The last Green Mile? Is Taiwan’s Antinuclear Movement Gearing for a Final Confrontation?

Written by Ming-sho Ho.

Image credit: Abolition of nuclear power generation marches in Taiwan by 威典 李/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2021 marks the 10th anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima Incident. It is also likely to be a decisive moment for Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement. Taiwan’s voters will head for a referendum on August 28 to decide whether to reactive the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (FNPP).

The FNPP project was brought to a halt before completion in April 2014 because Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement was resuscitated by Japan’s nuclear disaster and rode on the high-tide of civil society mobilisation immediately in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. During a week-long nation-wide campaigning, the ruling Kuomintang was split to the extent that then-President Ma Ying-jeou was forced to stop FNPP construction. When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took national power in May 2016 with an ambitious renewable energy program and a nuclear phase-out plan by 2025, the FNPP’s fate appeared permanently sealed.

Nevertheless, within five years, the FNPP was miraculously given a second chance. Should Taiwan’s citizens decide to rebuild this disputed project on a popular vote, it will deal a crushing blow to the anti-nuclear movement that has been in existence for more than thirty years.

How does one explain this unexpected reversal? I think there are three reasons.

First, a series of policy blunders on the part of DPP incumbents are undoubtedly responsible. The DPP government was immediately confronted with an unusually tight electricity supply in the first two summers. In 2017, two nation-wide blackouts took place, which fed into the pro-nuclear camp’s narrative that the DPP opposed nuclear energy on ideological grounds. In response, the DPP government hastily unveiled a coal-burning plant plan (the Shenao Power Plant) in Taipei’s vicinity without considering heightened awareness of air pollution. As such, the Shenao plan encountered widespread criticisms that “citizens were forced to generate electricity with their lungs.” The DPP government later had to abandon this plan.

Aside from energy policy, the DPP also made political miscalculations. A long champion of direct democracy measures, the DPP-majority legislature allowed a revision to the referendum law that lowered the required thresholds in 2017. The opposition party and pro-nuclear activists immediately seized this political opportunity and weaponised this legal avenue. In the November 2018 local election, they initiated a ballot question to abolish a newly added clause about the nuclear phase-out by 2025. The DPP dodged this challenge by deciding not to mobilise its supporters or publicise nuclear energy risk. The pro-nuclear referendum was passed with a voter turnout rate of 54.8% and a support rate of 59.4%.

Secondly, several loosely connected single-issue campaigners populated Taiwan’s environmentalist camp, which turned out to be vulnerable to poaching by pro-nuclear activists. Most environmental activists were originally sceptical of nuclear energy. However, when their concerns were perceived to be threatened by government policies, their anti-nuclear commitment typically took the back seat. For instance, Taiwan’s air pollution activists chose to target coal-burning power plants and downplayed the equally, if not more, emissions from motor vehicles. The increasing awareness of air pollution incidentally helped pro-nuclear activists to package their favourite energy source as “green.” Bird enthusiasts were alarmed by the land grab by solar panel farms, which threatened wildlife habitats. Thus, the national wild bird society publicised a statement to support the pro-nuclear referendum shortly before the 2018 election.

More recently, conservation activists for algae reef at the Taoyuan coast suddenly enjoyed the media spotlight because their signature-collecting campaign for a referendum received unexpected help from the Kuomintang and pro-nuclear activists. Previously it was seen as a long shot, but at present (March 13), it appeared to have gathered enough endorsement to be scheduled for the August referendum. The algae reef in question was threatened by the construction project for a terminal for liquidised natural gas (LNG), which the government claimed was essential for a nearby LNG power plant. Therefore, the algae reef campaign inadvertently strengthened the pro-nuclear activists’ narrative.

Taiwan’s disconnected environmentalists find it difficult to establish a working consensus about priority, let alone a roadmap for energy transition. Some of them appeared too parochial in their mindset to be willing to pay attention to non-local issues. Therefore, they become strange bedfellows with pro-nuclear activists, willingly or not.

Lastly, one has to give credit to how Taiwan’s pro-nuclear activists swiftly beat the learning curve and mastered the art of protesting. Huang Shixiu, originally a prolific blogger, initiated Nuclear Myth Busters (a Facebook fan page) in 2013 to counter the rising post-Fukushima nuclear scepticism. Previously, pro-nuclear communication was usually executed by the Atomic Energy Council and Taiwan Power Company. Expectedly, they were usually top-down, formalistic and uninspiring. Huang and his associates were committed, tech-savvy and quick to seize the DPP government’s mistakes. In my interview, some pro-nuclear activists acknowledged that they closely observed what anti-nuclear activists have previously done to learn how to outsmart them.

In conclusion, the DPP government’s policy mistakes—along with a disunited environmentalism and ingenuity from pro-nuclear activists—brought about an unexpected turn in Taiwan’s nuclear politics. With a few months ahead of the summer referendum, the anti-nuclear camp still has time to avert a looming calamity. Hence, supposing that anti-nuclear activists can refresh the memory of the Fukushima incident—and craft out a coherent and clear narrative of the FNPP’s existing problems—in that case, they can still win endorsement from Taiwan’s voters.

Ming-sho Ho is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University. He is the author of Working-Class Formation in Taiwan: Fractured Solidarity in State-Owned Enterprises, 1945-2012 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019).

This article was published as part of a March 2021 special issue on climate change and environmental issues in Taiwan. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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