Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Premier Wu wrong/lies about nuclear reactors [UPDATED]

The premier told the legislature that nuclear power plants in Taiwan were safer than the one that risks blowing up in Japan, but there’s a problem with one key aspect of his argument — it’s based on wrong information

My investigation in May and June last for a story on how management at the No. 2 nuclear power plant (Kuosheng) in Wanli (萬里), New Taipei City, was treating its suppression pool forced me to do a lot of reading about nuclear safety, types of reactors and the state of affairs in Taiwan all matters of nuclear energy.

Little wonder, then, that as I was going through a story filed by one of my reporters earlier today on comments by Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) in the legislature, I immediately sensed something was wrong with his words of comfort and optimistic views of how Taiwan would fare following a calamity of the type that hit Japan last Friday.

As deputy news chief, it was therefore my responsibility to get back to my reporter and make sure she had all her facts right. After she assured me that she did, I asked her to contact nuclear authorities to determine whether the premier was misinformed or lying to us. I still don’t know which one it was, but one thing is certain: Wu’s assurances were based on the wrong information, information that, furthermore, has already found its way into Chinese-language media.

Today’s Taipei Times has full coverage of Wu’s comments in the legislature, as well as my part on where he was wrong and therefore risked misleading the public. What follows is a more detailed take on the part of the article that I wrote:

Asked in the legislature to comment on the safety of the three nuclear power plants in operation — the No. 1 (Chinshan) and No. 2 (Kuosheng) plants in New Taipei City and No. 3 (Maanshan) in Pingtung County — Wu said all three were “much safer” than Fukushima Dai-ichi, which has been the object of international concern following a series of explosions and a possible meltdown.

Asked by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator John Chiang (蔣孝嚴) whether the three nuclear plants were earthquake-resistant, Wu said: “I can not be so sure, as a country like Japan, which is more advanced than us, failed to avert this disaster.”

“However, the Fukushima plant was equipped with a third-generation [reactor] while Taiwan’s nuclear power plants operate fourth-generation [sic] ones,” Wu said. Chinese-language media have already made references to the presence of “fourth-generation” reactors in Taiwan, and that’s what made me sit up. According to the literature on nuclear energy, fourth-generation reactors are still in the research phase and will not be commercially operational for another two decades or so (2030, by some estimates). Only the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR), also known as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), will be launched prior to 2030, and still, it is not expected to be completed before 2021. There are reactors known as Gen-III+ and Gen-III++, but those are not used in Taiwan either.

I then asked my reporter to contact Taipower Corp, which operates nuclear plants in Taiwan. Their chief of public relations confirmed that the premier was wrong and that there was no fourth-generation nuclear reactor in Taiwan. In fact, there isn’t even a third-generation reactor in operation.

In fact, the Atomic Energy Council Web site tells us that the No. 1 power plant uses a BWR-4 (boiling water, second-generation) reactor; the No. 2 plant a BWR-6 (second-generation) reactor; the No. 3 a PWR (pressurized water, second-generation) reactor; and the No. 4 (Lungmen) will use an ABWR (advanced boiling water, third-generation) reactor. [This article initially referred to the BWR-6 and and PWR as third-generation, but subsequent information obtained from the AEC confirms that they are still second-generation variants, as are the reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi.]

Units 2, 3, 4, and 5 at Fukushima Dai-ichi all have BWR-4 reactors similar to that at the No. 1 plant in Taiwan, though their manufacturers differ (GE, Toshiba, Hitachi and Toshiba respectively in Japan, and Westinghouse in Taiwan). The partial core metldown at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979, involved a PWR. Chernobyl used a different type of reactor known as RMBK (the Russian acronym for high-power channel-type reactor).

In other words, none of Taiwan’s reactors are “much safer” and Wu is either lying through his teeth to downplay public anxieties, or someone’s feeding him the wrong information. This, my friends, is what investigative journalism is all about: questioning assumptions and not simply regurgitating whatever the authorities tell us — especially when the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration is concerned.


Carlos said...

I don't feel the same way, but I admit I prefer nuclear power over coal, gas, and hydroelectric.

I blame the failures in Japan on poor design of the emergency systems. They were counting on the seawalls to work, and they didn't. The backup generators and control panels should either have been waterproof (unlikely) or built in a bunker rather than a basement.

I'm in structural engineering, and backup systems are only recently starting to get the attention they deserve during design (with the California hospital governing agency leading the way).

mike said...

Whether misinformed or lying, his comments were wrong - and if a head of government can't even get simple (and easily checked) facts correct, then he cannot be trusted.

FWIW - the "debate" on the safety of nuclear power would surely be better off with consideration of different reactor designs, to take notice of thorium as well as uranium based designs. This doesn't need to get too technical, and it would knock the more ridiculous anti-nuclear arguments from the environmentalists and worst elements of the DPP into a cocked hat.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

@Carlos: I think you're right up to a point and that sturdiness and redundancies should be crucial elements of any design. However, there is no denying that BWRs — which are used at two of the four nuclear power plants in Taiwan and at Fukushima Dai-ichi — are old and much less stable than PWRs, and that when things go wrong, I'd rather live next to a power station that uses the latter models rather than the former.

Carlos said...

No argument there!

From a structural design standpoint, age is an issue too. Reinforced concrete design improves with every earthquake’s lessons, and there was a particularly big jump about 30 years ago. In California we’re trying to flag all of the pre-1980 concrete buildings for thorough investigation and likely retrofitting.ere!sgn

mike said...

It isn't over yet and the information flow to update us on ongoing events isn't as good as we've become accustomed to, but let's not get carried away - the reactors have certainly not "exploded" as has been falsely and disgracefully reported several times already - and the radiation leakage so far appears to be minimal (radionucleides with half-lives of seconds or minutes). That a 40 year old station has so far withstood a magnitude 9 earthquake with apparently only relatively minor radiation leaks despite multi-system failure is quite frankly amazing. But of course, the insane environmentalists will already have started shrieking about ending nuclear power use in Taiwan and elsewhere.

Taiwan Echo said...

You guys didn't know that Wu Dun-Yi (吳敦義) was called "Lying Yi" (白賊義, where 白賊 means lying, in Taiwanese) before Ma Ying-jeou hired him ? He spent his first week of Premier lying everyday to cover up the lie he gave the day before.