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2011/07/01 / kslintw

【TAIPEI TIMES】Merkel shows leadership, Ma flops

TAIPEI TIMES  2011.06.07
By Kenneth Lin 林向愷

On May 17, while attending a nuclear safety drill organized by the Atomic Energy Council, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that if a serious nuclear accident were to happen in Taiwan and there was no remedy for it, the government would definitely close down the atomic power station, either temporarily or permanently. However, he also went on to say the nation could not do without nuclear power in the short term.

Ma’s statement came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that nuclear power would be phased out in Germany by the year 2022. Unlike Japan and Taiwan, Germany is not frequently affected by earthquakes or threatened by tsunamis, so why did the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant cause Merkel to make a 180-degree turn in her position on nuclear energy?

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), lead by Merkel, has always been on good terms with big corporations and other business interests and its core policies focus on conventional economic issues, such as economic growth and job creation. Following the explosion at the Fukushima plant, Merkel immediately ordered a three-month shutdown of seven of the country’s older reactors so that they could undergo thorough safety inspections. She has stressed that Germany must phase out nuclear energy, greatly reduce its reliance on coal-powered electricity generation and speed up its conversion to renewable energy sources.

With elections approaching, some analysts mocked these pronouncements as mere electoral posturing. Nevertheless, although the CDU has suffered setbacks in a series of elections, Merkel is sticking to her new radically business-unfriendly policy toward nuclear power.

However, is Merkel worried about the effect this policy could have on the economy?

Before the Fukushima disaster, Merkel, who has a scientific background, was a supporter of nuclear power. She thought nuclear energy was safe and clean and that the Chernobyl disaster happened because of poor management by the former Soviet Union, rather than problems intrinsic to nuclear technology. As recently as the end of last year, Merkel, despite strong opposition, was strongly calling for Germany to extend the timeframe over which it would continue to use nuclear energy.

However, the explosions at the Fukushima plant led Merkel to realize that the probability of a nuclear catastrophe happening in an advanced country had been underestimated and misinterpreted. If such a serious nuclear accident can happen in Japan, who is to say that it could not happen in Germany? It is perhaps unlikely that an earthquake or tsunami would cause a nuclear disaster in Germany, but an accident could be set off by other causes that are hard to predict.

Of course, Merkel’s nuclear power policy is not without its risks. The costs of renewable energy resources are high and their supply is not stable. Since 1990, when Germany’s first law related to renewable energy was enacted, the country has been paying premium rates for guaranteed purchases of electricity from renewable energy power plants — higher than the rate paid for electricity from conventional sources.

The law includes reasonable incentives to use power more efficiently and to develop renewable energy resources. As a result, the proportion of power provided by renewable sources in Germany has gone up from less than 5 percent in 1998 to about 17 percent today and the policy has created 300,000 jobs.

Examining Taiwan, Ma, who, like Merkel, is on good terms with big corporations and business interests, insists that, for the sake of economic development, the nation has no choice but to use nuclear power. Although government officials commonly talk about saving energy and cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and despite the fact that the Statute for Renewable Energy Development (再生能源發展條例) has been on the law books since 2009, Taiwan lacks a system of incentives such as the one that exists in Germany.

The government has repeatedly held down the rates paid for renewable energy and has obstructed the development of renewable energy generation by imposing petty and tedious application procedures. In addition, the government is still bogged down as it tries to duplicate the past model of economic development, the salient features of which were high energy consumption, heavy pollution, high output and low added value.

Confronted with calls from the public to shut down nuclear power plants so that the plants can undergo safety inspections and to reconsider the nation’s energy policies, the Ma administration has responded by scaring people with false statistics and claiming that shutting down nuclear reactors would cause power shortages and hamper economic development.

The Fukushima disaster has punctured the myth that a nuclear disaster could not happen in Taiwan. A nuclear disaster could still happen because nuclear power plants cannot be shut down, and shutting down or scrapping nuclear power plants does not solve the problem of nuclear safety. By giving his guarantees, Ma is in effect allowing the nuclear safety problem to become a bomb that could go off anytime.

An outstanding leader must have the ability to get to the bottom of problems, point out the overall direction to be taken to solve them and determinedly resolve them. Comparing the two leaders’ reactions to the Fukushima accident, it is clear that Ma is inferior to Merkel by a large margin.

Kenneth Lin is a part-time professor in National Taiwan University’s department of economics.

TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG

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