hong Kong autonomy from Beijing, took the opportunity to double down on her plans to make Taiwan nuclear free and renewable by 2025.
Defending our human rights is a noble cause, but why must this be linked to an abandonment of nuclear? Energy security is national security. With the threat of attack from China rising, our defenses must remain powered whatever the weather and in spite of naval blockades that would likely cut off our access to imported natural gas.
Energy independence is precisely why nuclear power was pursued in Taiwan in the first place, when the world left us to die on China’s doorstep. The glow of the atom lit our way, a light in the dark places where all other lights go out.
Even if the intermittency of renewables could be solved, the materials needed for solar panels and wind turbines would mostly come from China: two thirds of the world’s silicon and almost all the world’s rare earth minerals are mined there, with little care for environmental impact and pollution. Supplies to these materials could be cut off by China at any point.
Will this reliance on China for strategic resources create tensions with potential allies? Pro-renewable Germany — who are highly dependent on Chinese minerals — recently rejected a petition to recognize Taiwanese sovereignty. Meanwhile, perhaps it was the Czech Republic’s robust nuclear sector that emboldened them to support Taiwanese sovereignty?
The 2020 elections came and went. To the surprise of nobody (except Beijing, amusingly enough), the candidate committed to defending her country’s freedom won a landslide victory against her pro-Beijing opponent. The pro-nuclear movement had shot themselves in the foot — again — in their search for mainstream political appeal.
And yet despite these frustrating setbacks, despite whatever grievances I have for Tsai Ing-Wen and her policies, I can’t help but smile to see our president on the BBC, explaining exactly where Xi Jin-Ping should go shelve his plans for annexing Taiwan. It brought back memories of my childhood in Britain, struggling to explain to classmates why the capital city of my country is not Beijing (shortly after explaining why it is not Bangkok).
It felt so good to see the world giving us some attention and acknowledging our plight for the first time in decades. I just wished that it didn’t have to come at the cost of abandoning nuclear power in Taiwan.
I was born in 1992, four months before the secret police was abolished, never experiencing the horrors of authoritarianism. I am not in a position to judge the pioneers of the pro-democracy movement for opposing to nuclear in their battle against tyranny.
But the tyranny is over. 2020 is the year voters born after 1996 get to decide the future leader of their country. For the first time in history, Taiwan is being inherited by people who have lived their entire lives under democratic rule. Perhaps it’s time to for these early pioneers (many of whom are in office) to reevaluate their opposition on nuclear power?
Taiwan has changed hands many times since the days of my great-great grandfather, from Manchurian to Japanese to Chinese to establishing its own identity. Its people likewise changed from starving peasants to the proud(?) inventors of Bubble Tea Pizza.
Yet the sights we saw on Tsaoling that day were almost unchanged since when my great-great grandfather made his weekly trek through the mountains. Nothing suggested that over a hundred years had gone by.
Except for the unfinished nuclear plant, away in the distance.
A symbol of nuclear power’s enduring legacy in Taiwanese history? Or an omen that it, too, will soon fade, along with the ambitions of the old imperialists?
I honestly cannot say.