Nuclear Energy, and the Issue of Transparency

If I find the time later this week, I will try to write more about the (Chinese-language) Taiwanese debate about nuclear energy – if there is such a debate. The (English-language) Taipei Times‘ coverage would suggest that there is one, involving academia, and politics. (A disclaimer: the linked post by Taiwan-based blogger Michael Fagan contains an allegation that Germany were being taken over by “lunacy”. A majority of people is indeed concerned about nuclear energy, and many of them expressed this by their vote on Sunday, which – I believe – should count as fairly normal behavior in a democracy.)

No small share of the debate within the Taipei Times appears to be contributed by foreigners, and, as seems fit in Taiwanese public life, in quite a zealous one, certainly on the part of Fagan and a critic of nuclear energy, Bruno Walther (click further  links from here to read more).

I became aware of Fagan’s blog in one of Echo Taiwan‘s commenting thread, where he raised questions about Tsai Ing-wen’s position on Taiwan’s nuclear plants.

It seems to me that not too many Japanese have asked their politicians or CEOs tough questions about the safety of nuclear power stations so far – if that is going to happen once the country’s life will have returned to a more normal mode remains to be seen. My impression is that Tepco so far hasn’t been used to account either to the public in general, or to the government in particular. One can’t easily claim that Fukushima had been under control during the past weeks. Nor would I suggest that Tepco’s CEOs had all the information they should have, about current events on the Fukushima-1 site.

As far as Germany is concerned, most people I know have always been uneasy with nuclear fuel. But the industry itself, and particularly the energy providers, have themselves done a lot to discredit this source of energy. The issue of fuel-rod disposal is mostly unresolved. And after each incident here, we’ve seen salami tactics when questions about the impacts were asked. Given that the externalities can be grave, and that – to my knowledge – no insurance company or syndicate would cover them, opponents of nuclear energy in this country are hardly to blame for distrusting the technology. I wouldn’t put their judgment into question – rather, I’d expect the industry to be prepared for an honest, transparent discussion.

If we can’t have that, we can’t afford nuclear energy.

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Related
Fangchenggang Nuclear Plant: Full Consideration, March 23, 2011
My take on Germany’s nuclear policy, comment on FOARP’s blog, March 16, 2011
Reactions to the Fukushima I Disaster, March 15, 2011
Tsai Ingwen: Democracy over Idolizaton, March 11, 2011

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19 Responses to “Nuclear Energy, and the Issue of Transparency”

  1. Oh, you don’t like the term “lunacy”? OK fine. I am not a died-in-the-wool supporter of nuclear power, but I do despise the knee-jerk environmentalists who seem willing to let the State abolish the industry without a second thought.

    I don’t know the details for Germany, but it seems to me that replacing (and I mean replacing, i.e. at close to energy production parity, not mere power capacity) nuclear power in any country cannot realistically be done without hurting a lot of people really quite badly. That’s a very bad and inescapable set of “externalities” (e.g. some combination of yet more profligant government spending, forced reduction of power consumption or large scale land theft programs rebranded as “expropriation”) – against the potentially very bad but uncertain and seemingly manageable externalities of nuclear fission.

    “The issue of fuel-rod disposal is mostly unresolved. And after each incident here, we’ve seen salami tactics when questions about the impacts were asked.”

    Could you be kind enough to elaborate? As I said, I don’t know the details in Germany…

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  2. Oh, and please – if I get to call you “JR”, you get to call me “mike”, deal?

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  3. Deal, Mike. I’ll elaborate tomorrow night GMT.

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  4. A random choice, Mike – the list through the years is much longer, of course:

    1)
    June/July 2009: Vattenfall Europe Nuclear Energy, the operating company of German nuclear plant Kruemmel, switches the plant off after an incident, but fails to inform the supervisory authorities. Security guards inform the police in Geesthacht. A CEO apologizes and says that the failure to pass on the information had been “unacceptable”.
    The incident led to heightened radioactivity in the cooling water, due to a damaged nuclear fuel rod. The incident should have been audio-recorded (similar to a plane’s black box), which could have helped to understand the causes of the incident, but the recorders had been switched off.
    A similar incident had set an electrical transformer alight two years earlier in the same plant, which had put the plant out of operation for two years.
    http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,634416,00.html

    2)
    July 1, 2007: Vattenfall promises to improve information management and communication with the authorities, after informing German authorities only “at the eleventh hour”, as Schleswig-Holstein’s welfare ministry puts it. Staff had mistakenly blocked the reactor’s water-cleaning system. In the future, Vattenfall would publish every incident which was subject to report right away on its website, in addition to informing the authorities, the company said.
    On June 28, an additional incident in Kruemmel had not been reported at all, and the supervising authority had explicitly been told that there had not been an incident at all.
    http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/akw-brunsbuettel-zwei-stoerfaelle-vattenfall-mauert-592658.html

    3)
    In the 1990s and early this century, Brunsbuettel (north of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein federal state) had continuous problems with capillary cracks in its pipelines. Then operated by the Hamburger Elektrizitätswerke (succeeded by Vattenfall as an operator some years later), an explosion of a pipe within the safety container on December 14, 2001, was declared a “spontaneous leakage” (rated as a most minor incident). After a long haggle between the supervising authority, a special inspection which required switching the reactor off led to the actual finding.
    http://umweltinstitut.org/radioaktivitat/katastrophenschutz/brunsbuttel-groster-storfall-in-deutschland-103.html

    4)
    In 1987, Biblis files an incident report to the supervising authority, which in turn does not inform the public. An American trade magazine publishes the story a year later.
    In 1986, Hamm-Uentrop nuclear plant files an incident report, but adds that all measuring equipment had been switched off at the time, so that the amount of radiation within the facility could not be recorded.
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_meldepflichtiger_Ereignisse_in_deutschen_kerntechnischen_Anlagen

    5)
    In 1978, also in Brunsbuettel, but then still operated by a German energy provider, an automatic security switch-off was manipulated by the staff in 1978 to keep the plant connected to the gridlines.
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_meldepflichtiger_Ereignisse_in_deutschen_kerntechnischen_Anlagen

    As for the fuel-rod disposal, no final site has been determined to date. Gorleben is a temporary site, but its safety is contested, given the existence of carbon hydride (combustible) there, found in 1982 during test drills.

    I don’t claim to be in a position to assess the risks. But given that the average German is used to zero-error approaches in his or her daily work, from the car assembly line to machine building, the public’s distrust towards the nuclear-fuel operators – an industry where incidents may lead to much wider implications – shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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  5. Thanks JR, I’ll consider… but I’m not surprised that these kinds of things sometimes happen: My use of “lunacy” was with respect to the economics of replacing nuclear power (although I’m beginning to have second thoughts on this…) and the problems consequent to that.

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  6. I guess neither of us is a dyed-in-the-wool supporter, or a knee-jerk opponent of nuclear energy, Mike. Quite a lot of people, and majorities in many countries, may be as unwilling to side fully with one “energy school” anyway. It seems to be the characteristic of every society – be it an open or a rather authoritarian society – that debates about policies are mostly shaped by lobbies (pro) and pressure-groups (anti) which prefer to manipulate the public’s views, rather than to make their points in a way that would require thought, rather than feelings. I prefer careful thought, and you seem to, as well.

    Btw, that’s why I’m impressed with Tsai Ing-wen. When it comes to communication, I have nothing against president Ma’s moderate style, either. But in the best case, he just doesn’t want to anger China by explicit remarks, and in the worst case, he is seeking “reunification”. And given that Taiwan’s economy’s success is owed to medium-sized companies, rather than to the big corporations, I’m not very hopeful about the KMT’s economic policies.

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  7. Today’s TT carries a letter from me on the subject of Tsai’s policy commitment.

    On thoughtfulness vs zealotry: both. I have no principled objection to renewables per se; my (zealous) objection is to State involvement.

    Currently, the economics favour nuclear and a large part of the reason for this is surely the “national grid”. Renewables can free homeowners or industrialists from the grid to a certain extent, but only at enormous cost – which is why they’re not financially viable. Would the situation change to favour renewables if the State were to rationally withdraw from the business of supplying energy? I think there might be an arguable case there – which is why I said I was having second thoughts about nuclear…

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  8. I think we disagree about the role of the state in many different kinds of fields, Mike – I’m a European social democrat. But if we assume that the state should keep out of the energy business, this would also mean that the nuclear industry will need to find commercial insurance for any externalities, rather than the state picking up the pieces. Otherwise, major incidents like the one in Fukushima would lead to land thefts or expropriations of their own kind. The state’s preparedness to settle nuclear-accident accounts is a distortion in energy prices, too.

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  9. “I’m a European social democrat.”

    Along with just about everyone else who isn’t a KMT supporter – except me: I’m a free-market, social individualist.

    “But if we assume that the state should keep out of the energy business, this would also mean that the nuclear industry will need to find commercial insurance for any externalities, rather than the state picking up the pieces.”

    Or, perhaps more likely, the company would have to self-insure, thereby giving potential investors even more reason to thoroughly investigate the risks and possible costs.

    “The state’s preparedness to settle nuclear-accident accounts is a distortion in energy prices, too.”

    Yes of course.

    If a Tsai administration would not be willing to consider pulling the State out of the energy industry (because this would mean pulling out of other areas too), then it will have to choose some combination of (a) a significant rise in the price of electricity, along with the economic destruction consequent to that, (b) a large scale program of land theft, and (c) a substantial increase in government spending to pay for alternative energy sources (including LNG) funded either by debt or tax increases.

    If on the other hand, a Ma administration is relected, then things will likely continue with little change. There may be some renewed effort to convince the public of the safety of nuclear power, for example by ordering partial redesigns and improvements to the existing plants. There may be more funding for LNG, and solar will continue to leach off the State too.

    I’d much rather see the rational withdrawal of the State from the entire sector, and let people decide for themselves which forms of energy they would prefer to invest in.

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  10. My take on “land theft”, provided that the state should and keeps playing a role in Taiwan’s energy policy, is on Echo Taiwan’s commenting thread.

    This makes the discussion a bit divided between two different blogs, but then, I would no much less about Tsai Ing-wen’s bid for the presidency, if Echo hadn’t started writing about her last year.

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  11. I saw it: my reply got eaten, so I reproduce here (slightly revised)…

    “If the state still owns a lot of land (and from news reports over the past years, my impression is that it still owns a lot), the state can play a role in promoting energy sources other than nuclear fuel, this time.”

    My understanding is that the State in Taiwan effectively “owns” any plot of land it wishes to develop, given the legal provision for “expropriation”. It effectively leases land out to nominally private “owners” (e.g. farmers, factory owners etc..), but it can be reclaimed at any time by the legal process of “expropriation”. However, the legality or otherwise of this is beside my point – that point being the political status of private property.

    On rule of law, what lies behind this is the question of what principles the law coheres to and with what consistency it is applied; I do not trust the State to be ethically or practically competent in either of these two aspects – consider what happened in Miaoli County just last year for instance.

    “Land theft is no automatic ramification of state involvement.”

    If the land occupied by farmers on the west coast all their lives is technically State-owned, then whilst expropriation might not technically count as land theft it does nontheless make salient the abject weakness with which private property rights are instantiated in Taiwan. Yet even if this were not the case and the farmers really did have a right to property recognized under a putative “rule of law” system, then I suspect land theft would still occur as the State would claim the farmers’ right to property would have to be “balanced” against common good considerations (i.e. building solar/wind plants).

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  12. To be fair to the DPP, the Miaoli County case was triggered by a KMT magistrate, Liu Cheng-hung. I wouldn’t hold that against Tsai’s energy plans. To my knowledge, the 1950s land reform included the transfer of property (not simply of “landuse rights”) to peasants. Large farms were to quite an extent expropriated then, but indemnifications paid. Also, small farmers are important constituencies for the DPP. I don’t see “land theft for wind energy” coming.

    Was your comment eaten here, or at Echo’s blog?

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  13. “To be fair to the DPP, the Miaoli County case was triggered by a KMT magistrate, Liu Cheng-hung. I wouldn’t hold that against Tsai’s energy plans.”

    OK then tell me where a Tsai administration is going to find a few hundred square km? Or alternatively, how are they going to pay the farmers to leave without either (a) ending agricultural subsidies, or (b) land theft?

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  14. I’m not going to tell you that, Mike, because I don’t know how much land is still state-owned, and to which degree a DPP-led government would dedicate public money to the promotion of alternative energy sources.

    I understand that you would prefer the state to withdraw from these business fields, but that isn’t what either of Taiwan’s two big parties is going to do anyway. We are talking about a country where the role of the state matters greatly – that’s a given in this debate. The state may also decide to keep the manufacturing industry competitive by subsidizing energy to a greater deal, than private households. In short, there are too many options any government from 2012 on will have, to reduce them to either ending agricultural subsidies, or stealing land. If the government wants to fund a few hundred square km, it will be in a position to do so.

    A mere focus on agricultural subsidies would also be too narrow in this context. The biggest shares in Taiwan’s budget are defense, and welfare “in its broad sense”.

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  15. “…that isn’t what either of Taiwan’s two big parties is going to do anyway.”

    You’re probably right, but that doesn’t mean I get to shut up.

    “The state may also decide to keep the manufacturing industry competitive by subsidizing energy to a greater deal, than private households.”

    Yes that’s right; or the government could force a reduction in electricity consumption for example, or it could construct new gas and coal fired plants.

    But I think that, for political reasons, a Tsai government would prefer to go for renewables as far as it possibly can – which, even if the scale remains at only a smallish fraction of the nuclear output – will inescapably come down to a choice between paying vast sums for farmland by cutting the budget elsewhere (or by incurring more debt), ending agricultural subsidies so as to bring about land price reductions… or land theft.

    All of these options would be bad for large swathes of the population of Taiwan – except the free-market based option, which, in my view, is also the only ethically defensible option.

    “We are talking about a country where the role of the state matters greatly – that’s a given in this debate.”

    That is exactly why I am doing what little I can to try to participate in this debate.

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  16. that doesn’t mean I get to shut up
    Who suggests that you should, Mike? I’m pointing out that Taiwanese governments don’t – and haven’t, historically – shied away from playing a big role. I don’t think that either of us will shut up.

    As my posts about Tsai Ing-wen can probably tell, I hope that her plans will be put to the reality test – i.e. that she will be elected president next year, with a workable majority in parliament if possible.

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  17. “Taiwanese governments don’t – and haven’t, historically – shied away from playing a big role.”

    Sure.

    On Tsai Ing-wen, aside from energy and agriculture, my only real interest in her at the moment would be her attitude toward military reform.

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