In less than five decades, nuclear power in Taiwan went from a much lauded energy source to a nuisance. After the Fukushima incident in 2011, growing concerns about safety led to a shifting of attitudes towards nuclear power. The current Taiwanese administration continues to pursue its policy to phase out nuclear power by 2025 but meets growing challenges. This article explores the history of Taiwan's nuclear power program, the factors that led to its decline, and the security challenges of phasing out nuclear power.
1. The status of nuclear power in Taiwan
On Mar 14, 2023, northern Taiwan’s last remaining nuclear reactor was pulled off the grid. As of late March 2023, nuclear power in Taiwan accounts for only 8% of the island’s power consumption.
During its heyday in the mid-1980s, nuclear power accounted for 52.4% of all the electricity consumed by the island, with six active reactors in three power plants.
Taiwan is one of the few economies that have an ongoing nuclear phase-out plan, and the only one in Asia. Since taking office in 2016, the current Taiwanese administration has been planning to phase out nuclear power by 2025. Since 2018, four reactors have been taken off the grid.
2. Shifting public opinion
Taiwan has long been one of the most nuclear-reliant economies in the world. However, growing concerns about safety, the environment, and public health have led to a shifting of attitudes towards nuclear power.
a. 1970s - “When we were heroes”
In the early 1970s, triggered by the oil crisis, the then ruling Premier Chiang Ching-kuo proposed ten ambitious infrastructure projects, involving highways, an oil refinery, an international airport, an integrated steel mill and a nuclear power plant, to upgrade Taiwan’s industries and ensure that the island had access to key resources.
Throughout the 1980s, cheap and stable nuclear power was regarded as a key pillar supporting Taiwan’s industrial development. Pu-tsan Chen, a retired Taipower veteran, made his career as a nuclear engineer at Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant, or Taiwan’s third nuclear power plant. “We were like heroes,” he said, “my parents were very proud of what I do for a living.” He is currently chairman of the Nuclear Science & Technology Association. Taipower operates Taiwan’s only remaining active nuclear power plant with its two reactors.
b. 1986 - Chernobyl & the founding of DPP
The Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred in 1986 played a decisive role in solidifying Taiwan’s anti-nuclear opinion. A botched safety test at the former USSR power plant caused an explosion in the reactor core, and a subsequent disaster caused the deaths of at least 31 people and led to the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the surrounding areas.
It could be said that the Chernobyl incident resulted eventually in the mothballing of Taiwan’s Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant, or the fourth nuclear power plant.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), when first founded in 1986, made it one of their guiding principles to oppose the construction of new nuclear power units, develop alternative energy sources, and close existing nuclear power plants by a certain deadline.
The planning of the power plant was initiated back in early 1980s, but construction started only in 1999. After several controversial budget increases over the following decade or so, the US$10 billion power plant was 64% completed in early 2006, when the last budget increase was approved.
c. Fukushima and the “mothballed” Lungmen project
In the early 2000s, there was still significant public support for nuclear power in Taiwan. This was partly because the then ruling Kuomintang government promoted nuclear energy as a solution to Taiwan’s energy needs.
However, in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan dramatically changed public opinion in Taiwan. The incident led to a widespread fear of the potential risks of nuclear power, particularly in a region prone to earthquakes and typhoons like Taiwan.
In the aftermath of Fukushima, there were large-scale protests against nuclear power in Taiwan, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to demand an end to the nuclear program.
In 2014, because of a week-long hunger strike by former DPP chairman Yi-hsiung Lin, Taipower submitted its plan to the Atomic Energy Council to mothball Unit 1 and halt construction on Unit 2 of Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant for three years, beginning in 2015. The fate of the power plant was to be decided afterwards.
This decision was seen as a victory for anti-nuclear activists and a reflection of the changing attitudes towards nuclear power in Taiwan.
d. Two referenda - one ignored, the other failed
In November 2018, a referendum proposal asked voters whether they believed that all nuclear power-generating facilities in Taiwan should cease operations by 2025. More than 10 million people voted and nearly 60% of them rejected the nuclear phase-out policy.
However, the government stuck to the nuclear phase-out plan, insisting that it was technically impossible to keep the reactors active.
A second referendum was held in late 2021. This time the question was more specific: “Do you support the restarting of the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant?” The proposal was rejected, with only 41% of the voters participating. This result solidified the nuclear phase-out.
However, the nuclear phase-out has been controversial. While the government has made some progress in developing renewable energy sources, there are concerns that Taiwan may not be able to meet its energy needs without nuclear power.
Currently, most of the Taiwanese public remains opposed to nuclear power. However, there is still a significant minority who support it, arguing that it is a clean and stable energy source. (See Figure 2)
e. The global rethink
In 2022, in the wake of the Russian war on Ukraine, steep energy price increases happened around the world, especially in Europe. Driven partly by the need to decarbonize the power grid and ensure stable energy supply, many countries saw amendment or even reversal of their nuclear phase-out plans.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided in October that all three remaining power plants, which were scheduled to be shut down by the end of 2022, should run until April 2023, in a major policy reversal.
Upon taking office early 2022, South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol vowed to make the country a “global nuclear energy power.” South Korea currently has 27 operating nuclear power plants and nuclear power and provides 29% of the country's electricity.
Even Japan, which suffered a nuclear disaster in 2011, is expanding its nuclear fleet. In February, Japan's Cabinet adopted a policy allowing for the operation of nuclear reactors beyond their current 60-year limit alongside the building of new units to replace aging ones, as part of efforts to cut carbon emissions while ensuring adequate national energy supply.
In Taiwan, the past year has seen more discussion surrounding the lifetime extension of the third nuclear power plant. There are two main reasons: first, growing military posturing from the mainland, as exemplified by the three-day blockade exercise following the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Taiwan relies on imports of fossil fuels for 98% of its total energy supply. Currently, the security stockpile for natural gas is only 8 days. In 2025, when 50% of electricity comes from LNG, if there should be a 10-day-long long blockade, Taiwan will mostly definitely suffer a power crunch because its power grid is isolated.
Second, there are growing concerns over power shortage from the business communities, following three island-wide blackouts within a year.
One vocal businessman is T.H. Tung, chairman of Pegatron Corporation. He has spoken publicly on several occasions in early 2023 calling on the Taiwan government to rethink the nuclear phase-out policy, citing the urgent need to decarbonize and the island’s growing power need.
In a Mar 23 speech in Taipei, Richard C. Bush, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, also said that Taiwan needs to make smarter but difficult choices if it wants a future. He pointed out that “when the existing nuclear reactors are closed, Taiwan’s greenhouse gas emissions are liable to get worse.”
However, there surely are a few obstacles facing the development of nuclear power in Taiwan, most of which are not technical.
First, it takes time. According to the Atomic Energy Council, Taipower must submit its proposal for reactor lifetime extension at least five years before the license expires. The operating licenses for Taiwan’s last remaining reactors expire in 2024 and 2025, respectively, which means the government would need to bend its rules to allow for a lifetime extension.
Second, there is the conundrum regarding where the used fuel could go. As of now, all the spent fuel still sits in the pools of each nuclear power plant, while most of it should have been relocated years ago to dry cask storage facilities for interim storage of 40 years. But local governments have so far refused to approve the facilities, citing public opposition.
And there is the ongoing brain drain of Taiwan’s nuclear power industry. Taipower veteran Pu-tsan Chen said Taiwan is surely losing trained nuclear professionals internationally and to other industries. It would take a change of the nuclear phase-out policy for Taiwan to reverse such a trend.
3. The state of renewable energy - missed opportunity for synergy
Even though Taiwan has been actively promoting the development of renewable energy in recent years, with a goal of achieving a renewable energy share of 20% in its energy mix by 2025, the progress has been slow and riddled with obstacles.
As of 2022, renewable energy sources accounted for 8.27% of Taiwan’s total energy consumption, with nearly half from solar, almost a quarter from hydro, and 15% coming from wind. Recognizing the slow progress, the Ministry of Economic Affairs has revised its goal for renewables in 2025 from 20% to 15%.
The rollout of renewable energy has been slow for various reasons.
In the case for solar, it’s mainly because Taiwan’s land is a scarce resource. With a population density ranking 17th in the world, it is very challenging for solar developers to get approval for land. For example, the 157MW solar project in eastern Taiwan proposed by the Singapore-based Vena Energy had to withdraw its plan after three years as a result of strong opposition from the indigenous community.
Regarding offshore wind, Taiwan has a very ambitious plan to install 5.6GW of offshore wind capacity over 8 years. It took Europe 20 years to reach similar installed capacity. Adding to the challenge is the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ ambition to also build up Taiwan’s offshore wind supply chain, requiring that the wind farms use a certain percentage of locally sourced parts, such as jackets and towers. Lack of manufacturing expertise, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in delays and gross cost overruns of major projects.
Both offshore wind and solar failed to reach their capacity targets for 2022. However, the Ministry of Economic Affairs remains confident in the long run.
Another aspect facing challenges is energy storage. The government has set a target of 1.5GW for battery storage by 2025. However, the build-up progress of battery storage facilities is falling behind schedule as a result of local protests, citing health and safety concerns about large-scale battery storage facilities.
According to the IAEA, nuclear–renewable hybrid energy systems are integrated facilities consisting of nuclear reactors, renewable energy generation and industrial processes.
In theory, nuclear power can provide flexible operation based on energy demand, while renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, by performing a balancing act through such flexible operation, also known as load following, nuclear power can enhance the efficiency of renewables.
However, ever since the Fukushima incident and the following protests, nuclear power has become a taboo topic for politicians and scientists alike in Taiwan.
In the past year, international and domestic analysts have pointed out that an energy mix with 50% dependent on important natural gas makes Taiwan vulnerable, an issue that becomes more noticeable as the mainland is increasing its pressure.
Another outcome of the slow ramp-up of renewable energy is an over 80% reliance on fossil fuels for electricity. According to Bureau of Energy statistics, Taiwan’s CO2 emissions per capita reached the second highest in history in 2021. (See Figure 3) Taiwan ranks 21st in emissions per capita.
4. Policy reversal? Unlikely before the 2024 election
Although rumor has it that the high-ranking officials of the DPP have been discussing internally the option of extending the lifetime of the third, and the last remaining, nuclear power plant, it is unlikely any policy change will be announced by the presidential election early 2024.
Because for years, the DPP has stuck with its nuclear phase-out policy. It would be politically humiliating for them to reverse that plan. Some analysts even said it could potentially amount to a “political suicide” if the DPP presidential candidate should express doubt about the policy.
A 2015 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal expressed concern over the fragile nature of Taiwan's energy policy. Eight years later, Taiwan’s energy situation remains equally precarious, with an added layer of geopolitical uncertainty.
However, if there is going to be a policy reversal, the most likely scenario would be for the new administration to form a committee for reassessment of the policy, as was the case with South Korea and Japan.
A reversal would also require enough political momentum.
A few energy experts suggested that it would take at least another island-wide blackout, potentially combined with another mainland-initiated blockade, to bring out a sense of urgency and the importance of energy security. Without either, it is unlikely the Taiwanese government could feel that it has the mandate to change its energy policy course.