Taiwan Halts Plans to Add Atomic Reactors After Japan Crisis

Taiwan Power Co. Chief Engineer Roger Lee
Roger Lee, chief engineer of Taiwan Power Co. Photographer: Maurice Tsai/Bloomberg

Taiwan Power Co., which operates the island’s three atomic-power plants and is building a fourth, halted plans for additional reactors after an earthquake and tsunami crippled a nuclear plant in Japan.

Taipower, as the utility is known, canceled a tender to hire advisers for two more reactors to its No. 4 nuclear plant under construction, Chief Engineer Roger Lee said yesterday. The government has frozen a review of the state-run utility’s application to extend the life of its 33-year-old No. 1 plant, since the earthquake, which also sparked tsunami warnings for Taiwan’s northern coastline.

“Taipower would rather take more time and spend more money so the public won’t worry,” Lee said in an interview in the capital Taipei. The company is studying how to strengthen the stations’ ability to withstand quakes and tsunamis, he said.

Taiwan and Japan lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area prone to earthquakes that also stretches from Chile to California and Indonesia, where a 2004 earthquake sparked a tsunami that killed more than 220,000. Taipower’s three plants, like the stricken 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-Ichi station north of Tokyo, were built on the ocean. They provide about 20 percent of the island’s power and are as close as five kilometers (3 miles) from an active quake fault line, according to Lee.

Nuclear power plants in quake-prone areas need to be redesigned to make them more resistant, an investment that would reduce their original cost advantage, said George Hsu, a professor in the department of applied economics at National Chung Hsing University in central Taiwan.

Beach Resorts

“It’s a matter of benefit and cost,” Hsu said by phone today. “You have to pay a cost to give up nuclear power, and consider whether the cost is bearable.”

Taiwan’s No. 2 plant is 22 kilometers from Taipei and No. 3 is in a national park and six kilometers from the southern seaside town of Hengchun, site of several beach resorts.

The utility had considered adding as many as 10 reactors on the existing sites to reduce reliance on coal and gas, Taipower Vice President Hsu Hwai-chiung has said.

Taiwan imports about 99 percent of its energy needs. The island started commercial operations at its first reactor in 1978, after the global energy crisis. By 1985, it had six reactors on three sites.

“With nuclear power being a reliable and sustainable power source, we have to take risks” with the potential for earthquakes and tsunamis to affect Taiwan, Lee said.

Replacing Nuclear

The generators provided 24 percent of Taiwan’s electricity in February, compared with 3 percent from burning oil, 23 percent from gas, and 41 percent from coal, according to the company’s website.

The utility runs reactors 93 percent of the time, compared with one seventh for solar panels and one third for wind turbines, Lee said.

“It isn’t easy to replace nuclear power with renewables,” he said. Taipower may increase natural gas generators to make up for the stalled plans to expand reactors, he said.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in May 2008, has pledged to cut emissions to 2000 levels by 2025. Officials, including former Premier Liu Chao-shiuan, have called nuclear power an option to help reduce carbon.

Taipower applied to authorities almost two years ago to extend the life of its No. 1 nuclear power plant, which is allowed to operate for 40 years, according to Lee.

Expansion Suspended

“Now the expansion plan is suspended,” he said. Taipower may take measures, including enhancing their foundations and erecting higher water gates to strengthen safety at the plants after the March 11 temblor in Japan, he said.

The magnitude-9 quake off Japan’s northeast coast and the subsequent tsunami led to what Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the country’s worst crisis since World War II.

The total amount of radiation released from the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant may eventually exceed that of the Chernobyl disaster, a Tepco official said yesterday.

The 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine spewed debris as high as 9 kilometers into the air and released radiation 200 times the volume of the combined bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a 2006 report commissioned by Europe’s Green Party.

Taipower’s expansion in nuclear power has stalled since the 1980s. The start of its No. 4 nuclear station, first proposed in 1980, has been delayed five times to late next year because of concerns over safety and rising costs.

Stricter Inspections

The company may push this back further as the government orders stricter inspections before allowing fuel to be loaded, Lee said last month, after the Fukushima accidents. Construction was 93 percent completed as of end of February.

After the March 11 temblor, Taiwan issued a tsunami warning for its northern coast, where Taipower’s No. 1, 2 and 4 nuclear stations are located. The plants weren’t damaged by the waves.

The No. 4 station’s advanced boiling water reactors, designed by General Electric Co., have been installed, Lee said. Taipower is laying cables and inspecting instruments at the site, he said. Changing the reactor design isn’t necessary as they are “already the most advanced,” Lee said. The company doesn’t have a new starting date for the station.

Taiwan sits on faults, or geological fractures, between the Philippine Sea and Eurasian Continental tectonic plates. Quakes are more likely there as the plates push together, spurring concern the area may be unsafe for nuclear plants.

Deadly Quakes

In September 1999, a temblor centered 150 kilometers south-southwest of Taipei killed about 2,500 people.

In December 2006, Taipower halted its No. 3 nuclear power station for inspection, after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck near southern Taiwan, killing at least two people. The station faces potential tsunamis from the Manila Trench in the South China Sea, Lee said.

Taipower has avoided fatal incidents at its nuclear power plants and is taking steps, such as designing standard response procedures for multiple disasters, to prevent crises similar to that in Fukushima, he said. Each of the Taipower stations has three more spare generators than the Dai-Ichi complex, he said.

“If there’s something we haven’t done enough, we’ll improve,” Lee said.

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