The explosion of reactors and failure of cooling systems at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant after the biggest earthquake in the country's recorded history, has alerted the world how risky nuclear power is.
In Germany, tens of thousand environmentalists took to the street on March 12, 2011, the day after the quake struck in Japan, demanding the government to shift from atomic energy to clean energy. Yet, the threat Germany faces falls far behind Japan and Taiwan; the country is not located in the active earthquake zone, whereas its Asian counterparts are in the Pacific tectonic ‘ring of fire.’
Beach near Kenting nuclear plant, Taiwan. Image by Flickr user impaulsive photography (CC BY 2.0).
Currently Japan has 17 nuclear power plants in its 378,000 square-kilometer territory and three more will be in operation by 2018. Taiwan covers an area of just 36,000 square kilometers, yet has three nuclear power plants and is building a fourth. The density of nuclear power plants is therefore much higher in Taiwan than in Japan, so you can image how Taiwanese feel when they see the disaster unfolding at Fukushima.
Indeed, the risk of nuclear power plants hit by an earthquake in Taiwan is very high, as 朱淑娟 (Shu-Chuan Chu) points out:
The first and second nuclear power plants are five to seven kilometers [km] away from the Shanjiao Fault
in the Kinshan coastal area. The fourth nuclear power plant is less than five km away from six inactive faults. In addition, within a radius of 80 km of the fourth nuclear power plant, there are more than 70 undersea volcanoes, 11 of them are active.
[In Taiwan] The anti-earthquake design is 0.3g [g = measure of peak ground acceleration
] for the first nuclear power plant and 0.4g for the second, third, and fourth plants. They are far weaker than the anti-earthquake design in Japan, which is [typically] 0.6g. Due to its strong earthquakes, Japan plans to have 1.0g anti-earthquake design for new nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, not many people in Taiwan care about the earthquake threat.
Because of the geographical similarities, 菊地洋一 (Yoichi Kikuchi), a Japanese expert in nuclear power plants, warns that nuclear power plants in Taiwan may have similar structure-related problems as those observed in Japan:
台灣的核一、核二廠所用的反應爐與日本都是屬於同一型，而且兩國都是多地震國家，所以在日本發生的問題，台灣不可能會沒有問題。最近的 BWR 型屬使用最高品質的 SUS316L 製造 (材料的質地較軟，因此較不容易產生裂痕的現象) ；各電力公司一再強調，這種材料絕對不會發生裂痕問題。可是實際上它還是發生了，這次日本東京電力公司隱瞞事件(註: 2002年)中也發現，其它的部分同樣也有裂痕。
The nuclear reactors in the first and second nuclear power plants in Taiwan are similar to many nuclear reactors in Japan. Since there are frequent earthquakes in Taiwan and Japan, what has happened in Japan will also happen in Taiwan. The recent design of the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) has adopted high-quality SUS317L stainless steel
as the construction material, which is softer and has fewer cracking problems, and all the nuclear power companies have kept stressing that this material will never develop cracks. In the current accident [Fukushima], we have seen the cracks. In fact, far back in 2002, cracks were found in the BWR in the investigation of the Tokyo electric power company scandal
To summarize, the nuclear power plants in Taiwan are not immune to the natural forces that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The Fourth Taiwan Nuclear Power Plant. Image by Flickr user Hao-Zhong Wang
Nuclear plant opens in 2011
In spite of all the worries and questions raised by concerned citizens and experts, the Taiwanese government planned to have the fourth nuclear power plant in operation by 2011, as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Republic of China. The running of this nuclear power plant was claimed to be delayed after amid calls for a temporary suspension after the Fukushima incident. Nevertheless, a new schedule with safety measures was not revealed, and the construction of this nuclear power plant was not suspended.
In an exchange gathering between Japanese and Taiwanese green activists back in August 2010, some participants alerted [zh] that rushed nuclear construction might lead to future disaster:
In Taiwan, because of the order of the Executive Yuan
[House of Administration], the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant is forced to be completed in 2011. This situation is similar to what happened in the Chernobyl disaster.
In 1983, there were three nuclear reactors working in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but the construction of the fourth reactor was delayed. The head of the plant did not dare to reveal the truth. At the same time, the Russian government hoped the construction of the fourth reactor could be completed before December 22 for the nuclear industry's annual memorial day. Therefore, the plant changed the original designs and materials. They managed to complete the construction on time. Later, they skipped a number of essential safety tests because they were hurrying to let the reactor start running for commercial purposes before March 27, 1984. The head of the plant and most managers there were honored and rewarded for meeting the deadline…In April 6, 1986, the newly built fourth reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in a operational test.
In 2008, there was a scandal in the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan because the constructor changed the original design without authorization. Later, the control room was submerged in a typhoon. Recently, the plant has failed in a number of safety tests. Yet the constructors are hurrying to complete construction because of orders from the top. Is this a risk we want to take?