Both countries rely predominantly on fossil fuels in power generation. That needs to change.
Taiwan’s referendum and China’s ambitions spotlight parallel nuclear debates
There was something of an energy revolution on the island of Taiwan last week, even though it came in the shadows of an election that saw President Tsai Ing-wen step down as head of the country’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after a poor showing at the polls.
Behind the political headlines came the news that almost 6 million of Taiwan’s voters agreed the country must repeal the legislation that mandates phasing out its nuclear power facilities by 2025. In other words, a clear majority of voters want nuclear energy to remain a viable alternative, seeing it as a key part of a clean-energy future in Taiwan.
The island state has four nuclear power facilities that provide 15% of its electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. The construction of two more reactors was suspended because of the existing DPP policy. Nuclear energy has long been a contentious issue in this country of 24 million; in 2013, lawmakers even engaged in spirited scuffles in parliament over a much-contested referendum on the construction of a nuclear power plant near the capital Taipei.
Pro-nuclear voices carried the day in the end, thanks in no small part to theoretical physicist Shih-Hsiu Huang, a tireless advocate of nuclear power in Taiwan. The scientist has been campaigning for nuclear energy on the basis of its merits, insisting on a rational approach that takes into account the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear power based on reasoned debate.
His grassroots Nuclear Mythbusters network, which the scientist launched in partnership with National Tsing Hua University, advocates what it calls “nuclear green.” “We uphold the spirit of rational thinking and scientific evidence,” the group explains. “We are disappointed with the anti-nuclear movement that resorts to political operations.”
On their website, the group answers questions about safety concerns over nuclear power and a host of other issues, including the role nuclear energy can play in the supply of low-carbon electricity. In September, the Central Election Commission in Taiwan rejected as invalid some of the petition signatures, leaving pro-nuclear activists about 2,300 signatures short after submitting more than 300,000 in total.
When Huang provided 23,251 more, they were again refused. That led to a legal challenge and a hunger strike, with the commission finally yielding on the referendum in late October.
Televised debates saw Huang face off against Hung Shen-han, a leader in the Green Citizen Action Alliance, a well-known environmental group opposed to nuclear energy. The anti-nuclear campaign cited safety concerns about Fukushima-like accidents and the problem of nuclear waste disposal.
In the end, the voters were given the choice, but with one further barrier: they had to take an extra step to vote on the issue, leaving the main ballot and requesting to vote separately on a question in a national referendum. The referendum asked voters: “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’?”
More than ten million Taiwanese cast their votes, with 60% of them lending their support to the continued presence of nuclear power plants. Voters also supported a measure to reduce outputs at fossil-fuel thermal plants by 1% each year, and another that calls for an energy policy that eliminates any new coal-fired plants.
The outcome of the referendum vote means pro-nuclear policies are now in place on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Across the water in China, the world’s most populous nation has been investing heavily in nuclear power and signed a multibillion deal with Russian state nuclear company Rosatom earlier this year. The agreement will see Rosatom build four nuclear power units with Gen3+ VVER-1200 reactors, two each at two nuclear plants in the northeastern part of the country.
With its ever-growing energy needs, China needs low-carbon energy sources on a vast scale to wean itself off the coal that currently provides the bulk of locally generated electricity. Coal plants have wreaked havoc with China’s environment, exacerbating constantly high levels of air pollution.
“By 2030, 20% of primary energy consumption will come from non fossil fuels,” says Dongchen Zhao, executive director of investment firm ICBC International Research Limited. “There are even more ambitious plans: by 2020, which is only 2.5 years from now, coal capacity in China will be limited to 1,100 gigawatts, with nuclear capacity increasing to 58 gigawatts, which is a 70% increase from the current base.”
At present, China has 44 nuclear reactors with a collective capacity of 40.6 GW. Another 13 reactors are under construction with an added capacity of 14 GW, and further reactors are planned in coming years with an additional capacity of 36 GW. And yet Dr. Wenyuan Wu, an independent researcher, believes there is room for far more nuclear capacity in both China and Taiwan. When energy needs and populations are factored in, she argues the role of nuclear in the two neighbors’ energy plans remains underutilized.
“Nuclear provided a mere 4% of Chinese electricity demands in 2016,” explains Dr. Wu, the author of Chinese Oil Enterprises in Latin America: Corporate Social Responsibility. “Although nuclear power took up 14% in Taiwan’s power generation mix, its three nuclear plants have reached the retirement age of 40 years and the construction of its fourth facility only has a capacity of 2.6 GW, half of what the three old plants could provide,” she adds.
“Generally, nuclear provides about 11% of the world’s electricity on average and supplies at least 25% of power generation for 16 countries,” she notes. “Beijing plans to increase nuclear energy in the national energy mix by 15-25% by 2020 with an expected capacity of 88 GW, while Taiwan must supply an energy shortage of 2.5 GW left by retiring nuclear plants.”
“We can see that even after Fukushima, China’s nuclear stance has not really changed. It still has the ambition and the determination to increase nuclear power as a share of its electricity mix,” Zhao says. “We can see that nuclear power in China, as a share of the total power mix, has increased over the last 5-6 years and is on the upturn. It now accounts for about 4% of the total electricity power generation in China’s power mix.”
Wu observes that Taiwan’s clean energy needs are just as pressing. “In Taiwan, limited domestic energy resources mean that its energy import dependence is over 90%. Its electricity consumption has grown by 14% in a decade,” the expert says. “Currently, both countries rely predominantly on fossil fuels in power generation. Meanwhile, both China and Taiwan have pledged to green its energy mix with the former setting a 45% goal in carbon intensity reduction by 2020 and the latter having a renewable incentive system in place that institutes feed-in tariffs for solar and wind power,” she adds.
“But renewables alone are insufficient to facilitate a green turn and decarbonization efforts because they face unique challenges of unstable supply and environmental impacts in terms of desertification and rare earth consumption,” Wu says. “Nuclear energy could fill the important void between dirty fossil fuels and renewables, as it is low-carbon and cost-effective.”