Can Sunny Bear tame the Asian Dragon?

The Fukushima nuclear meltdown came like a wakeup call to the Taiwanese people: Don’t they live on the same seismic fault line? And don’t they have several equally exposed power plants on the shoreline, close to cities? Activist Wang Shun-Wei and her Taipeh based NGO help fishermen and office workers to voice their concerns.

 written for Peace Boat’s website, December 19th, 2012 >>

“Nothing makes me stay | except destination | though there are roses, green leaves | and a peaceful bay on the shore, | I’m the boat not anchored.” Wang Shun-Wei chose the poem she read out during Taiwan Night held onboard Peace Boat’s 78th Global Voyage well. The 27-year-old studied literature at college and dreams of travelling the world. But before that, Ms.Wang, who has been travelling on board Peace Boat since Yokohama as a guest educator, has a mission to accomplish in her home country. “As a student in Taipei, I started mountain climbing and river kayaking”, she tells the audience at one of her lectures. “That gave me many chances to witness how people are destroying the environment. Mountains in Taiwan are suffering from deforestation and hotels are being illegally constructed in scenic spots. I wanted to find out how this could happen”. Ms.Wang started volunteering for several NGOs during which she cleaned beaches and picked up garbage in the mountains. “But the deeper I got involved in these issues, the more I became dissatisfied with this conservation work, as I felt we are not challenging those who have the power. In most situations it is the attitude of the government that damages the environment.”

Three years ago she found her vocation working as a coordinator for the Green Citizen Action Alliance (GCAA) in Taipei. The organisation focuses on empowering citizens who are speaking out and campaigning against the use of nuclear power. “When I started my job, the anti-nuke movement was in a deep slumber” Ms. Wang recalls”. Citizens felt that they couldn’t change politics whatsoever. But the Fukushima 3.11 accident was like a wake-up call”. A similar catastrophe could happen any day in Taiwan. Just like Japan, the island is located on the Pacific Rim, which frequently experiences earthquakes. Taiwan has six operating reactors at three locations, two on the Northeastern tip and one at the Southern tip, and is constructing two new units at a new plant. All plants are located in conservation areas and close to the shoreline, exposed to possible tsunami waves. Two of them are of the same Boiled Water Reactor (BWR) type as the reactors at Fukushima. “Whenever I feel the earth trembling, I think about the reactors”, shares Ms. Wang. “As we lack storage space for highly contaminated nuclear waste, it has been packed extremely tight inside the reactors. If these packages hit each other, that alone could cause a meltdown”.

On the tiny island state, with no space to flee and hardly any evacuation plan, the consequences could be even more disastrous than in Japan. Whereas 170,000 people lived in the 30-km disaster zone around the Fukushima Daitsu plant, more than six million people reside within that same distance of two nuclear plants in northern Taiwan. “This includes Keelung, where we are going to stop”, Ms. Wang tells the audience in her lecture who start to murmur in response. In his book about nuclear issues the Japanese author Koide Hiroaki predicted that seven million people will die from cancer if a nuclear disaster like Fukushima ever occured in Northern Taiwan. Not only scientists and NGO activists, but also high-level officials of Taipower itself voice their doubts. In 2011, two senior executives sent a report about leaks, long cracks and sudden emergency shut-downs in the old nuclear plants. And in a letter published on the Taipower website even the chairman and the president elaborate on the disastrous financial status and conclude; “The 3.11 Fukushima nuclear accident […] added even more to the company’s management challenges and uncertainty”.
As one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world, the island state is in a difficult position – hungry for energy on the one hand, yet poor in resources. Consequently, Taiwan has to import a large portion of its energy and seizes any opportunity to produce some of its own. This has meant certain groups have seized on nuclear energy as a source for a national electricity supply. This is especially because some have argued that nuclear is “green energy”, arguing that because fossil fuels are not burned it does not directly contribute to climate change, ignoring the carbon dioxide produced in the processing of nuclear fuel and construction of nuclear power plants. President Ma Ying-yeou recently stated that Taiwan would need 38 per cent more electricity in the future to maintain its current growth. “That’s the wrong path!” argues Shun-Wei Wang. “We urgently need to rethink our consumption pattern and change our lifestyles. As far as the government is concerned, it has to support the transition to a less energy consuming industry and subsidize sustainable energy. Taiwan could easily develop solar and wind energy.” GCAA has coined the slogan “Go Zero”, campaigning for zero electricity growth and zero nuclear energy.

How will Taiwan go on? Will it continue to live up to its name as an Asian Dragon state – and risk devouring itself? Or will it find an alternative way of energy production and consumption? The case of the fourth nuclear plant will answer this question in the near future. One kilometre from the village of Gongliao on Taiwan’s north-eastern shore, Taipower has been constructing the Lungmen power plant since 2000; it is supposed to start operating in 2013. Technically and logistically, Lungmen has a chequered history. Its construction has been cancelled and resumed, delayed and divided into different units several times, it becomes increasingly hard to overlook and to manage. Even before its operation has started, the World Nuclear Association rated Lungmen as one of the most dangerous plants in the world. Nevertheless president Ma Ying-yeou defends the plant against the powerful resistance of the Gongliao community and their nation-wide supporters.

The young GCAA team has found many ways to draw Taiwanese citizens’ attention to the topic. They posed with bikinis on the beach close to the Lungmen power plant, persuaded book and coffee stores to save ten per cent of their energy, held a candle night to remember nuclear victims and have collaborated with famous musicians, film directors and illustrators convincing them to stand up against nuclear energy in Taiwan. As their logo they have chosen the “Sunny Bear”, a teddy with a sunflower. “We want to convey a positive message and attract young people and families to the topic”, says Shun-Wei Wang. When the activist wheeled her suitcase off the boat into the rainy city of Keelung, she turned around for a last long look: “I envy the Peace Boat participants for their chance to travel around the world. But before I can do that, nuclear power has to stop in Taiwan.” Just recently the Taiwanese president has announced a compromise in reaction to the protests. He promised to abstain from building further reactors on the island and from extending the life span of the existing reactors. Maybe Shun-Wei Wang’s dream will come true and she can fulfil her other dreams in the not too distant future.

(read what will happen, when Peace Boat visits a local resistance group of Taiwanese fishers tomorrow >>)