We’re all watching the nuclear crisis unfold in Japan with horror, and most of us are asking some version of the question, “what does this mean for us?”
Before I go any further, let me take the unusual step of telling you my position on nuclear power: I’m ambivalent. I’m not necessarily for it, and I’m not necessarily against it. I could be convinced if only someone would answer a lot of questions. Like most people, this question was very far from my mind 10 days ago, but now we are all paying attention. These will be a critical few months in shaping opinions on nuclear power for the next generation. Mine might be among those shaped.
Let me also say that this is going to be an explorative post. I’m exploring my own ideas. So things might not be too coherent.
One obvious area of focus is on the 4th nuclear power plant, which is fairly close to completion. Lots of people are starting to scream that Taiwan should abandon the project. My feeling is that it is probably too late for this. So much money, time, energy, political capital has been expended that the plant will almost certainly be completed and start operations. I think what will happen will be something like what happened 15 years ago with the Mucha Line of the Taipei MRT. If you recall, the Mucha Line experienced horrendous cost overruns and was the centerpiece of both opposition campaigns in the 1994 Taipei mayoral race. Without the Mucha Line, there may never have been a President Chen. Anyway, at some point, cracks in the supporting columns were noticed, and people began screaming that the thing was not only expensive, but also dangerous. There were calls to tear down the whole thing and just turn it into parking spaces. Candidate Chen promised a full investigation and swore he would not allow a dangerous system to open. Mayor Chen did commission an investigation, and the commission concluded that what was needed were metal jackets on each of the support columns. So they spent a few months welding steel around the concrete columns. Then they claimed that the columns were now so safe that the life of the line was extended by 25 (?) years, and Chen opened the line. Now, I’m not an engineer, and I have no idea if the metal jackets were, in fact, so critical or if they just served to hide the cracks from public view. I don’t even know if the cracks were all that dangerous to begin with. What I am sure about is that the metal jackets were a brilliant political solution. They were a highly visible fix to a visible problem, and steel looks strong. Chen had clearly identified a problem and addressed it. It wasn’t cheap and it took a few months, so you couldn’t call it a convenient solution. It was brilliant in easing public fears. The line opened, and I haven’t heard anything about those support columns in years. Back to the nuclear power plant. I think the same thing will happen. There will be a study, and the government will implement some highly visible and preferably costly fix. It is important that it be costly. That sends a credible signal that the government did something substantial to make the plant safer. (After all, if it were cheap, they would have already done it.)
Anyway, I think the 4th nuclear power plant is probably the wrong battle. It’s going to open. The anti-nuclear crowd should probably try to attain a more reachable goal, such as shutting the older plants down ahead of schedule.
My energy dream is for a de-emphasis on both traditional thermal and nuclear power and a major government push to develop solar. Again, I don’t understand the technology at all, but it seems to me that solar energy could be Taiwan’s next great economic engine. I’m envisioning a new version of the Hsinchu Science Park and the semiconductor industry. Every country in the world is going to be re-evaluating its energy policy in the aftermath of Fukushima, and there will be a much larger market for alternative energy. A few Taiwanese companies are doing wind turbines, but lots are involved in solar. It just seems such a natural fit, given Taiwan’s ample sunlight and high-powered (pun intended) electronics industry. Hell, the whole island turns on air conditioners exactly at the time that the sun shines the brightest. Why aren’t there powerful government incentives to put solar panels on every rooftop? (Note: According to the Taipower website, almost none of Taiwan’s electricity is currently generated by solar power.)
Oops. I have slipped into advocacy, something that I’m not supposed to do on this blog. Sorry. We’ll blame it on the fact that I’m overly emotional from the Fukushima crisis.