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Japan crisis raises concerns over nuclear plants

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan’s northeastern coast on Friday (March 11) ― the fourth largest in the world since 1900 ― has dwarfed all other headlines. The ensuing 23-foot tsunami traveled miles inland before receding and leaving in its wake a swampy wasteland of debris, buildings set ablaze and over 120 aftershocks.

The disaster was brought to the global consciousness through bird’s-eye view images of the water spreading and lifting the houses and buildings in its path with chilling ease, while cars bobbed and crashed into one another. The death toll is expected to top 1,000. Telecommunication services went down, leaving many to scout Google’s Japanese Quake Person Finder in search of their loved ones. Trains were suspended. Airports shut down. Over 4 million buildings lost power. The severe technological impediment was an additional, terrible blow to a country prided for its efficient modernity.

Some 11 nuclear reactors automatically shut down after the earthquake. However, the power down alarmingly resulted in a cooling-system failure at a nuclear reactor. Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, fearing a nuclear reactor meltdown following an explosion at the power station. Residents within a 20-kilometer radius were urged to evacuate the area.

Taiwan ― along with countries as far-reaching as Mexico, Fiji, Russia, Papua New Guinea, and many more ― remains on the list for tsunami alerts. Aside from possible evacuations along coastal areas, concerns have now turned to the nation’s three operating nuclear power plants and six nuclear reactors.

Among them are power plants in Jinshan, Kuosheng and Maanshan, all owned by Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) and all of which have been in operation between 25 to 33 years. Although Taipower claims that the power plants, with Jinshan and Kuosheng in the north and Maanshan at the southernmost tip, all have backup power for cooling systems in the event of a power down, the old structures were not built to withstand major earthquakes despite their location in areas of constant seismic activity. Although all three plants were shut down after the Sept. 21 earthquake in 1999, the activation of cooling systems is not guaranteed.

Only the newest Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant, with commercial operations slated to start in December, may be up to standard in the face of disasters caused by climate change. However, the recent tragedy in Japan ― the infrastructures of which are specifically designed and constructed with seismic issues in mind ― and the possibility of radiation leaks make the aged reality of the three power plants a real cause for concern.

With the new Lungmen power plant possibly pushing NT$270 billion in its construction, it would cost the government, at a rough estimate, more money to renovate the three plants than to simply tear them down to make way for something new. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for the Executive Yuan to direct its attention again to renewable energy development and put into active use the solar panels the country is so renowned for manufacturing.

Of course, such an initiative and investment in solar projects will take a number of years before going into full effect, and we will need our nuclear power plants in the meantime. Yet while nuclear energy is currently cheaper, can be generated from a number of sources, and is produced constantly, one of the major, most tangible benefits of solar energy right now is the diminished risk ― especially the adverse health effects that may result from radiation.

Potential radiation leaks in Japan have U.S. experts concerned about substantial releases making its way to the U.S. West Coast via the Pacific jet stream. After the explosion at the Fukushima plant, Japanese officials detected radioactive material outside a reactor. According to Japan’s nuclear agency, the finding indicates that containers of uranium fuel inside the reactor may have begun melting.

The rapid evacuation shows that the tragic disaster has not dented Japan’s efficiency in dealing with the crisis. We must not only offer condolences and support, but also learn from the situation to ensure that all preventative measures are taken, however far down the line.

(The China Post, March 14)