In a surprise victory, Taiwanese voters on Saturday decisively rejected the government’s phase-out of nuclear power, 59% to 41%.
Pro-nuclear activists in Taiwan shouted and shed tears of joy at around 10:15 pm Taiwan time (9:15 am Eastern time) after it became clear that they had won the required five million votes to pass a referendum ending the phase-out.
“We will immediately ask the government to start-up non-operating reactors and extend the lives of the others,” said Shih-Hsiu Huang, a “Go Green With Nuclear” referendum organizer.
As of this writing, 5,894,570 votes were cast in favor of repealing the nuclear phase-out, and 4,013,621 votes against the initiative.
“If the government doesn’t do the right thing, we will put another pro-nuclear referendum on the ballot in 2020,” said Huang, a physicist and co-founder of Nuclear Mythbusters.
After shutting down a nuclear reactor, the nation last year suffered a deadly black-out that threatened the nation’s vital semiconductor industry.
A Trend Survey Research poll commissioned by pro-nuclear activists before the vote found that one of the strongest arguments for nuclear was, “Solar and wind are not stable, and are expensive,” attracting 71% agreement.
Pro-nuclear advocacy — which constantly reminded voters of the black-out — may have contributed to voter rejections of candidates aligned with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, announced in a speech on Saturday that she would step down as leader of the Party after its “disappointing performance.”
Pollsters said the vote would make it easier for pro-nuclear politicians in Taiwan to be more open in their advocacy.
A former premier, Simon Chang, told me that nuclear waste remains a top concern for the Taiwanese people. Chang, who is moderately pro-nuclear, is widely-viewed as a strong presidential candidate for the elections in January, 2020.
Grassroots organizing appears to have played a significantly role in the victory. The Trend poll found 52% of voters supported the referendum — eight percent less than the final vote.
“I’m not worried about having a majority of support,” Huang told me last Monday. “I’m worried about getting enough people to the polls.”
In recognition of the challenge, pro-nuclear volunteers fanned out across the country wearing polar bear masks to whip up environmentalist support for the vote at train stations and parks. I travelled with them from November 16 to 19, and interviewed voters along the way.
Where anti-nuclear activists handed out slick campaign materials accompanied by small gifts of tissue paper, and advertised heavily on the sides of buses, pro-nuclear activists lacked resources to buy any advertising.
Instead, they spread the facts about nuclear energy through volunteer-staffed events, inexpensive flyers, and Facebook. Huang’s group, Nuclear Mythbusters, started as a Facebook page.
Because Taipower, Taiwan’s electricity utility that operates the nuclear plant, is publicly-owned, it was prohibited from supporting pro-nuclear activists.
Opponents of nuclear power told me they were frightened by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, and that Taiwan could replace the power from nuclear through the use of solar, geothermal, and other forms of renewable energy.
“I support the nuclear phase-out,” Sam Huang, 41, told me in downtown Taipei. “We are in an earthquake zone.” He acknowledged the nuclear phase-out would increase electricity prices but said it was worth it.
However, none of the anti-nuclear voters I interviewed had much to say about why they opposed the technology beyond oft-heard talking points. Several admitted embarrassment at not having answers to the questions I posed.
By contrast, pro-nuclear voters had far more to say. “I support nuclear because otherwise we have to import our energy,” said Gong-Jen Shu, 68. “Solar and wind are too unstable because they depend on the weather.”
“Our strongest argument is the high economic cost of phasing out nuclear,” said Yen-Peng Liao, another “Go Green” organizer, “followed by fear of future blackouts and air pollution.”
The Taiwanese tend to be mistrustful of polling as pollsters in the past have publicized unscientific surveys to manipulate voter opinion. Taiwan election law prohibited Huang from releasing the poll results before the election.
But the “Go Green with Nuclear” organizers said Trend was different. “We hired Trend because they are a trustworthy company,” Huang explained. The brothers showed me their call center, which was buzzing with activity.
Huang captured international media attention after going on a hunger strike last September when the government-controlled electoral commission attempted to prevent a vote on the referendum.
Scientists and scholars protested the electoral commission’s decision, and climate scientist James Hansen generated national media publicity a few days later when he visited Huang in person, and voiced support for the referendum.
Huang’s friend Liao joined the hunger strike, after Huang was rushed to the hospital. Two months later — last Monday — I attended a rock concert to promote the “Go Green” referendum where Liao sang as front-man.
The victory is especially remarkable because Taiwan election law required that voters make a special request to vote on the ballot initiative, after voting for candidates.
At a park in central Taiwan a I had a friendly chat with two anti-nuclear activists who were outnumbered 10-to-1 by the pro-nuclear activists.
I was surprised when one of them, a young woman named Wren, admitted to me that nobody died from radiation exposure at Fukushima. Usually anti-nuclear groups claim thousands died.
The anti-nuclear flyer Wren gave me promoted natural gas as the alternative to nuclear and claimed that if nuclear plants kept operating, more coal would be burned.
Before I left, I told Wren that I gave a TEDx talk called “Why I changed my mind about nuclear power.” Her face lit up: “Is there a way for me to see it?”
I gave her my business card and told her it was on-line. After our friendly interaction, we posed for a photograph together, and then the polar bears and I rushed off to catch the train to our next stop.