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Taiwanese Anti-Nuclear Protesters Must Understand Trade-Offs

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If Taiwan is to phase out nuclear energy, its citizens must be ready to pay the cost.

Saturday's massive anti-nuclear protests-- the largest ever of their kind-- have pushed a referendum on the construction of Taiwan's fourth nuclear power plant to the top of the domestic agenda. But with energy prices on the rise and minimal renewable energy development on this island, do citizens understand the ramifications of their demands?

Nuclear power is certainly risky. At worst, deadly. These are legitimate fears in Taiwan, an island laying on an active fault zone where earthquakes are common and tsunamis a possibility.

On Monday, its neighbor to the north, Japan, held memorial services to remember the 19,000 who lost their lives in the tragic 2011 tsunami. The second anniversary of the massive earthquake that triggered the tsunami, and the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear power plant crisis, has rekindled the debate over nuclear safety.

Two years on, little has been said of improving earthquake and tsunami monitoring, detection, and resilience. Instead, it is the fear of nuclear catastrophe that grips citizens and hits headlines, eventhough the gravest danger posed by the world's most acute nuclear crisis in the last 30 years has past.

A recently released comprehensive assessment by the World Health Organization has concluded "for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated."

Nuclear power is dangerous. But so is anti-nuclear hysteria.

Shutting down construction of the island's fourth nuclear power plant, and closing the three in current operation is a monumental task-- not only technically speaking, but socially.

Taiwan imports 98 percent of its energy-- coal, oil, and natural gas. Last year, it generated just 2.24 percent of its total energy consumption from renewable sources, including hydropower, according to the Bureau of Energy in the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Let's be clear. Shutting down nuclear in Taiwan means increased reliance on imports, increased reliance on fossil fuels, higher carbon emissions, more intense air pollution, and greater costs for consumers.

But there are other options.

A 2010 study assessing the potential of solar, wind, biomass, wave, tidal, geothermal energy and hydropower found reserves in Taiwan could be "quite abundant." If these resources were scaled up to production, renewables could nearly triple the total national power production of 2008.

The government has taken action. Its New Energy Policy already calls for the steady reduction in nuclear energy reliance. It passed the Renewable Energy and Development Act back in 2009, calling for, inter alia, generous feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) and the rapid development of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity. Problem is, it flopped.

Disagreements over when FiTs would begin, talks of immediately slashing the size of the subsidy, and an underdeveloped downstream PV industry led to minor capacity additions.

The formation of the Taiwan Offshore Wind Alliance (TOWA) in 2010 was meant to push major developments in the Penghu archipelago and off of Changhua and Yunlin counties. Many of these projects have stalled or are only in the planning stage.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs recently announced new subsidies to three companies meant to generate 300MW of capacity by 2020. But these developments will take time to plan, process, and construct.

The answer for many has been further imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). This is a temporary fix at best, and more likely a foolish and naive investment.

Increased use of LNG in energy production may reduce carbon emissions if it is replacing coal-- but it will only boost emissions if replacing nuclear. Not to mention cost. As Japan has dialed down its own nuclear capacity, spot prices have jumped 50% in two years. As demand for LNG continues to rise in the region's rapidly growing economies, prices are expected to hit new highs in 2013.

Do not confuse rock-bottom natural gas prices in the United States as representative of global market trends. There is no unified global market for gas. Prices vary across a number of regional hubs. And even in the US, prices are expected to rise over the next few years. Plus, US exports are limited to countries which the nation shares a free trade agreement, and that rules out Taiwan.

Yet even with a much more robust effort to deploy renewables and increased use of LNG in Taiwan, this still doesn't address the elephant in the room-- the nation's abysmal energy efficiency and consumption.

Go to any 7-11 in Taiwan-- or any of the thousands upon thousands of ubiquitous convenient stores on the island-- and one can witness first-hand the tremendous amount of waste generated by consumers. Then walk out on the street and breathe in the noxious, omnipresent scooter exhaust.

These are parts of life, behaviors that will be incredibly challenging to change. Consumers are already up in arms over cuts to the nation's highly-subsidized energy utility and gas prices. Yet, the state-owned Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) has been operating at a loss since 2006. Premier Jiang Yi-huah has warned that ending construction of the fourth nuclear power plant (with NT$264 billion already invested) will force Taipower into bankruptcy.

All of this is not to say Taiwan is doomed to some morbid nuclear future. There is much that can be done to speed up the transition to a more reneables-based low-carbon economy, including stronger commitments to FiTs, subsidies to downstream solar PV installers, and increased investment in wind, geothermal, and wave power.

Protesters would be better served lobbying for these already-available, abundant solutions to energy before demanding haphazard moves that may greatly set back the country's economy, national security, and environmental well-being.