Tight power supply revives discussion on nuclear energy in Taiwan

2017/08/14 20:29:09 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
CNA file photo

CNA file photo

By Evelyn Kao CNA staff writer

Concerns over the availability of electricity in Taiwan in the future and recently dwindling power reserves caused by equipment breakdowns and intense heat have sparked debate over whether the country should reconsider its policy on nuclear power.

Taiwan has three aging nuclear power plants with a total of six reactors, three of which are currently inactive, and a fourth plant that is not far from being operational but was mothballed in 2014 due to anti-nuclear protests.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government now in power wants to turn Taiwan into a "nuclear-power free" homeland by 2025 by decommissioning the six reactors by then and replacing their output with renewable energy or other alternatives.

But the difficulties of making that transition have been evident in recent days when high temperatures conspired with the collapse of the Ho-Ping Power Plant's transmission tower during a typhoon on July 29 to drive operating reserve margins to below 2 percent of capacity.

Operating reserves fell to 624,000 kilowatts (about 1.72 percent of total capacity) on the afternoon of Aug. 8 when consumption surged to a record high of 36.27 million kWs (that was later exceeded on Aug. 11), according to state-run utility Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower).

That came close to the threshold of 500,000 kWs when Taipower's power rationing steps are triggered, steps that first target big businesses that use more than 5,000 kW.

The close call sparked a reaction among business leaders, who have raised concerns that uncertainty over future electricity and water supplies in Taiwan is making it harder for them to commit to future investments in the country.

They called on the government to rethink its policy on nuclear energy.

"It's time to abandon the nuclear-free policy to ensure stable power supply so that business confidence in investment in Taiwan can be boosted," said Tsai Lien-sheng (蔡練生), secretary-general of the Taipei-based Chinese National Federation of Industries.

"Nobody wants to face power rationing," Tsai added.

Lai Cheng-I (賴正鎰), chairman of the General Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of China, called for the two inactive reactors at the No. 1 nuclear power plant in Shimen in New Taipei and at the No. 2 nuclear power plant in Wanli in New Taipei, to be allowed to resume operations to address the power crisis.

The No. 1 reactor at the No. 1 nuclear plant has been down since December 2014 after a broken connecting bolt in a fuel bundle was discovered during annual maintenance checks.

The No. 2 reactor at the No. 2 nuclear plant has been offline since May 2016 when it shut down unexpectedly after having been repaired in April when it encountered a glitch in its electrical system during major maintenance.

In both cases, the reactors could be restarted, but the Legislative Yuan has instructed the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to first submit a safety report on the two reactors before they are started up, something the AEC has yet to do, and the government does not want to let happen.

The No. 2 reactor at the No. 1 nuclear plant tripped in early June 2017 after a nearby transmission tower fell, but it was going to be shut down anyway because its spent fuel pool had run out of space, and the New Taipei government has yet to approve expanding it.

Lai also suggested that the three operating nuclear power plants should be allowed to extend their service lives instead of being decommissioned from 2018 to 2025 and that the government reopen the fourth nuclear power plant project.

"Given the cost advantage of nuclear power generation, why don't we use it?" Lai asked, adding that Taiwan cannot afford to give potential investors from other countries the impression that it is vulnerable to electricity shortages.

The government remained adamant, however, that it would not restart inactive nuclear reactors or rethink its position on nuclear power.

Minister of Economic Affairs Lee Chih-kung (李世光) reiterated that the government will not consider restarting the two suspended reactors (plant 1, reactor 1 and plant 2, reactor 2) unless all other alternatives are exhausted.

On Aug. 11, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) argued that Taiwan's electricity supply had been tight because of the damaged Ho-Ping Power Plant tower, which cost Taiwan 1.3 million kWs of power, and not because of the government's policy on nuclear power.

Tsai said the government will use all possible means to ensure a stable electricity supply but will not consider opening the fourth nuclear power plant.

But even as the government pledged to phase out nuclear power, it has been unable to wean Taiwan off nuclear power, even if nuclear power's share of total power generation has dipped in recent years from about 18.5 percent from 2012 to 2014 to 16 percent in 2015, 13.5 percent in 2016 and 8.5 percent from January to July in 2017.

Fearing possible power shortages in the summer, Taipower applied for and received permission from the AEC to restart the No. 1 reactor at the second nuclear power plant and the No. 2 reactor at Taiwan's third nuclear power plant in June and July, respectively, after they had been down for maintenance and repairs.

The recent scare may have also led to a shift in public opinion on the issue. According to a poll published by the China Times on Aug. 9, 50.6 percent of respondents expressed support for restarting the idle generators at the No. 1 and No. 2 plants, and 50.3 percent thought construction on the fourth nuclear plant should be resumed.

Whether that support consolidates over time or was simply a reaction to an immediate threat remains to be seen, but the government remains intent on its goal of a nuclear-free homeland and has amended the Electricity Act to require that all nuclear power operations cease by 2025.

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