Pressure builds in Taiwan to reconsider nuclear power
By Richard Dobson
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Following a resounding victory for Taiwan's pro-nuclear opposition party, record oil prices and concerns over a possible power deficit, Taipei is reopening the debate over potential expansion of its nuclear capacity.
The victory by the Nationalist Party (KMT) in recent parliamentary elections, in which it won 72 percent of the seats, has strengthened its bid to recapture the presidency in the March 22 poll and with it the power to determine energy policy.
Resource-poor Taiwan, which relies on imports to meet virtually all of its energy needs, has three aging nuclear power plants that account for just over 11 percent of its power generation capacity.
Construction of a fourth plant is ongoing, but delays due to a temporary suspension of the project by the anti-nuclear Democratic Progressive Party in 2000 after winning power, will delay its completion to as late as 2012 from the target of 2009. Some analysts say that could lead to an electricity shortfall.
The DPP came to power advocating a nuclear-free policy, and in the past eight years of its rule has shown little sign of altering its position, even though nuclear plants would support another of its goals, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it may have to add more privately run coal-fired plants.
"There are some political considerations, and it depends on the election," said David Yao, director of the Atomic Energy Council's planning department. "But because of global warming, maybe we will think differently later on, as many governments are reconsidering application of nuclear energy."
The council is responsible for overseeing nuclear power safety and issuing licenses to operate nuclear power plants.
Vincent Siew, the vice presidential candidate for the Nationalist Party, which established the island's nuclear power system during its over 50-year rule that ended in 2000, has said he would push for more nuclear power in the face of record oil prices, which topped $100 a barrel in early January.
Sources within industry and the state-run utility Taiwan Power Co, which supplies the bulk of the island's power and operates the three nuclear plants, are also saying that expansion of nuclear power generation capacity must be reconsidered to meet demand.
While no one is yet talking about building a fifth nuclear plant, each of Taipower's three operational nuclear plants and a fourth plant, have space to add additional units, according to energy officials.
Nuclear plants one and two could each add two additional units, while three and four could add four more each, according to Taipower, increasing the total number of nuclear power units on the island to 20 from six.
If all those units were built with an average of 1,000 megawatts each, they could increase the island's total installed capacity by up to a third.
The need for additional generating capacity is critical, say industry officials.
Delays in upgrading old power stations, the construction of new plants and additional sub-stations due to opposition from local residents could push the island's power reserve ratio margin to between 10-12 percent after 2010, from around 16 percent now.
Around 16 percent is considered sufficient to handle peak loads and reduced supply in case of accidents or maintenance, which could lead to blackouts.
Currently the energy bureau has no plans to formally reconsider nuclear power, said Wang Yunn-ming, deputy director of the bureau, while noting it was staying abreast of a growing global trend of re-evaluating nuclear power.
"While the energy bureau is watching developments in other countries to keep up to date, we continue to follow the government's policy," said Wang.