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The nuclear feature and populism
Publication Date : 26-02-2013
Even as the debate over the fate of Taiwan's No. 4 Nuclear Power Plant raged on with no conclusion in sight, news broke on the other side of the Earth that radioactive waste stored underground has been leaking at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year.
A total of 1 million gallons of waste has been leaked at the nuclear facility, according to a media estimate.
The underground storage tanks in Washington state are long past their intended lifespan, and the treatment plant that will handle the waste is billions of dollars over budget and is not expected to be operational until at least 2019.
The case highlights yet another concern for the continuation of nuclear power plants. While Washington state officials are stressing that the leak poses no immediate risk to human health, they admit it has tainted the soil in the site, which itself is already contaminated by past leakages. Without the luxury of landmass, Taiwan would have faced much more serious consequences had a similar leak taken place on its soil.
Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council pointed out that unlike the liquid waste involved in the US case, Taiwan stores its radioactive waste in a solid state, lowering the risk of leakage. The underlining concern, however, goes beyond the details of this specific case. The leak in Washington was caused not by a certain type of waste treatment procedure but by less than thorough inspections and by delays in government projects. The safety of nuclear waste management hinges not solely on soundness of the procedural science but also on the consistency of the government's vigilance for many (some say thousands of) years after the waste is interred.
Given the prevalent public distrust of government in Taiwan, strong opposition to nuclear power here is all but expected. The government's current argument on the safety of the system fails to account for the very real worries about those who run the system. The storage tanks did not fail in Washington - it was people that came up short.
The government should ditch the strong tendency often found in policymakers to preserve the status quo and should start devising nuclear power policy with a clean slate. It should take into consideration recent events and discoveries to come up with the plan that best serves the nation's interests, both in economic and environmental terms. The fate of the No. 4 Nuclear Power Plant should only be based on its significance to Taiwan's future - not the resources already spent on it. What's worse than a wrong start is a wrong start that is carried through to the end.
That is not to say, however, that the government should immediately side with public opinion, which in Taiwan is influenced by strong currents of populist ideas that appeal exclusively to emotions and by the preference for obvious changes now over careful long-term planning. This paradox of populism is reflected by the fact that the public strongly opposes the continuation of nuclear power due to its distrust of government, but at the same time strongly supports the continuation of the death penalty. Despite its distrust, the emotions involved in the issue and the immediate effects of capital punishment means the public is overwhelmingly willing to give the government absolute power over life and death.
Whether to continue Taiwan's nuclear power system or not, the government should base its decision on professional evaluations and with ample information. It should listen to the people while facing the nation's strong populist climate firmly. To start doing so, it should commission an independent comprehensive study on all aspects related to its nuclear future. It should make clear to the public that while it keeps an open mind on the issue, it will not be wavered by populist demands, but will make its decisions based on what's best for the nation.