Nuclear plants a big security risk
As Taiwan’s August referendum on completing its Fourth Nuclear Power Plant approaches, one question that has not yet been fully considered is to what extent this and Taiwan’s other three plants are military liabilities — radioactive targets that China aims to attack.
At best, a threatened strike or an intentional near-miss against one plant would likely force the government to shut the other nuclear plants down as a precaution. At worst, a strike could produce Chernobyl-like contamination, forcing the evacuation of millions.
Some partial, temporary defenses are possible and should be pursued, but ultimately, the smart money is on substituting non-nuclear alternatives for these reactors as soon as possible.
As Ian Easton noted last month in these pages, Beijing released a 2013 internal course book on Taiwan’s military geography that spotlighted a potential amphibious landing area at Fulong Beach where Taiwan’s fourth incomplete nuclear plant sits (“Ian Easton On Taiwan: Are Taiwan’s nuclear plants safe from Beijing?” April 12, page 6).
The military handbook also highlighted Xialiao Beach, which hosts Taiwan’s Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in Wanli District (萬里).
In a separate 2014 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) field manual, Easton noted, Taiwan’s reactors were described as high-value targets that should be temporarily knocked out (for subsequent reopening) with precision weapons fired from helicopters. That is the optimistic plan.
However, the PLA appeared uncertain about how surgical its attacks might be.
Yet another 2015 PLA guidebook, Easton notes, warned PLA troops that they must be prepared to fight through nuclear “contamination,” and they may need to “wash” themselves off as they complete their invasion.
Since these military guidebooks were written, the PLA has acquired thousands of additional highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles and drones, which make highly precise attacks against Taiwan’s reactors much easier.
What might the consequences of such precision attacks be? Bad to catastrophic. The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, which I run, recently commissioned a radiological analysis of several Chinese strikes against Taiwan’s nuclear plants. In the least destructive case, the Chinese target one of their missiles just near the reactor — perhaps the plant employees’ parking lot. While the Chinese missile might not kill anyone, Taiwan’s government would likely pull all of their reactors off the grid as a precautionary measure.
That is roughly 10 percent of Taiwan’s electrical production. In addition, residents near the reactors would likely hit the road in massive numbers to evade possible follow-on attacks. These attacks might target the reactors’ grid connection or its emergency diesel generators. This, again, would not necessarily lead to a core meltdown (unless both were hit simultaneously), but would definitely put the population on edge.
That is the best case. Much worse would be a missile or drone strike against the reactor’s control room or reactor core. In these cases, a loss of necessary coolant and radiological release are likely. What the consequences might be depends on the prevailing winds. Here are maps of an attack on the Maanshan plant at Kenting in June and in December. The orange and red areas describe irradiated regions the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would recommend populations be evacuated from.
In either case, the evacuation of many thousands to several million is likely.
Of course, if China hit Taiwan’s spent reactor fuel ponds, the contaminating radiation released would be far greater.
None of this is welcome news. All of it recommends shutting down Taiwan’s nuclear plants as soon as is practical and replacing them with non-nuclear alternatives. At a minimum, completing Taiwan’s fourth reactor should be a nonstarter.
In the interim, Taiwan should remove as much radioactive waste from its spent reactor fuel ponds as possible and place it in hardened, concrete dry storage casks. The US, Euratom nations, and Japan are already doing this; so should Taiwan.
Taiwan should also build emergency spent fuel pond sprinkler and cooling water monitoring systems to reduce the likelihood of spent fuel fires if these pools are hit and water levels become dangerously low. Taiwan also should consider building remote control rooms for its three operating plants, as Japan has done in at least one case.
Finally, it should consider hardening certain structures and actively defending at least against local drone attacks.
As urgent as these steps are, none, however, should be taken with an eye to extending these reactors’ operations. Just the opposite. If Taiwan is serious about its national security, it will replace all of these potential radiological targets with non-nuclear generators as soon as possible.
Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future. He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the US secretary of defense during former US president George H.W. Bush’s administration.