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Taiwan’s nuclear power problem

Taiwan's nuclear power problem

Jonathan Sullivan09 Jul 2014Leave a comment


Written by Ben Goren.

One of the hardest tasks facing any social scientist is to accurately and plausibly explain why certain social movements and issues gain or lose traction with the wider public at particular times and places. Sometimes the answer appears relatively simple; an event so profound that it acts as a catalyst in activating deeply ingrained but long dormant widely shared sentiments. Other times, the reasons are ephemeral and defy application to existing frameworks of analysis, there appear to be no social or historical ‘genetic markers’  for explaining why the movement should emerge at all.

For Ho Ming-sho of National Taiwan University, the resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan following the destruction of the Fukushima Power Plant in 2011 is best explained not as a reaction to the explosion of the reactors there but as a consequence of a wider re-mobilisation of social movements following the change in Government in 2008, and in part owing to the inability of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to lead the movement, thereby “carving out the political space for a more broadly based participation” freed from the stigma of partisanship.

Ho begins his analysis with a recap of political events in Taiwan two years after the tsunami that knocked out several of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11th 2011. Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺)’s call for a referendum in February 2013 on the completion of the under-construction Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (FNPP) is characterised by Ho as a ‘provocation’. Many opponents of nuclear power regarded the proposal as an ‘ambush’  since the question submitted by the Government (“Do you agree that the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be halted and that it not become operational?” (你是否同意核四廠停止興建不得運轉)) combined with the stringent criteria of the Referendum Law would ensure almost its certain defeat and a legitimising of the Government’s nuclear policy. In turn, Ho describes how this sparked a national anti-nuclear demonstration with over 200,000 people across four cities on March 9th. It was the largest ever demonstration held by anti-nuclear groups and the size and extent of public support for it took many by surprise, including the government. Subsequent opinion polls suggested that the Taiwanese public clearly opposed the operation of the FNPP, by a significant margin.

That demonstration, Ho explains, came two years after the Fukushima meltdown which wakened Taiwan’s dormant anti-nuclear lobby and reignited debate about the safety of Taiwan’s existing nuclear power stations, concerns which were magnified by the release of a report from the World Nuclear Association listing Taiwanese plants as dangerously susceptible to tectonic activity. The 2013 demonstration was a culmination of two years of rising activism cutting across social and political cleavages.

In attempting to understand why Taiwanese engaged so passionately with the issue of nuclear power post-Fukushima, Ho briefly looks at reactions in China, Korea and Japan, and finds that contrary to world environment regime theory, in which “Individual nation states are more and more willing to adopt cognitive frames (norms, scientific knowledge, and treaties) that are internationally legitimated”, a number of local factors such as rising mobilisation of social movements during the Ma Administrations and reduced partisanship within the anti-nuclear movement facilitated its resurgence.

Ho describes how the Government adopted nuclear energy in the 1970s as a means to provide business with stable power production and shows how the then KMT Government built a coalition of business support in the early 1990s for construction of the FNPP, and how that coalition was fractured by the advent of de-regulation of the power industry and the rise of Independent Power Providers (IPPs), many of whom came to see state-owned Taipower’s plans as an attempt to regain market monopoly of provision. A number of high profile resignations from the Government Atomic Energy Council (AEC) over safety concerns of the FNPP further undermined the Government’s ‘nuclear village’ and “lent legitimacy to the anti-nuclear movement”.

The Taiwanese anti-nuclear movement also has its roots in the 1970s, following a number of accidents, such as the one at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, spurring Taiwanese scientists to question the safety and necessity of nuclear power. In the mid-1980s the construction of the Third Nuclear Power Plant ran over budget, costing almost double its approved cost. Following this revelation, sixty one legislators proposed suspending construction of the FNPP in 1985, a request that the Executive Yuan later complied with, a feat which Ho identifies as “marking the initial victory of the anti-nuclear activists”. The 1986 Chernobyl explosion amplified the issue within Taiwan, which was then appropriated by the newly formed DPP manifest in the anti-nuclear clause in its party charter. This, Ho claims, transformed nuclear power into a distinctly partisan issue and encouraged anti-nuclear activists to pursue their goals primarily through engagement with political institutions.

The growth of the DPP post Martial Law allowed for greater influence of antinuclear voices on the content of political debates. That influence was in turn affected by the manner in which the DPP participated in Taiwan’s then fledgling democracy; the DPP’s ‘conflictual’ style of democratic practice contrasting with opposition parties in Korea that adopted a more moderate and less partisan approach. The DPP’s success in winning Taipei County (in which the FNPP was to be built) and holding onto power there between 1990 and 2004 was in part attributable to the party’s consistent opposition to nuclear power.

Ho identifies the legalisation of opposition political parties in 1987 as a watershed moment for the development of grassroots street demonstrations as an avenue for expressing social discontent, citing two examples of the indigenous people of Lanyu Island protesting their nation being used as a nuclear waste storage facility (Dec 1989) and protests by Kongliao residents (March 1988) as examples. Unknown to me, a policeman was accidentally killed in one protest in Kongliao in October 1990, marking perhaps the first fatality of the anti-nuclear movement worldwide. The early 1990s then saw a steady stream of protests in Taipei City, reaching a peak of an estimated 20,000 members in 1994.

It is at this point that Ho claims the DPP started to lose interest in nuclear power as a key policy, leading to a number of activists forming the Taiwan Green Party. Lacking any kind of electoral base or substantial influence however, the party remained on the political fringe. When the DPP won the Presidency in 2000, anti-nuclear activists played a part in the success and were ostensibly rewarded in October that year when President Chen announced the termination of the FNPP project. Their delight at this decision was short-lived as a revived KMT opposition used its majority in the Legislative Yuan to block and boycott most Government policies, and call for a recall of the President. In an attempt to avoid the issue taking his entire term of office hostage, and suffering political pressure from the impacts of a wider regional financial crisis, Chen sought dialogue with the KMT on the issue and resumed construction of the FNPP in February 2001.

Despite concessions to the anti-nuclear movement, including promising a referendum on the FNPP, the issue was set aside as the Government prioritised the economy over the environment. By the time Chen was re-elected in 2004, his Administration had resigned itself on the issue of the FNPP and approved supplementary budgets for the plant. For the period of 2001 to 2008, the issue of nuclear power faded into the political background and obscurity.

During this time, the anti-nuclear movement splintered into groups willing to work with the DPP (Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU)) and those critical of party for its ‘betrayal’ (the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance (GCAA)). According to Ho, this latter group, comprised largely of younger members and students, worked with people in Kongliao (site of the FNPP) to overcome the psychological shock of the DPP’s reversal of position and implement ‘integrated community building’ to revitalise local leadership.  Further, in 2004 one member produced a documentary film that raised awareness of anti-nuclear sentiment in Kongliao to a broader audience across Taiwan, in turn helping to position the issue as non-partisan. These young activists also used a variety of methods including music concerts and cultural activities, thereby reaching out to a new audience, and thus complementing the institutional approach of the TEPU.

Ho identifies 2008 as a watershed year which saw both a return to power of the pro-nuclear KMT and a revived mobilisation of social activism and protests:

…the KMT’s comeback brought a visible threat to social movement activists as they came to face a more unfriendly incumbent. Many institutionalised channels of access to official decision-making process are no longer accessible, and the Nuclear-Free Homeland Communication Committee was abolished as soon as Ma Ying-jeou became President. As a result of the estranged state–civil society relationship, protest increasingly becomes the only weapon that movement activists can use to influence the policymaking authority.

Importantly, the exponential growth in social media platforms and communications technology, such as Facebook and PTT, facilitated low-cost spread of information and greatly aided organisation and mobilisation of people and resources. Although the issues of protest varied (from eviction and land appropriation to environmentally damaging development) a common thread was a younger generation, supported by an involved artistic community, actively taking a direct stand against Government actions that they felt to be unjust, and on issues of wider public concern. In doing so, great care was taken to disassociate the activists and issues from political partisanship, in turn helping to generate support across party cleavages and nationally rather than just locally.

Despite this, Ho argues that post Fukushima, the DPP once again reverted to its anti-nuclear stance and attempted to appropriate the issue, in the process making tactical errors of not consulting with anti-nuclear activists and calling for a referendum on the FNPP, a political dead-end given that the plant would likely start operating before the referendum could be held. When the Government declared its desire to hold a referendum, the DPP sought to both mobilise supporters to win the referendum and also seek changes to the Referendum Law. Sensing however that it was caught in a losing battle, the DPP took a backseat and subsequently the party ordered its workers not to carry the flag during the March 9th protests.

Turning to the ruling party, Ho argues that the scale of the demonstration alarmed some senior KMT members and in turn “ignited the succession strife within the ruling KMT, and inflicted collateral damage on its traditional pro-nuclear orientation”. This Ho, claims, heralded an end to the KMT’s traditional pro-nuclear enthusiasm.

In conclusion, Ho cites three conditions for the re-emergence of Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement; the activism of grassroots groups keeping the issue alive during a decade when the issue had all but disappeared from media, social, and political radars, a surge in social movement activity after 2008 generating a spillover effect for post-Fukushima nuclear activism, and lastly, the DPP’s inability to lead the movement, allowing space for more broad based non-partisan public participation.

Whilst useful as a broad overview of the development of anti-nuclear activism in Taiwan, Ho’s article contains a number of startling omissions and underplays a number of key elements of the story. Putting aside Ho’s somewhat somewhat dramatic use of language depicting Taiwanese as ‘terrified’ about the safety of nuclear reactors, claiming that Japan was ‘incapacitated’ during the Fukushima crisis, and falling back on the trope of the DPP as ‘independence-leaning’ (why does Ho not characterise the KMT as ‘unification-leaning’?), Ho’s first error lies in positing the termination of Martial Law in 1987 as the birth of public demonstrations. In fact, Taiwan’s democracy movements re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, firstly in the form of demonstrations on ‘non-political’ issues such as environmental protection and gender rights. In 1977 the Zhongli Incident saw the first major, physical, public demonstration against ballot rigging and in 1979 the Mei-li Tao Incident in Kaohsiung was arguably the formative moment of peaceful public demonstration, and the Government’s subsequent violent response, which ultimately led to the creation of the DPP and signalled that opposition to KMT Marital Law was not only possible but desired.

Secondly, Ho identifies rising public protest post-2008 during the administrations of KMT President Ma Ying-jeou but stunningly fails to mention the Wild Strawberry Student Movement, the Losheng Sanatorium protest movement, student mobilisation over the issue of Land appropriations and housing demolitions in Dapu and, most glaringly of all, the hunger strike of former DPP Chairman Lin Yi-Hsiung. Although Ho is right to point out that the DPP did try to appropriate the anti-nuclear movement to some extent and did switch back to an anti-nuclear position, the major reason why the KMT Government felt unable to push for completion of the FNPP was because of Lin’s action which garnered constant coverage for over a week and kept the issue of nuclear power in the headlines, and the Government on the back foot.  Also missing is the televised debate between President Ma and then DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang which, if anything, left the public with the impression of a DPP stalling for time and seeking a way to pressure the Government to withdraw its plans for a referendum, and a President and Government harried, obstinate, and patronisingly indifferent to expert-proven concerns about the safety and necessity of the FNPP.

Thirdly, Ho identifies an internal split in the KMT as a key turning point. Although he is right to identify New Taipei City Mayor Chu and Taipei City Mayor Hau as possible contenders for KMT candidates in the 2016 Presidential elections, and possible future party leaders, to characterise Chu and Hau as ‘jumping on the anti-nuclear bandwagon’ is both optimistic and simplistic. Both men are seasoned politicians and core party members, and Ma has since promoted both the Vice-Chairmen of the KMT. Seasoned observers of Taiwanese politics are quite used to seeing regular reports of ‘internal splits’ and ‘strife’ in the KMT; like typhoons they appear every year, threaten to do a great deal of damage and change the landscape, but very rarely do much but flood news time-slots for a brief while before fading into memory. A case could even be made that they are a part and parcel of KMT election strategy rather than seismic shifts in power within the party. Thus for Ho to claim that the KMT’s pro-nuclear enthusiasm had totally disappeared is both inaccurate and fails to note the intricate ties between the party and Taipower, a long-lasting symbiotic relationship of political back-scratching and graft, the legacy of the KMT’s Party-State dictatorship.

Fourthly, although Ho mentions the role of social media, this is one area in which he could have expanded greatly so that the reader could better understand the dynamics of mobilisation and communication of anti-nuclear activists. We might then have also seen the cross-sectional and cross-issue participation of a number of core and highly active NGO’s and student movement organisations who have acted to raise awareness of a number of issues, even those with which they are not immediately concerned with. Of greatest concern with this article is the constant reference to anti-nuclear activists and yet this group of people is never defined, aside from the TEPU and CGAA. How old are these activists? Where are they from? What are their educational backgrounds? How many form a core group and how many act as messengers? What social and economic classes and backgrounds do they come from? What do they think about the development of the anti-nuclear movement and why it became resurgent post-Fukushima?  More importantly, do they regard the March 9th demonstration as a turning point and what obstacles do they see ahead in their drive to achieve a nuclear-free Taiwan?

Finally, the article feels confused about the actual impact of the Fukushima crisis on Taiwan and on the consciousness and awareness of Taiwanese in regard to nuclear power. Ho argues that Fukushima acted as a catalyst but was not by any means the formative event that led to the resurgence of the antinuclear movement. Given the media coverage at the time of the incident, including the large amount of aid given by Taiwanese to Japan in response to the devastation wreaked by the tsunami that destroyed Fukushima Daiichi, Ho’s argument feels like an understatement. Had Ho conducted extensive research at the grass-roots level and followed participants over a long period of time as they spent two years building up to the March 9th 2013 demonstration, he might have secured a greater depth of insight that illustrated the real symbolic and mobilizational influence of the nuclear incident.  In addition, Ho’s study would also have benefitted from discourse analysis of media reporting on the issue of nuclear power and how media acted to influence public opinion, and also on the events of 2013 when the issue was the focus of media attention. Ho’s examination of the DPP’s involvement in the issue highlights an imbalance of attention he pays to the KMT, it’s ties to Taipower, and its conduct and response to public pressure during this time.  No context is given for why the public might mistrust the KMT and there is no discussion of the way the party attempted to appear to concede to public demands whilst retaining the executive, legislative, and legal ability to continue launching the FNPP regardless.

Despite these weaknesses, Ho’s article provides a useful, if basic, introduction to the development of anti-nuclear activism in Taiwan for those with no prior knowledge of the issue, and at the very least sends a message to the global audience that Taiwanese are engaged with the issue of environmental protection, clean energy production, and deeply concerned about the long-term viability and safety of nuclear power.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan and tweets@BanGaoRen.

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