Taiwanese engineering prof behind pro-nuke referendum not phased by tsunamis, waste

Engineering prof behind Taiwan's pro-nuke referendum not afraid of typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, radioactive waste

Barrels of nuclear waste on Orchid Island.

Barrels of nuclear waste on Orchid Island. (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- In an interview with Science, the engineering professor who co-wrote the referendum to halt the phasing out of nuclear power in Taiwan by 2025 was not phased by concerns about earthquakes, tsunamis, nor radioactive waste, and made no mention of super typhoons, volcanoes, landslides, and other natural disasters which occur or are possible in Taiwan.

In the interview, Min Lee, a nuclear engineering professor at National Tsing Hua University, explained his rationale for co-founding a referendum which called for a repeal of Article 95-1 of the Electricity Act, National Referendum Proposition 16, which mandated the decommissioning of all nuclear power plants by 2025. Taiwan's three operational nuclear reactors only accounted for 8.3 percent of the country's electricity in 2017, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government had planned to replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources to have them comprise 20 percent of the energy mix by 2025.

Lee, whose expertise is in nuclear engineering and specialty is reactor safety, said when heard of the government's plan in 2016 to phase out nuclear power by 2025, he decided to oppose it because he did not believe that Taiwan would be able to meet its energy needs without nuclear power by the stated goal.

Lee was skeptical that the 20 percent threshold of renewable energy could be reached, reasoning that Taiwan does not have the adequate areas of land for renewable energy. Although, he failed to mention the possibility of offshore wind farms, geothermal energy, tidal energy, as well as conservation and increased efficiency, among a plethora of other possibilities.

In response to fears about the safety of nuclear power, Lee said that the Three Mile Island accident was "40 years ago" (March, 1979) and that changes have been made since. However, the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned in 1978, one year before Three Mile Island accident; the Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned just two years after the accident, in 1981; and the Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned five years after the incident, in 1984.

As for Chernobyl, Lee said that the design of the reactor was different from what is used in Taiwan and optimistically predicted "what happened in Chernobyl will not happen here."

In response to concerns about a repeat of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Lee predicted that the kind of massive tsunami that struck Fukushima would not occur in Taiwan because the fault lines around Taiwan are at an angle to the coast, as opposed to them being parallel in Japan. Apparently, the professor is not a student of history, because there are records of at least two deadly tsunamis devastating the island over the past three hundred years, including a 30-meter tsunami which destroyed villages in Pingtung in 1781.

The Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant is located in Pingtung County, South Bay, not that far from where the 1781 tsunami struck in Jiadong.

In 1867, hundreds of deaths were reported when Keelung Harbor was struck by a 15-meter tsunami. The Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant is in Wanli, New Taipei, which is next to Keelung.

Meanwhile, a magma chamber was discovered last year 20 kilometers beneath the Wanli and Jinshan Districts of New Taipei. Thus, Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in Jinli and Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant in Wanli are sitting under a volcano which could erupt at some point in the future.

According to experts, if the Tatun volcanoes were to erupt, residents on Yangmingshan, Shilin, Tianmu, and Beitou districts would bear the brunt of its force. Volcanic ash would cover northern Taiwan, Taipei would experience earthquakes over 6 in magnitude, and the safety of the two nuclear power plants in that area would be seriously threatened.

As for nuclear waste, Lee brushed off such concerns by saying that Taiwan does not have much high-level waste and claimed that it only consisted of spent fuel on site. He claimed that the spent fuel is in dry casts are "not a problem either."

The reality is much more bleak on Orchid Island, home to some 4,200 aboriginal Yami people, and where nearly 100,000 barrels of nuclear waste is being stored. The Yami people held major protests in 2002 and 2012 in attempt to have the radioactive waste removed from their island.

Despite the protests from the residents of Orchid Island, the nuclear waste remains there while an alternative site in North Korea has been met with protests from South Koreans and Japanese due to safety and environmental concerns.

The referendum read as follows:

"Do you agree with abolishing the first paragraph of Article 95 of the Electricity Act, which means abolishing the provision that 'all nuclear-energy-based power-generating facilities shall cease to operate by 2025'?"

According to the Central Election Commission, a total of 5,895,560 votes were cast in favor of repealing the slated 2025 elimination of nuclear power, with 4,014,215 having voted against the referendum. New rules for referendums went into effect last year. Therefore, if the initiative calls for the repealing of an existing law, then it is legally binding.

In response to the referendum outcome, Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka on Tuesday announced that government will amend the law and drop 2025 as the date for a nuclear-free Taiwan. On Thursday, Cabinet and DPP legislators will sit down together to discuss energy policies and the referendums, CNA reported.