Taiwan's Power Struggle

By Dushoff, Jonathan | Multinational Monitor, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Taiwan's Power Struggle


Dushoff, Jonathan, Multinational Monitor


CONSTRUCTION OF TAIWAN'S controversial and previously canceled fourth nuclear power plant is set to resume after an ambiguous ruling by a judicial panel in January sparked a political crisis.

The Council of Grand Justices ruled in January that the executive Yuan had improperly failed to consult with the legislature in its October 2000 decision to suspend construction of the plant, but stopped short of explicitly voiding the decision.

Leaders in the legislature, which is dominated by the Nationalist Party (KMT), called for an immediate resumption of construction.

In February, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls the executive branch, backed down in its showdown with the KMT, and allowed construction to continue. In exchange, the KMT agreed to debate a comprehensive energy bill which will lay out a plan for a move toward renewable energy and an eventual abandonment of nuclear power.

HISTORY

The plant, sited in the coastal town of Kungliao, has a checkered history, intimately tied to Taiwan's transition to democracy.

Originally proposed in 1980, the project was put on hold for financial reasons in 1985. During the martial law period, a handful of scholars dared to write articles opposing the plant, marking the beginning of Taiwan's environmental movement.

Throughout the 1990s, the stateowned Taipower company continued to push for the plant's construction, while local residents and environmentalists fought against the project, organizing annual protest marches that sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands. The project was restarted in 1992. In 1996, the legislature cancelled the plant, but later in the year re-approved the project, under pressure from the executive branch.

In March 2000, the DPP's Chen Shui-Bian was elected president on a platform that included a promise to stop the construction of the plant. Last October, after a re-evaluation of the plant, the executive Yuan announced a decision to halt construction, citing concerns about nuclear waste and possible accidents, and the goal of sustainable development. The total financial loss on the project, now about one third complete, was estimated at between US$1 billion and $3 billion.

After decades of single-party rule, the plant has become the key testing ground for the balance of power between the president and the legislative Yuan. Premier Tang Fei resigned in October, partly because of objections to scrapping the plant. After the new premier announced the decision to halt the plant, tens of thousands of DPP supporters marched in both the capital Taipei and the southern city of Kaohsiung in a bid to pressure the legislature to accept the decision. After the judicial panel's ruling threw the issue into uncertainty, the KMT refused to debate the issue in parliament. The resulting power plant standoff was front-page news in Taiwan, widely blamed for the recent poor performance of the economy, with pressure rising on both parties for a resolution.

SAFETY

The safety issues cited by Premier Chang-Hsiung in his decision to scrap the plant reflect longstanding concerns of anti-nuclear activists, several of whom sat on the reassessment committee.

Activists have argued for years that the densely populated island is poorly suited to nuclear power. One point reiterated by the premier in his report is that evacuation would be effectively impossible in case of accident -- literally millions of people live within a 10mile radius of the proposed plant. …

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