Archive for the ‘nuclear power’ Category

Book review: Taiwan’s Green Parties

August 23, 2021

My friend Dafydd Fell’s new book, Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, has been staring at me for several months. I was finally able to read it this week, and it was quite informative and stimulating. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable on Taiwan electoral politics, but I learned A LOT about this little corner of the political spectrum. Dafydd spent about eight years working on this book, and during that time he interviewed nearly everyone in or around the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). When he tells us about the internal conflicts or soap operas, he isn’t drawing on secondhand information gleaned from actors who gave political spin to reporters. He is getting it straight from the actors themselves, usually a few months after the events in which they have had time to distance themselves from the day-to-day events. The result is as much of an insider account as you will ever find in an academic book. This is fantastic research, and if you are interested in Taiwan’s electoral politics, the Green Party Taiwan, movement parties, or what life is like inside a fringe party, you need to read this book.

 Most of the book is centered around explaining the GPT’s electoral ups and downs from its founding in 1996 to the 2020 elections. A number of factors are considered, but two are identified as the most important. On the one hand, the GPT has had to find space in a political system dominated by two mainstream parties, and it hasn’t always been easy to find such space. For each election, Dafydd starts with a discussion of the party system. How has the party system (including events that shape the party system) changed since the last electoral cycle, and how did that present or restrict opportunities for the GPT? On the other hand, given the concrete space that the GPT faces in each election, how did it go about trying to take advantage those opportunities? The GPT has agency, and it has made many consequential decisions over the years. After giving the broad overview of each election, we look at individual campaigns. The GPT hasn’t nominated all that many candidates over the years, so Dafydd is able to look at a lot of obscure campaigns in quite a lot of detail. This includes not only campaigns for the national legislature, but also many campaigns for city and county council.

Now, I’ve done more work on city and county council elections that most political scientists, but even I found a lot of these campaigns to be obscure. One example that was compelling to me personally was the case of Chang Ming-li 張明麗, who in 2014 ran for the Keelung City Council, District 6. It was a four-seat district, and her 1048 votes placed her 10th out of 12 candidates. It wasn’t that close; the last winner got two and a half times as many votes as she did. The reason I know anything at all about her is that I live in this district. I have only a very vague memory of her. As with all candidates, the first question is whether to take them seriously. I think I looked at one of her leaflets and dismissed her as a certain loser. Dafydd devotes an entire page to her, concluding that she realized too late that she needed to go out and campaign and that she was actually quite good at it. If only she had started earlier! It was such a pity that she didn’t try again in 2018! Um, that might be a slightly optimistic interpretation of the result… Regardless, I rejoice in academic work that digs down into the weeds to find things that others might have neglected, and this book is a celebration of weed-digging. From all this minutia, we emerge with a rich picture of what GPT campaigns look like on the ground. And since they don’t look like KMT or DPP campaigns, this is a fresh perspective on Taiwanese politics.

The GPT’s electoral record is unimpressive. Dafydd identifies different eras as being more or less successful. So 1996-8 was better, 1999-2005 was dormant, the party re-emerged from 2006-2010, and it was close but never quite made an electoral breakthrough in 2012-2020. I think this is quite a generous reading of history. From my perspective, there is clear failure, dismal failure, and utter failure. I don’t think the GPT has ever been politically relevant in any meaningful sense. There’s a reason that pollsters almost never include the GPT as one of the options when they ask about party ID.

The book is full of stories like Chang’s, in which a candidate didn’t come particularly close to winning. In most cases, the GPT figures explain these results in terms of candidate quality. We didn’t nominate early enough, they didn’t get out of the office and go talk to voters, they didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t have enough money. One of the oldest tropes in politics is that when my side loses, it’s because we had a lousy candidate. When my side wins, it’s because we had better ideas. The GPT uses this trope quite liberally.

Another reason for the GPT’s lousy electoral record is incessant infighting. Fringe parties are notorious for internal squabbles and inability to cooperate (The Judean People’s Front!). The GPT seems to have been constantly bickering. Whenever anyone tried to do something that might win more votes, other people in the party complained that they were sellouts. There were many instances of a new leadership trying to marginalize former leaders. And proposed coalitions with other parties … well I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that the GPT placed far more importance on maintaining their “purity” than on winning elections.

There are numerous occasions in this book in which someone says something extremely revealing. Perhaps the most shocking instance involves Wang Hau-yu. Wang became the party leader from 2017 until he not only resigned that position but withdrew from the Green Party altogether in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Wang was unique among GPT politicians for his ability to regularly get media attention. One way he did this in the 2020 campaign was by releasing survey data on the state of the race. He claimed to have commissioned 25 separate surveys, and each time he was able to add his own spin to the resulting media reports. If nothing else, his continual presence in the media reminded potential voters of the GPT’s existence. At the time, I wondered how he was funding all these surveys. 25 surveys add up to a pretty penny for a cash-strapped organization like the GPT. One of the informants hints at an answer. According to an anonymous party insider, Wang had a secret arrangement with the DPP in which the DPP provided him with survey data. In return, Wang would attack the KMT, NPP, and TPP (p 264). In short, Wang got exposure and chances to argue against GPT rivals, while the DPP was able to outsource negative campaigning and avoid any blame. This doesn’t sound terrible for the GPT, but there’s more. In the last days of the campaign the DPP (predictably) issued a plea with sympathetic voters to vote for the DPP on the party list. One might have expected Wang – the GPT party leader – to make a counterargument that it was the GPT that desperately needed the votes. A few days after the election (in which the DPP won a comfortable majority while the GPT was completely shut out of the legislature), Wang explained why he did not do this on his Facebook page, “of course I knew that at this time the best method would be to tell everyone that the DPP was not in danger. But I did not, I could not do that. I could not put the GPT’s interests first if that meant there was the slightest possibility of there not being a [DPP] parliamentary majority and Han Kuo-yu winning the presidency” (pp 264-5). This is a stunning betrayal! If Wang thought it was most important for the DPP to get votes, he had no business at all representing the GPT! It appears that Wang was simply a DPP agent using the GPT to do the DPP’s dirty work. If this is correct, he had no business leading the GPT, and the only surprising part of his departure from the party immediately after the election is that it wasn’t more acrimonious.

Movement parties often find elections difficult. One reason for this is that social movements and electoral politics demand different priorities. For example, a labor movement might push workers to strike in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions, even though strikes are usually very unpopular among the general public. Movements have to be more radical; elections demand currying favor with mainstream voters. There is an inherent contradiction. However, this hasn’t been the GPT’s problem. They have been a lousy electoral party, but they’ve also been pretty lousy at movement politics. The GPT hasn’t offended mainstream voters because it was staging sit-ins on construction sites, leading marches against Formosa Plastics, protesting nuclear power plants, or engaging in any kind of civil disobedience for … anything. The GPT simply hasn’t been a radical force. When GPT members talk about their record, they point to the fact that some of their longtime positions – against nuclear power, for marriage equality – how now been accepted as mainstream. See, they’re winning! The only problem is that the GPT hasn’t had much to do with that process. In any neutral account of the anti-nuclear movement, for example, the GPT is merely going to be a peripheral actor. The other thing the GPT repeatedly stresses is their international character. They are part of the Global Green Movement! When they talk about what they do between elections, time after time they talk about attending the Global Green convention. Hooray. Forgive me for suggesting that taking a week to go on a trip to London, New Zealand, or Tokyo isn’t exactly my idea of a political movement. They are proud that they persuaded the Global Greens to pass a resolution recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ok, but when the German Foreign Minister was from the German Green Party, did he care at all about that resolution? The GPT has a party platform, but they don’t seem to do any of the hard work necessary – electoral or movement – to turn those ideals into concrete public policy. In fact, in discussing the aftermath of the 2020 election, the GPT talks about needing to rebuild its ties to social movements since they have let those wither over the past decade.

While this book is an exhaustive look at GPT leaders and candidates and their roles in elections, there is one largely overlooked actor: the voters. Does the GPT have a stable block of supporters? The GPT estimated that between 2016 and 2020, it lost about 1 million voters and gained about the same number (pp 269-71), which suggests that the GPT’s core support base is smaller than they might hope. Who is the GPT tying to appeal to? Some people suggest they should concentrate on Taipei City, while others argue they will have more success in rural areas and small cities. Are they targeting affluent people or working-class voters? Do they expect more support among young or old voters? More important than any demographic categories, how do voters think about the GPT’s issue appeals? Throughout this book, we find GPT politicians rejecting the notion that they are a single-issue party. In their minds, they are promoting a whole range of progressive positions, such as labor rights, housing justice, social inequality, good government reforms, trade policies, and national sovereignty. However, I suspect that most ordinary voters do not share such a broad image of the GPT. In a telling quote, GPT activist Robin Winkler recalls early discussions of cooperation with the SDP before 2016, “my first question [to SDP representatives] was ‘why don’t you just join us?’ They said that you’re just about the environment. I said, ‘have you read our charter?’” (p 211). If these politically sophisticated and sympathetic people – activists who were considering cooperation – thought that they GPT was merely a single-issue party, it seems very likely that most ordinary voters probably would as well. (Winkler’s reaction, that they needed to educate themselves, is also revealing. Successful parties don’t reflexively assign homework to the people they are trying to attract.) Even if most voters don’t know what the GPT stands for, are many voters open to those positions? Do the different arguments conflict with each other, attracting some voters but repelling others?

It is hard to do research on fringe parties since our standard survey data isn’t very useful for parties that have less than 3% support. Dafydd devotes five pages (103-108) to this topic, but the lack of good data means that he is only able to come up with some speculative suggestions. The only data we see about issues comes from a 2016 internet survey of 116 GPT/SDP supporters, which is very small and probably has a skewed sample (60% were students). We find that LGBT rights, environmental protection, labor right, and land justice were the top four issues for these supporters. Unfortunately, we don’t know if labor rights supporters, for example, were expressing support for the GPT, the SDP, or both. All in all, we simply don’t learn much about the GPT’s support base beyond the stories that they tell themselves. And given that we have learned that they aren’t exactly a group of professional politicians deeply embedded in their constituencies, I don’t have a lot of faith that they actually know who votes for them and why.

It is finally time to talk about the beast looming over everything related to Taiwanese politics including the GPT: national identity. National identity is impossible to ignore. China forces this issue on Taiwan, and it permeates all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions. Baseball, airline names, vaccine purchases, a trip to Bolivia, hotel development on Taiwan’s east coast, pineapple farming, national health care costs, my quest for Taiwanese citizenship: China twists them all. There simply aren’t any issues on which Taiwanese voters don’t have to think about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Decisions about how to respond to all these different questions are usually grounded in national identity. People who feel a bit Chinese tend to opt for different policies than people who don’t feel at all Chinese. National identity will continue to dominate Taiwanese politics until Taiwan’s sovereignty is settled. It is inescapable.

From one perspective, the GPT has taken a quite clear stance on Taiwan identity. Kao Cheng-yen sailed out into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to “catch” the missiles China was firing. The TGP got the Global Greens to pass resolutions on Taiwan sovereignty. The GPT issued statements in favor of Hong Kong protesters. Isn’t all that pretty clear? Well, no. While there are undoubtedly many GPT figures with a strong stance on Taiwan identity and almost none screaming about how they are Chinese, there are hints of ambiguity. A GPT executive committee member suggested the GPT’s task was, “the GPT needs to convince the public that the GPT wants to transcend the issue of unification or independence, either way Taiwan needs to survive and have a good environment” (p 140). This person wants to play both sides; she is not interested in a clear position. An even more striking statement comes from a GPT supporter, “young people in Taiwan today, they have a good life. Young people today don’t say, ‘I want to be independent.’ They don’t think about that as much as before. We have a good life now. … If you keep shouting about independence, unification all days, people will feel annoyed. We are a country now, why do you need to keep repeating those things? (p107). I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year looking at Han Kuo-yu’s rhetoric, and he repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing (except he would have insisted that life in Taiwan is currently lousy). In the current environment, when someone insists identity is not important, it often means they simply don’t want to talk about their opinion because they know it is unpopular.

The GPT seems to know they have an ambiguous stance. GPT activists blamed their poor showings in 2016 and 2020 on a popular desire for a clearer stance on China questions after the Chou Tzu-yu incident and the Hong Kong protests. Either they don’t believe their own autopsy, or they are willingly paying a price for this ambiguous stance.

It isn’t just a question for voters. National identity is probably behind the GPT’s problems in forming electorally advantageous coalitions. In 2012 and 2016, the DPP yielded a legislative district to a GPT (or GPT allied) candidate. This should have been a golden opportunity. The GPT’s candidate was guaranteed media coverage, and the DPP was basically inviting it to make a sales pitch to its tens of thousands of local supporters. This was also an opportunity for the GPT to make contact with organizational networks and potential financial backers. However, the GPT was not able to take advantage of these opportunities. In both cases, when Tsai Ing-wen campaigned with the GPT candidate (national attention!! this is your chance!!), GPT party activists publicly revolted against any suggestion that they were endorsing her presidential campaign. In a contest between the KMT and DPP presidential candidates, they did not want to take a side (even though the DPP presidential candidate was endorsing their legislative candidate). They might have argued that their neutrality had nothing to do with national identity, but presidential elections are essentially referendums on exactly that question. The GPT might write something about sovereignty in its party charter, but very few people read party charters. These incidents got national press coverage, making it clear for all to see that the GPT was internally divided on Taiwan identity. Moreover, because of this internal division, they weren’t able to commit to an electorally advantageous alliance. They wanted to tell people to ignore identity and focus on the environment, but they were unable to take their own advice. Identity is inescapable.

The current (missing) energy crisis

August 30, 2019

A few days ago, Han Kuo-yu came out with his energy policy. The headlines focused on his plan to restart the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project, which has been mothballed since the Ma government capitulated in the face of enormous public pressure in 2014. The referendums in 2018 seemed to indicate a new level of popularity for nuclear power, so Han probably thought it would be politically adept to bring the 4Nuke back. It didn’t go well, with New Taipei mayor (and most popular KMT politician in the country) Hou You-yi throwing cold water on the idea and calling it a non-issue.

All this got me to thinking about how much electricity hasn’t been in the news this year. In the past few years, we have had lots of stories about how dangerously low the electricity supply is. This year, I can’t remember reading any of those stories. That is, there doesn’t seem to be an electricity crisis in the political atmosphere that demands a bold/risky solution such as dusting off the rotting 4Nuke plant.

Subjective impressions are a dangerous thing to rely on, so I thought I’d try to find some data. I went to the United Daily News online data base and searched for stories using the term 備轉容量 and 電 (operating reserve and electricity). This search term typically yields stories that say something like:

Yesterday the temperature soared to 38.9C in downtown Taipei, and electricity consumption spiked. At the peak demand, Taipower reported the operating reserve fell to a mere 3.2%. This is horrible and dangerous. The country’s economy is at great risk, and it’s all Tsai Ying-wen’s fault.

Ok, maybe only the first two sentences are typical. Sorry. Please accept my apology, Fan Ling-jia.

Ideally, I wanted to search for the entire summer, but since we still have a month of summer to go, I limited my search to July and August for each year. Then, to see if maybe the fashionable terminology for reporting on this type of story had changed, I tried the same thing using a different term: 供電 and 警 (power supply and alert). This table shows how many stories I found in July and August each year for those search terms:

  備轉容量 and 電

(number of UDN stories)

供電 and 警

(number of UDN stories)

2012 0 24
2013 3 26
2014 14 35
2015 28 46
2016 24 30
2017 119 156
2018 34 11
2019 18 11

These electricity crisis stories peaked in 2017. 2017 was the worst year for power supply, and it also saw a massive blackout in August when one power plant had a mechanical failure and plunged most of the island into a blackout for several hours on a sweltering August day. Lots of the stories in 2017 are about that blackout. Politically, the blackout was a disaster, and it probably caused as much anger and dissatisfaction with the Tsai government as any other cause. (Frozen Garlic’s first rule of governing: Don’t ever, ever let the power go out.)

You will notice that there were still 18 stories this year in UDN with the term “operating reserve.” This is a clear decline from previous years, but it isn’t zero. However, a quick glance through the headlines reveals something interesting about these stories. None of them follow that typical script. Most of them said something to the effect of the “situation is much better this year” or “yesterday was hot, but there was no problem with the power supply.” A few stories even involved Taichung mayor Lu Hsiu-yan arguing that, since power supply was now sufficient, the big Taichung power plant could be closed. None of them screamed, “CRISIS!!!”

You might wonder, is the situation really getting better? Or is the United Daily News getting lazy? It isn’t the latter. Fan Ling-jia, in addition to being a handsome guy and a lousy baseball player, is a demanding boss. If there were a power supply crisis, he’d assuredly tell his editors to cover it in a fair and neutral manner. Or at least some sort of manner.

I found some statistics from the Ministry of Economics, Bureau of Energy. They count the number of days each year that the operating reserve fell below 6%, which is generally considered dangerously low. (They like to have at least 10% and ideally 15%.)

  Days with operating reserve below 6%
2015 33
2016 80
2017 104
2018 29
2019 0

In fact, I found day by day reports from Taipower from June and July, and the operating reserve has only dipped below 10% twice in those two months. The electricity supply situation isn’t anywhere near as tight as it was in 2016 and 2017.

I’m not an expert on energy policy by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t quite understand how much the blend of power sources has changed, how much pollution is produced, or the finances involved. (Hell, even Fan Ling-jia probably understands energy policy better than I do.) However, this little exercise does indicate that Tsai’s promised transformation of the energy sector is bearing the fruit that she promised. She told us the first few years would be difficult, and they were. She also told us that things would get better by the end of her first term, and that seems to be the case.

Energy policy and referenda

December 1, 2018

I feel the need to rant about referenda today.

 

So what the hell is Taiwan’s energy policy supposed to be now?

 

Last Saturday, voters passed the referendum #16, commonly labeled as “go nuclear to go green” (my clumsy translation), which deleted a clause in one of the laws setting the phase-out date for nuclear power. (At least I think that’s what it did. I’m actually not sure, which, eventually, is the point.) They also voted overwhelmingly against the Shen-ao coal-fired power plant project (which the government had already cancelled). And Taichung voters elected KMT candidate Lu Hsiu-yen in a landslide, partially because she campaigned on the poor air quality caused by the huge coal power plant. She further promised to stop sending electricity generated in Taichung to northern Taiwan.

But while those are the most recent results, we also have to think about previous lessons from public opinion. Five years ago, the government wanted to have a referendum on whether to open the fourth nuclear power plant, but it was so unpopular that KMT legislators weren’t even willing to vote to propose the referendum. Also, after the KMT lost the 2016 presidential election, Eric Chu singled out increases in electricity (and propane gas) prices as one of the major reasons that the public rebelled against the Ma government. Finally, let’s remember how much outrage there was last summer when an accident at one power plant caused one day of blackouts over much of the island.

To summarize, the voters don’t want clearly coal. They definitely don’t want nuclear, or maybe they do. They don’t want any power plants in their neighborhood, and they definitely don’t want electricity generated in their neighborhood to be sent elsewhere. They want low prices, and they absolutely demand a stable supply of electricity.

It should be easy to satisfy all those demands simultaneously. I’m glad we used referenda to clear up this entire matter.

 

I have three big objections to this attempt to use referenda to decide energy policy. First, voters are not forced to consider trade-offs. None of the proposals suggested that cutting coal power might be possible if an increase in electricity prices spurred less electricity consumption. Voters in central Taiwan were not asked if they supported refusing to send electricity generated in central Taiwan northward even if it resulted in companies in the Hsinchu Science Party (read: Taiwan Semiconductors) being forced to cut production. Trade-offs are exactly what governments do. The Tsai government restarted nuclear reactors that had previously been offline over the protesting screams of its anti-nuclear wing because it was much more afraid of blackouts. Taiwan could cut pollution by using higher prices to suppress demand, but that would be unpopular. It could also cut pollution by retrofitting some of its older coal plants, but that is extremely expensive and it would take a few years. None of the options are ideal. You can’t have everything you want; you have to make trade-offs. Referenda almost never present the question this way.

Second, energy policy takes years to implement. Five years ago, the Ma government bowed to public pressure and shuttered the fourth nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, this left Taiwan’s energy reserves precariously low. The Tsai government has invested heavily in wind power, which is starting to come online now, and it is planning a natural gas facility in northern Taiwan. However, in the meantime, the choice was essentially getting more electricity out of the existing coal plants or the existing nuclear plants. In fact, the government had to do both. It’s a reasonable stopgap measure, given the long-term strategy. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s referendum law has a short-term orientation. Under the December 2017 revision, the thresholds for proposal and passage are ludicrously low. A successful referendum doesn’t necessarily reflect a deeply held consensus in society. It can just as easily reflect a short-term blip in public opinion. A few years ago, nuclear was extremely unpopular. Now, that has faded somewhat, so maybe this year coal is the villain. What if we do this next year and find that public opinion has shifted again? Are we supposed to fundamentally shift energy policy every two years just because 29.8% of eligible voters said yes to some unintelligible question on the ballot?

And that brings me to the third and most basic problem: information. Referenda place extremely high demands on voters to become educated, and there is very little evidence that voters are up to the task. I’ve been reading Democracy for Realists by Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, and they make this point forcefully. Voters simply do not have the time, capacity, or desire to become fully informed on any given question. We all have better things to do. At any rate, division of labor is a hallmark of modern society. Why should we think that society is better off if everyone neglects their other responsibilities (that is, the things that they are good at) and spends months learning about energy policy? That’s crazy. Instead, people find shortcuts. There are usually plenty of people who are happy to advise them how to vote, but that isn’t necessarily good advice. The people with the strongest incentive to give advice are the people who will directly benefit from the outcome. Not surprisingly, referenda tend to favor the wealthy. The promise of referenda is that voters can bypass the disgusting politicians and go directly to the people. Unfortunately, the people have to rely on an even more disgusting set of people (who are actually also politicians in a different guise) for advice.

Achen and Bartels cite a couple of stories vividly illustrate these problems. In one, many counties in Illinois adopted a requirement that any increase in taxes to fund fire departments had to be approved by referendum. In other counties, the local administrators and councils made this decision. Predictably, voters refused to pay higher taxes, and the quality of fire departments in the referendum counties declined noticeably. Training was neglected, equipment became outdated, staffing was thinner, and response times were longer. Wait, maybe that’s what voters wanted. Maybe they were willing to accept worse fire protection for lower taxes. It seems unlikely; most people also want better services, especially when those services involve life and death. However, they did not save money. They paid lower taxes, but they paid higher fire insurance rates. The county administrators understood this, but voters did not. Poorly informed voters made self-harming choices, and this problem, unlike national energy policy, was fairly easy to understand. Voters are ALWAYS underinformed.

But what if some voters could be fully informed? Would other voters defer to them? In Canada, the province of British Columbia tried to find out. There was a movement to reform the electoral system by putting in some form of proportional representation. The provincial government took a large group of citizens and basically gave them a college class for a few months. Various experts came in and taught this group all the pros and cons of the various proposals. Eventually, the group formed an overwhelming consensus for a specific proposal which was put on the ballot. The voters rejected it by a decisive margin. The voters apparently weren’t impressed by all the study that the select group had done. Average voters made their decisions based on their own limited knowledge rather than assuming they, like the people in the select group, would see things differently if they were more fully informed.

Remember at the beginning when I stated that I wasn’t exactly sure what referendum #16 did? Of course I don’t! I’m underinformed. I’ll bet you are too. I want experts who have spent their careers thinking about the details and tradeoffs involved to sit down with politicians who have spent their careers thinking about how to balance the aggregated demands of society and figure the damn thing out. If I try to set energy policy, I’m probably going to overlook something very basic and end up with expensive, dirty, and unreliable electricity. I might even end up burning my own house down.

Referenda are a terrible way to make public choices.

ELECTRICITY CRISIS!!!!!

April 28, 2015

So the country’s electricity reserves are dangerously low because an accident at the 3rd nuclear power plant in Pingtung required Taipower to shut down one of the reactors. So now Taipower is blackmailing the population with the threat of electricity rationing in a last-ditch attempt to open the 4th nuclear power plant.

Let’s see. Taipower’s strategy for the last two decades has been entirely concentrated on one thing: building the 4th nuclear power plant. The construction project has been plagued by delays, cost overruns, and quality control problems. Taipower has steadfastly refused to develop a Plan B. Meanwhile, the three existing nuclear power plants have all had numerous safety problems. Clearly, there is only one way out of this mess: we must let Taipower have more nuclear power to mismanage!

No, the answer is that Taipower needs a thorough overhaul from top to bottom. The senior management should all be replaced, operating procedures should be carefully reviewed, and, most importantly, the country’s energy policy must be completely rewritten. Taipower is a rotten organization pursuing a flawed energy strategy. The current government shows no sign of being able to – or even wishing to – take on the entrenched interests standing in the way of fundamental reform. There is no guarantee that a President Tsai would be able to institute fundamental reform, but you can be pretty sure that no real changes will occur if the KMT stays in power.

Is this plan B?

January 5, 2014

So the government is apparently just going to go ahead with testing at the 4th nuclear power plant.  They even have plans to insert fuel rods.  Didn’t they promise to ask the voters before doing this?  Does this mean that they have abandoned the referendum idea?  Did I miss that press release?  I thought that the promise of a vote was one of the core premises of Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s cabinet.  I’m a bit confused.

 

[Edit: One day later, the Liberty Times is asking the same question.]

Disobedient KMT legislators?

September 24, 2013

Here’s an interesting bit of news.  KMT legislative party whip Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池 announced that the legislature will not take up the nuclear referendum this session.  Lin explained that the Ministry of Economics has not yet produced a safety report, and the legislature cannot be expected to act before that report comes out.

This is interesting to me because my working assumption is that the current KMT political struggle is all about the executive branch demanding that its party members in the legislature toe the party line and pass the executive’s legislative agenda.  According to all accounts, there are three big items on that agenda: the services trade agreement, the nuclear referendum, and the annual budget.  Lin has just told the executive that Santa isn’t giving them everything they want for Christmas this year.

This comes after Ma announced the KMT would rearrange the coordinating meetings between the party, executive, and legislature by replacing Speaker Wang with Party Whip Lin.  Apparently, before the first meeting in which the president, premier, vice-president, and party secretary-general would have told him what to do, Lin pre-empted them by publicly announcing what he would not do.

Ma’s inner circle may have thought that Wang was behind all the obstruction in the legislature and that things would move much more smoothly once his power was hollowed out.  However, if the underlying problem was that many KMT legislators don’t want to be associated with unpopular executive proposals, Ma may be in for a rude awakening.

KMT proposes referendum on nuclear power

February 27, 2013

The KMT has announced that it will support holding a referendum on whether to start operations at the 4th nuclear power plant (4NPP).

This is a stunning turn of events, at least to me.  They are venturing onto treacherous ground.  There are lots of ways this can go wrong for them, and only one way that it can turn out well.

Nuclear power divides along the traditional blue/green lines, though there have been defectors from both sides.  I recall one budget fight in the late 1990s in which the KMT demanded party discipline from everyone except for legislators from Taipei County, who were allowed to vote with their constituency.  Similarly, the DPP was not monolithically anti-nuclear either.  The polarizing moment came early in Chen’s presidency when he stopped construction on 4NPP.  Chen had won the presidency with 39%, and the DPP had roughly the same share of seats in the legislature.  The newly emerging blue camp had a clear majority, and nuclear power was the test case to see if the president or the legislature would dominate the government for the rest of the term.  Whatever deviance from party positions had previously existed was quickly overwhelmed by the partisan struggle for power.  Eventually, the KMT won out and the DPP was forced to resume construction on 4NPP.  If it wasn’t already clear, this episode indelibly branded the KMT and DPP as pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear parties.

The project has had a bumpy history, to put it mildly.  There have been numerous cost overruns, safety problems, construction delays, and various other snafus.  Of course, the site is near the Taipei metropolitan area, vulnerable to tsunamis, on an earthquake fault, and even sits atop a not-quite-dormant volcano.  The fact that Taiwan has three other (much older) nuclear power plants (with not entirely pristine safety records) has done little to qualm fears about whether 4NPP will be safe.  Fukushima sharpened all these concerns and forced Taiwanese to rethink whether nuclear power was a good idea.

During the 2012 presidential election, the KMT tried to take the nuclear issue off the table.  It promised to decommission the three existing plants on schedule.  4NPP would be opened, but not until it had been rigorously tested.  At the end of its scheduled life, Taiwan would be nuclear free.  Somehow, these verbal gymnastics allowed Ma to claim that he was simultaneously for (a) opening a new nuclear power plant and (b) making Taiwan nuclear free.  The DPP position was more straightforward.  They would not open 4NPP, and they would hasten the decommissioning of the old plants.  I think the KMT strategy largely worked.  Nuclear power did not seem to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign.

I have not seen specific polling data on support for nuclear power, but it is my impression that public opinion is shifting, perhaps decisively, away from the KMT.

 

Why is the KMT so politically committed to nuclear power?  Most importantly, they have committed enormous piles of money to this project over the past two decades.  They cannot simply walk away with nothing to show for it.  The DPP would beat over the head relentlessly for years and years.  How many schools, hospitals, roads, public housing, MRT lines, or flower festivals were sacrificed for 4NPP?  It would be strong evidence that the KMT had a flawed vision for the future and had stubbornly insisted on imposing that flawed vision on an unwilling population.  The KMT has been attacking the DPP for a decade over the 2001 showdown.  When the DPP stopped construction, they broke numerous contracts and had to pay heavy financial penalties.  Of course, the project was then resumed, so that money was just wasted.  However, if the plant never opens, this argument gets reversed: the DPP tried to save Taiwan an enormous amount of money, and the KMT wasted 10 more years of construction budgets.  For the KMT, reversing course is simply not an option.

There are also other reasons the KMT wants nuclear power.  One way to understand the KMT regime is as a construction state, much like the LDP’s Japan.  The ruling party hands out lots of construction contracts and turns these contracts into political support.  Some aspects are legal, some are hazy, and some are outright illegal.  However, it is pretty effective.  4NPP has been a 20 year gravy train of contracts to hand out.  (I hope I’m wrong about this.  Contracts used for this purpose often lead to shoddy public works.  This prospect terrifies me.)  Many manufacturers support nuclear power.  To be clear, they don’t care where the electricity comes from, but they can’t stomach the prospects of insufficient or unreliable power.  Many of the exporters that drive Taiwan’s economy want 4NPP opened because they believe it will provide steady and reliable electricity for the next few decades.  The KMT also listens closely to Taipower, the state run electricity company.  Taipower is deeply embedded in the KMT’s power structure.  The Economics Minister is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.  Taipower wants 4NPP.  It can be pushed and prodded to reluctantly try out the odd alternative energy project, but 4NPP is Taipower’s crown jewel.

 

If the KMT is so deeply committed to nuclear power, how is it possible that they can accept a referendum?  Admittedly, I didn’t think it was possible until they announced it.  I fully expected that they would make a big show of safety tests, have a blue ribbon commission pronounce the plant safe, and use their majority in the legislature to push away any remaining obstacles.  Apparently public opinion is shifting enough that they don’t feel this strategy is tenable.  We have seen several prominent blue camp supporters ask the KMT to reconsider its stance.  The one that struck me was the foundation associated with Fubon Financial Group.  If even powerful people in Fubon, which is betting heavily on further integration into the Chinese market, are willing to speak out against nuclear power, anyone in the blue camp can.  The pressure from within the blue camp coalition must be intense.

One thought is that the KMT is using the referendum as a mechanism to back away from nuclear power.  If the public votes against 4NPP in the referendum, the KMT will have a rationale for changing its position.  The public will be responsible for the economic consequences of the decision, not the KMT.  I don’t think this is correct.  (Or if it is, it is a terrible strategy.)  If the public repudiates 4NPP, they will effectively be saying that the policy the KMT has been doggedly pursuing over the past 20 years was not just wrong, it was so wrong that voters are willing to stomach wasting billions of dollars to reverse it.  Don’t think that voters will simply forgive the KMT for all that money.  The KMT insisted on spending it.  Just as a government reaps political benefits for doing things that turn out well, they are penalized for making poor choices.  The KMT might hope it can foist off that responsibility onto the people, but one of the axioms of democratic politics is that the voters are never wrong.  Someone has to take the blame if 4NPP never opens, and that someone will be the KMT.

Moreover, if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead.  He will be politically neutered.

No, the KMT cannot lose this referendum.  They have to win it.  The only way this turns out well for them is if a clear majority of voters vote against not starting operations at 4NPP.  This means that the KMT will have to fully engage the debate.  President Ma will have to commit completely and publicly to this project; he won’t be able to prevaricate the way he did in the presidential campaign.  The KMT will have to convince the electorate that nuclear power is safe, efficient, clean, reliable, and desirable.

Don’t assume that Ma will fail.  His biggest advantage is that there is an information asymmetry.  The government will have all the details about 4NPP and Taiwan’s electricity needs.  When they need to know something, they can simply make a phone call.  Opponents will have to satisfy themselves with publicly available data, which is far less thorough.  Because of this, the KMT will usually have more convincing evidence for their arguments than the opposition will.  They also have all the resources of the state at their disposal to publicize their arguments.  In the ECFA debate, we saw lots of advertizing touting the advantages of ECFA.  Every government press release was infused with a pro-ECFA message.  Heck, even our electricity bills had a pro-ECFA message on them.  Get ready for an even more intense campaign.

The anti-nuclear camp also has to worry about this turning into a straight blue/green fight.  Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration is high, but there are a lot of people who will grit their teeth, curse bitterly, and vote for him rather than support the DPP.  The anti-nuclear camp needs to make sure that blue camp supporters who are against nuclear power feel that nuclear power is not just a proxy for feelings about China.  Given that the two big parties are clearly aligned against each other on this issue and will be leading their respective camps, that might be challenging.

 

This will be unlike any previous referendum.  We really haven’t had true referendum yet.  All prior cases were really just exercises in mobilizing voters in a general election campaign.  The questions were always designed to be as uncontroversial as possible.  “Do you favor a competent national defense?”  “Should we have high economic growth?” “Are you against pedophilia?”  (Ok, maybe those weren’t the exact questions…)  This question will be designed to resolve a public policy issue, not to mobilize voters for a different election.  While the government will phrase the question in as advantageous a way as possible, this question will inevitably split the electorate into two clear sides.

One thing opponents don’t need to worry about is turnout.  In the past, one side mobilized and the other side boycotted.  Since referenda need 50% turnout to become binding, all failed.  The question will be phrased in the negative, something like “Do you favor not beginning operations at 4NPP?” so technically the KMT could ensure the failure of the referendum by boycotting.

However, the KMT needs to win politically, not legally.  Consider if turnout is 40% and 90% of the votes are “yes” votes.  What that demonstrates is that there are a lot of voters who are against nuclear power.  It does not demonstrate that anyone actually supports it.  If the KMT felt passive support were enough, they would have been better off just pushing 4NPP through the normal legislative process rather than asking for a referendum.  The KMT needs active support.  It needs more “no” votes than “yes” votes.

The DPP will lead the charge against nuclear power, and the KMT will have to lead the demands for nuclear power.  With both sides fully mobilizing, turnout will not be so important.  I expect that 50% will not be a problem, but even if turnout is only 48%, if one side wins by a clear margin, that will be decisive in the political battle.  If the KMT wins, they will, of course, go forward.  If they lose by a clear amount, the party will not be able to stomach flagrantly defying public opinion.  (President Ma might, but the politicians who still have to fight future elections will not.)

I’m still stunned that the KMT has chosen this path.  However, they have cast their lot, and we are in for an interesting spring and summer.

Fukushima and us

March 18, 2011

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.