No Nuke, Gongliao

 

Gongliao district is located approximately 50 kilometers east of Taipei city. Stepping out of the train at Fulong (福隆) village in Gongliao district, one is easily captured by the buoyance and relaxing atmosphere that characterize this most popular beach village of Northeast Taiwan. In the main street that leads away from the station towards the beach, people of all ages excited to be away from the hustle and bustle of major cities wait in long queues to hire bicycles to explore the nature of the area in more detail. Children in swimming suits have no time to waste on sightseeing. Carrying a wide arsenal of beach toys they scurry to the sandy playground, sometimes chasing their friends to soak them with giant water pistols. Yet beneath the apparent sense of leisure and vitality hides the deadly threat of the nearby nuclear power plant. Northwest of the beach where the sand connects to mountains, the edge of the Longmen power plant (also known as the fourth nuclear power plant) is clearly visible. In the eyes of some of the local villagers, the power plant is no different from a time-bomb, capable of devouring the golden beach, the village and the rest of the Gongliao district. Indeed, one could hardly relate this tourism resort to the threat of nuclear contamination and the many fierce anti-nuclear protests it has sparked over the past decades.

shu

Longmen Nuclear Power Plant, Gongliao

Nuclear Power Debate: A Competition of Knowledge

After the 1979 oil crisis, the Taiwan government felt a great need to boost the country’s energy supply in order to feed its fast developing economy. Nuclear power was considered one of the most advanced and clean forms of energy and a plan to build a nuclear power plant in Gongliao was sanctioned in 1980. Gongliao villagers opposed the plan from the beginning. Their goal was not to protest the use of nuclear power per se, but to resist the government’s unfair acquisition of land in the Gongliao region, which led to them losing personal property. Local fishermen also related the loss of income to the construction of the power plant. Since they had no prior experience with nuclear fallout and no knowledge of the nature of nuclear power, local villagers were unable to formulate a clear anti-nuclear agenda. Their primary target was to protect their own property and livelihood threatened by the large-scale project and their protests were often conducted in a spasmodic manner without a clear organization. They tended to accentuate local interests and values, which often failed to invoke larger support from the public elsewhere.

Informed by the global debate over the security of nuclear power plants, scholars were among the first to raise alarm over the potential harm of nuclear power plants. Armed with knowledge on nuclear technology, they acted as educators, warning people of the danger of nuclear power. Compared to local villagers, their pursuits addressed the general values of the society as a whole, such as maintaining a balance between nature and economic development and seeking a democratic way to allocate national resources. The scholars’ participation in the protests provided the still obscure anti-nuclear issue with a more authoritative voice. Since their lectures are based on professional knowledge, the general public perceives their voice as more rational and thus more persuasive.

Despite the involvement of scholars, the security of the nuclear power is a technical question that hasn’t been solved by scientists yet. It is the unknown nature of this most advanced nuclear technique that produces repercussion among social scientists who are concerned about the implications of a nuclear power plant accident. The divide about benefits and harms of nuclear power in scientific discussions fuels the development of polarized views about legitimacy of nuclear power in society. Both pro- and anti-nuclear camps draw on sets of scientific and social knowledge to defend their position. More often than not, such debates end up being little more than a competition of propaganda skills, with both camps trying to reach the widest public to have their position backed up by their selected “facts” and scientific evidence accepted. The pro-nuclear power camp led by the state-owned Taiwan Power Company, the constructor of the nuclear power stations, invites people to visit the headquarters of the company and nuclear power stations to demonstrate that nuclear power is a modern and safe technology; the anti-nuclear camp takes to the street or organizes public lectures to provide a different body of knowledge. It is up to the public to choose which side is more convincing. Of course, most of the time, the decision is made not only by the persuasiveness of the information itself, but by other factors, such as political implication and personal interests.

Despite the fierce debates among the urban elites about the security of nuclear power, local Gongliao villagers remain attached to their own local interests. Since the mid-1980s, urban scholars have made various efforts to combine their anti-nuclear pursuits with local grassroots protests. But according to He Mingxiu’s (Ho Ming-sho) observation, the divide between the urban middle-class elites and the local villagers remains wide.[1] Urban scholars focus on larger themes such as rational development, democracy and environmental protection, while local villagers care more about the integrity of their property, the access to local resources and the development of home village. They are less willing to accept more general values that might predominate their local concerns and regard the urban elites’ advocacy of environmental issues on the streets of Taipei as too detached from local views.

Green vs. Blue Camps

In Taiwan the debate over nuclear power has been tightly connected to partisan politics. As early as the 1980s, opponents of Kuomintang (KMT) have incorporated the anti-nuclear issue into their political agenda. In its charter of 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, leading party of the Green Camp) took a decidedly anti-nuclear stance, pledging to stop building new nuclear power plants and to exercise stringent surveillance over the existing ones. The anti-nuclear movement, therefore, transformed into a formal political campaign against the ruling KMT, targeting in particular the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant in Gongliao. The anti-nuclear movement was no longer an ad hoc street protest, but became closely tied up with partisan struggles. Collaboration with DPP served to boost the potential of the anti-nuclear appeal to receive consideration in the government which might lead to policy amendments. The easy accessibility to official debate, nevertheless, also comes with high risks: the symbol of the green camp attached to the anti-nuclear activities will result in the loss of supporters from the blue camp; the success of the anti-nuclear movement will hinge upon the fate of the DPP in political elections. If it is too closely associated with partisan politics, this might lead to a lack of independence. It remains to be tested how committed the green camp is to support the anti-nuclear issue when the cost of anti-nuclear policy is too high or of no avail to the party’s interests.

Since the 1990s, anti-nuclear movements have taken a strong anti-KMT flavour. An originally environmental movement has been transformed into a political campaign against the dictatorship of the KMT, against corruption of government officials involved in providing the budget to construct the Longmen nuclear power plant and the opaque process of decision making regarding nuclear issues within the government. Thus, the anti-nuclear agenda has integrated into the larger social movement pursuing democracy and the end of KMT dictatorship. Yet the political agenda also led away from the original purpose, which focused on addressing local interests, the protection of the homeland and its resources. Local anti-nuclear organizers accused Lin Junyi, who was one of the key scholars advocating the abolition of the nuclear power plant, as being difficult to work with after he was appointed as minister of environment in 2000. His famous statement that the “anti-nuclear movement is unnecessary now that dictatorship is abolished” surprised his long-term anti-nuclear partners as it indicated that the anti-nuclear movement was merely a stepping stone to achieve democracy.[2]

Instead of bringing the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant to a halt, however, the victory of the DPP in the 2000 national elections led to a dramatic demise of the anti-nuclear movement. DPP leader Chen Shuibian’s policy of scrapping the nuclear power construction met heavy protest from the opposition parties, the business community and the public. Within four months of his inauguration, Chen had to abandon the policy in order to ease political tension between the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan, and to consider international implications, particularly the compensation claimed by the project’s US partner, GE. The betrayal of the DPP embarrassed the anti-nuclear protestors. Many felt they were utilized by politics and were estranged from their original cause. The growing unpopularity of the DPP in the following years also drained the validity of the anti-nuclear organizations, which were commonly considered as dependent agents of the party. Until today, anti-nuclear organizations and self-organized communities have been unable to recover from the decline. Indeed, the 311 Fukushima disaster invoked another surge in protests against nuclear power. Yet many still shy away from registering their opinion about the issue due to its partisan legacy, and anti-nuclear protest is still regarded as a political ploy. “They [KMT and DPP] have always been fighting. Whenever there is no fault to induce a fight, the nuclear issue will be picked up to fill the gap,” said a taxi driver, whose view might reflect how a common citizen feels about the long-term nuclear debate.

Now vs. Future

One of the key arguments adopted by the anti-nuclear group is the importance of preserving resources for future generations. Yet with the slowdown of economic development in Taiwan, the concern for now is much stronger than the worry for the future. The pro-nuclear power group argues that limiting the development of nuclear powers will wreak havoc on the current economy and cause a surge in power bills. Such a position strikes the right chord with many middle-class urbanites who wish to preserve the status quo and maintain the living standard they have long enjoyed. A former colleague at Shih Hsin University shared her view on the nuclear issue: “We could not disregard the present and think only about the future. Before a better energy technology is developed, it is too idealistic to talk about the abolition of nuclear power. Returning to traditional power which relies on coal mine would be equally disastrous and contaminating to the environment.”

Nevertheless, the slowdown of the economy could also push more young people to the streets. With the starting salary for university graduates being lower than it was 14 years ago, the rising real estate market and cut of social welfare, the young generation have gradually come to realize that the middle-class dream that they witnessed the generation of their parent achieve in the past is no longer attainable. Their anxiety is likely to push them to seek a release through social movements. The anti-nuclear movement, which partially targets the government’s economy policy, can serve as such a platform. This might indicate that more and more young people are willing to join the anti-nuclear protest both in Taipei and in local areas to voice their anger of the contemporary reality and their anxiety for the future.

 

This article has been published in – Wei, S. 2016 ‘Recovery from “Betrayal”: Local Anti-Nuclear Movements and Party Politics in Taiwan’, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 14:8 (3). Available from http://apjjf.org/2016/08/Wei.html 


[1] He Mingxiu, Lvse minzhu: Taiwan huanjing yundong de yanjiu (Green Democracy: A Study on Taiwan’s Environmental Movement) (Taipei: Socio Publishing Co. Ltd, 2006),84.