Taiwan’s retreat from nuclear power
A dispatch from my reporting trip to Taiwan.
Greetings from sunny Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where my wife and I moved in the final days of 2022. We were sad to leave Astoria, and Queens in general. But Amanda grew up here, my in-laws live here, my little brother lives here, our closest friends who just had a beautiful baby girl this month live a 10-minute drive from here. The combined magnetic force of all that family proved too strong to keep us away. To say nothing of the unrivaled Palestinian, Lebanese and Italian restaurants, the briny breezes off the bay, and the views of the Verrazzano Bridge from the windows of our new apartment.
Uprooting our lives amid the December holidays aside, it’s been an eventful few months since my last email in November. After two years of working and going to school full time, Amanda graduated with honors from her master’s program at Hunter College. And in November, I spent a few weeks traveling around Taiwan.
I’m writing to you today to share with you the results of that reporting trip.
Given its ability to pump out huge volumes of 24/7 zero-carbon electricity, nuclear energy had already been attracting fresh attention in recent years as countries struggled to cut emissions. But things really started to change last February when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia is Europe’s dominant supplier of natural gas for electricity and heating. The halcyon end-of-history days made it seem to many like this economic interdependence promised peace. But once the war began, that supply chain became leverage for the Kremlin to use against Ukraine’s allies.
Countries had been using natural gas to wean off coal and provide back-up generation for solar and wind when the sky is dark or the air is still. But unlike coal, which can be easily stockpiled, gas is harder to store, meaning gas needs a constant supply flowing through pipelines.
Thus began the first energy crisis of the decarbonization era.
Nuclear reactors, which only need to be refueled every two years or so, went from political liabilities in the post-Fukushima world to valuable assets. So much so that even Germany, where the fiercely anti-nuclear Green Party controls the energy ministry, paused its plan to shut down its remaining atomic power stations.
Germany was far from the only nation to try to turn against nuclear energy after the 2011 accident in Japan. Taiwan did, too. And the current government under President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party shares the German Greens’ anti-nuclear position, wants to shut down Taiwan’s nuclear plants by 2025.
Since the Russian invasion, pundits the world over have predicted China would attack Taiwan next. Despite what some of the more hawkish prognosticators would have you think, it’s not an apples-to-apples situation, and there are many good reasons to doubt that Beijing will choose war.
But the energy risks are strikingly parallel. As Taiwan shuts down its nuclear reactors, the country is using more natural gas. Putting aside the climate concerns about replacing zero-carbon power with a fossil fuel, Taiwan has already struggled with blackouts and energy shortages since the nuclear phaseout began. Relying on a fuel that requires constant imports is, at least according to experts I spoke with, a dangerous game. And you don’t need to imagine World War III to see why.
Following former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last August, China carried out missile tests in the waters around Taiwan. Tankers ships freighting liquefied natural gas to Taiwan rerouted away.
There’s a lot more to this story. Plans for renewables aren’t going well. Indigenous rights play a key role in this whole affair. And the geopolitical players propelling this conflict have shifting and, at times, contradictory interests.
Consider this: the two major parties in Taiwan are sorted in large part around the question of Taiwan’s status. The conservative Kuomintang, the party of former dictator Chiang Kai-shek, supports eventually reunifying with China. It’s also vehemently pro-nuclear, the energy source that probably best guarantees Taiwan’s sovereignty. The center-left Democratic Progressive Party, the party of President Tsai, supports maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence. Its opposition to nuclear power, however, is arguably making Taiwan much more vulnerable to Chinese aggression.
You can read about all that and more – including the three-hour boat ride that left me so seasick I vomited five times and had to curl up in a fetal position on the floor of a ferry between boxes of produce and live chickens – here on HuffPost.
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Thanks for reading. Here’s something nice, which came to me via my friend and Taiwanese photographer Annabelle Chih, whose gorgeous photos you’ll see in the story.