Experts divided on controversial nuclear plant

05/02/2013 10:10 PM
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Inside the fourth nuclear power plant  (CNA file photo)
Inside the fourth nuclear power plant (CNA file photo)

Taipei, May 2 (CNA) Experts were divided Thursday on the costs of power generation using nuclear energy and the economic impact of aborting construction of Taiwan's controversial fourth nuclear power plant.

It costs less to generate electricity using nuclear energy, compared with other forms of power generation, Vice Economics Minister Francis Liang told a hearing on whether to stop construction of the fourth nuclear power plant, as demanded by anti-nuclear activists and many concerned citizens.

Explaining the potential impact that halting construction may have on electricity prices, Liang put the respective costs per kilowatt hour of power generation by nuclear energy at NT$0.72 (US$0.024), coal firing at NT$1.64, natural gas firing at NT$3.81 and wind energy at NT$2.64, citing figures from last year.

Electricity generated using solar energy wholesales at between NT$6.7 and NT$9.4 per kilowatt hour, Liang said at the hearing at the legislature attended by government officials, lawmakers and energy specialists.

However, Hsu Chung-hsin, a lawmaker of the opposition Taiwan Solidarity Union, was skeptical about figures provided by the government which suggested nuclear energy as a cheaper way to generate power.

Hsu said the authorities have been excluding the costs of nuclear waste disposal and a possible atomic accident when calculating the actual bill of power generation using nuclear energy. He called on officials to take those two factors into account in their calculations.

Hsu's views were echoed by energy expert Chen Mo-shin, who said the government should take into consideration nuclear waste disposal instead of focusing only on fuel costs and fixed expenses in their calculations.

Chen also called into question a reported negative impact discontinued construction of the fourth nuclear plant will have on Taiwan's economy, saying that power generation using any alternative energy sources would be cheaper than nuclear energy.

"How will doing away with nuclear energy adversely impact the economy given that it is actually more expensive to generate power using nuclear energy?" said Chen.

James Kuo, former principal engineer of American Electric Power (AEP), a major electricity utility in the United States, proposed converting the fourth nuclear plant under construction into a natural gas-fired facility.

Kuo argued that such conversion when nuclear plants are nearing completion was feasible, citing precedents including the coal-fired Zimmer Plant in Ohio and the gas-fired Midland Cogeneration Facility in Michigan.

According to Kuo, who was involved in the conversion of the Zimmer Plant, the AEP and private investors decided on the project in 1984 in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident -- a partial nuclear meltdown at a nuclear reactor on the island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

It took over US$1 billion to convert the plant, when it was over 95 percent complete, into a coal-fired one, according to Kuo. Work on the conversion began in 1986 and ended in 1991, said Kuo in a report, adding that it was the world's first nuclear-turned-coal fired plant.

Kuo suggested it would be cheaper to convert the fourth nuclear plant to a natural gas-fired plant than it would to carry through with the construction.

Kuo estimated it would cost NT$65 billion to convert the fourth nuclear plant -- where the first and second reactors were over 95 percent and 92 percent complete, respectively -- while it would cost NT$450 billion in total to finish the construction.

Construction on the fourth nuclear plant has cost taxpayers an estimated NT$300 billion.

Proponents of the fourth nuclear plant at the hearing argued for the continued construction, citing environmental concerns over the shift to fossil fuel or possible rises in electricity rates using solar power as an alternative.

Ko Chiung-feng, an associate professor of accounting at Taiwan's Soochow University, pointed to an unstable supply of power and challenges in meeting international carbon emissions if Taiwan relied on coal-fired and gas-fired plants instead.

Chen Li-cheng, president of Gibson Engineers, a Taipei-based Taiwan-U.S. joint venture engineering company, drew attention to the possible costs of not being able to meet power demands expected to peak in 2016, as a result of discontinued construction of the fourth nuclear plant.

Chen said the fourth nuclear plant, scheduled to become operational in July 2016, was meant to fill a possible shortfall in electricity supply that year.

(By Huang Chiao-wen and Scully Hsiao)enditem/cs

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