Naoto Kan, who was Japanese Prime Minister when the 311 earthquake and tsunami struck the northeast coast of Honshu island, leading to a partial meltdown in reactors at the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. For Kan the disaster was an epiphany that converted him from a believer in nuclear power to a staunch anti-nuclear advocate.
Kan was in Taiwan from September 12 to 15, and while here he spoke at a number of anti-nuclear events, hammering home the warning that has become his calling card: "There is not a nuclear power plant in the whole world that is safe. In the past I thought nuclear power was safe, that a nuclear disaster could not happen. But after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has decided to gradually phase out nuclear power!"
Kan told an audience: "A nuclear disaster in Taiwan would claim 2/3 of the people, so Taiwan's nuclear energy policy, and whether or not to continue construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be determined by the people of the nation and not by technical experts." He went on to say, "The best way to avoid nuclear disasters is to have zero nuclear power."
Kan pointed out that Japan already began phasing out nuclear power when he was still in office, shifting energy policy to focus more on solar power, wind power and other forms of renewable energy. Kan is confident that other sources of energy can definitely replace nuclear power. The cost of nuclear power is very high, he added – contrary to the claims of power companies, it is by no means a cheap source of energy.
Kan stressed that the in the short term phasing out nuclear power will cause some unemployment problems, but in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant, the high levels of radiation caused by the disaster would bring misfortune to several generations of our children and grandchildren. To date Japan is the only country that has firmly committed itself to gradually phasing out nuclear power, and Germany is scheduled to follow suit in the year 2050, switching over completely to non-nuclear energy sources.
Kan notes that the eight-kilometer nuclear emergency preparedness zone established for the nuclear power plant under construction at Gongliao in northern Taiwan is "absolutely not enough." He points out that after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima radiation has been detected over twenty kilometers from the power plant, with traces found even as far as 250 kilometers away. Kan added that the nuclear accident has caused the greatest confusion and uncertainty in Japan since World War Two.
The Japanese government has created a 12 mile (20 km) exclusion zone surrounding the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tens of thousands of people, have been evacuated from an area encompassing 600 sq km, and entry there is forbidden. If the exclusion zone is highly contaminated with cesium-137, then it is likely to remain permanently closed.
Investigators have also recorded very high levels of radiation far outside the Fukushima exclusion zone. Rather than expand the evacuation zone, the government instead advised the 130,000 people who live in a 10km band beyond the current exclusion zone to either leave or “stay indoors”. However, it is neither healthy nor even possible to remain permanently indoors, and people who do remain in this contaminated region will inevitably be exposed to elevated levels of radioactivity.
At present Taiwan has three operational nuclear power plants with a total of six reactors online. Taiwan’s reactors now supply nearly 20 percent of the island’s electricity. Taipower’s current plans call for the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant to go online some time in 2015, but public concern is rising and many people are calling for the project to be suspended.
Taiwan’s First Report to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR) presents an overview of the actual conditions of nuclear safety in Taiwan. The report is largely understated, noting only that “the government should take incidents such as the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster as cautionary examples and carry out complete nuclear physical examinations, strengthen coordinated response capabilities in the event of a natural disaster, and establish emergency response crew measures, taking all possible steps to prevent a serious and uncontainable nuclear incident.”
Taiwan's nuclear plants are located in geologically unstable areas that are frequently visited by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic activity, and other high-risk geological events, and the facilities themselves are beginning to show the effects of aging – cracked concrete walls, corroded pipes and balky switches. Despite these actual and potential problems, the government has yet to take adequate preparations to ensure the safety of Taiwanese citizens' lives, health and property in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Like Fukushima, Taiwan is situated at the juncture of the Philippine and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. Islands along this geologically active seabed bulge frequently experience high-magnitude earthquakes -- from 1991 to 2006, there were an average of 18,500 earthquakes per year, with 49,919 in 1999 alone.
Taiwan’s nuclear power plants are in zones prone to tsunamis and landslides and in close proximity to fault lines and volcanic activity. They are located near the sprawling Greater Taipei area, inviting disaster in case of a nuclear accident as Taiwan's land area is limited and lacks spaces for taking refuge. The nuclear plants are also near major reservoirs, meaning that during normal operations there is a risk of contamination by radiation and in the case of a nuclear accident, there will be a shortage of water safe for human use. Furthermore, the Chinshan, Kuosheng, and Maanshan plants are beginning to suffer from deterioration of their facilities and there are serious engineering issues with the fourth plant now under construction.
Taiwan must begin taking real steps toward completely shutting down all of its nuclear power plants. But before that happens, the present 8 km radius of their Emergency Preparedness Zones should be widened to 30 km, iodine tablets and nuclear disaster preparedness training should be provided to those who would be affected, and emergency plans for the people's health and safety should be offered immediately. If no actionable plan to deal with a nuclear accident or resettle affected residents is feasible, the case for closing down the existing plants becomes all the more urgent.