Tackling climate change using all the technologies we have will be hard enough. Trying to do it while swearing off nuclear power would be plainly ridiculous. That’s the lesson from Taiwan, a densely packed island state with few natural resources and a rising aversion to reactors.
Taiwan “cannot really be picky about energy,” President Ma Ying-jeou told me in an interview this week. But the Taiwanese behave as though they can. Taiwan faces many constraints, some natural, some self-imposed, explained Chien You-hsin, a former environmental minister: Most people understand that greenhouse-gas emissions warm the planet, but they fear nuclear power, refuse to live near onshore wind turbines, insist that offshore wind platforms not disturb aquatic habitats and lack wide-open spaces for solar generation. Meanwhile, the biggest share of the island’s electricity comes from burning dirty coal. In one key way, the Taiwanese attitude resembles that of people in Japan and Germany: Their advanced economies depend on abundant energy, but they recoil from the choices that reality entails, with counterproductive results.
Taiwan imports about 98 percent of its energy supplies, mostly the fossil fuels that keep its fluorescent streetscapes flashing and its many factories humming. It burns lots of coal and large amounts of natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but still produces carbon-dioxide emissions. Relying on fossil fuels also makes the island vulnerable: Its shipped-in supplies could run dangerously low in a major storm, Ma said.
The small island — it is slightly smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined — can’t produce more than a meager amount of hydropower. Solar power not only requires lots of area but also is not as much help during the rainy season. Taiwan has between 300 and 400 onshore wind turbines, but siting restrictions will make it difficult to add many more, according to Wang Ren-chain of the Industrial Technology Research Institute, a state-supported research group. His outfit is looking at installing offshore turbines, but that technology presents ecological concerns and is expensive. New technology might ease the constraints, eventually. But, for now, even if the government meets its deployment goals by 2030, renewable energy would generate only about 12 percent of the island’s electricity, the institute reckons.
That leaves nuclear power. Three nuclear plants currently provide 18 percent of Taiwan’s electricity. They don’t require large-scale fuel imports and produce virtually no carbon emissions. Unsurprisingly, the government concluded that the island needs more of them, and Taiwan began work on a fourth station that would house two reactors and supply some 9 percent of the island’s electricity. Work was nearly finished on the first reactor when the government halted the project last year in response to huge street protests. Now, with a large investment made, the reactor sits unused, waiting for the island to have the sense to insert the fuel rods.
Ma insisted that the government hasn’t scrapped the project. It can be activated in short order if future conditions demand. It’s hard to see how they wouldn’t. Yet in the same breath he declared that the government’s ultimate goal is a full transition off nuclear power. What Ma says also might not matter much; the anti-nuclear opposition party is poised to do well in presidential elections next year, and whoever’s in charge will be constrained by the public mood.
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident had a strong psychological impact in Taiwan. According to Chien, the former environmental minister, the Taiwanese have a great deal of respect for the Japanese: If Japanese engineers can’t operate nuclear power plants safely, the thinking goes, their Taiwanese counterparts can’t either. Some Americans had an analogous reaction to Fukushima, but U.S. public support for nuclear power stayed relatively high, which is appropriate: Tepco, Fukushima’s operator, has been widely criticized for mismanagement.
Though a small and somewhat idiosyncratic part of the climate change puzzle, Taiwan’s example shows two things.
First, energy choices in the age of climate change are not easy, and we don’t need to make it harder on ourselves by ruling out emissions-free options such as nuclear power, particularly in places with few good alternatives.
But, second, Taiwan shows that even places that have very few options can be gripped by reality-defying aversion to nuclear power, forcing leaders to turn away from existing reactors and substitute with fossil fuels, at least for the time being.
Because climate change is a global problem, the choices of Germany and Japan — both of which have shut down perfectly serviceable reactors in recent years — and Taiwan as well affect the rest of us. Their greenhouse-gas emissions mix into the atmosphere just like everyone else’s. And the big danger is that these nations will encourage the international stigmatization against nuclear power, when tough-mindedness, not self-indulgence, is necessary. The global norm should be to expect governments to regulate nuclear facilities carefully and appropriately, not to shun them.
Stephen Stromberg is a member of The Post’s editorial board.