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In Taiwan's elections, nuclear energy is a major campaign issue

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Political candidates in Taiwan have debated for years whether to build more nuclear power plants. The issue has come to the fore in the weeks before next month's elections. NPR's Emily Feng reports that voters are concerned the island's energy security could be disrupted by a simple blockade from China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLICKING)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: I meet Wu Wenzhang, an anti-nuclear activist, and we take a drive.

WU WENZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: He points out the profile of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant from the highway. In 2021, a referendum to restart construction on it was defeated - in part due to Wu's activism.

WU: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY GUARD: (Speaking Chinese).

WU: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY GUARD: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: As I take pictures, Wu gets into an argument with the security guards who try to shoo him away. This tense relationship between the abandoned nuclear plant facility and residents is a testament to how divisive the issue of nuclear energy is in Taiwan. There's lots of concerns about where to safely store nuclear waste on a tiny island.

WU: (Through interpreter) We feel if we don't protect our own homes and a nuclear plant is built nearby and then there's ever a nuclear meltdown, we'll be doomed.

FENG: Taiwan relies on coal imports to generate nearly half of its electricity. Less than a tenth comes from nuclear plants built in the 1980s. All in all, the island imports about 97% of its energy, including nuclear fuel, but that can last for up to two years if there is a potential Chinese blockade.

HUANG SHIXIU: (Through interpreter) Energy is a security issue.

FENG: This is Huang Shixiu, a prominent pro-nuclear campaigner and political spokesperson. He says the need for nuclear power plants is greater these days as China's military becomes more advanced.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) China's army wouldn't have to do much for Taiwan to surrender. Even a typhoon in the Taiwan Strait that stopped our natural gas deliveries for over a week would mean losing half of our electricity supply.

FENG: Environmental activists say the island should not have to sacrifice its environmental safety just because China, next door, threatens to invade. Attitudes towards nuclear energy are also split along political lines. The island's KMT party, which ruled the island as an authoritarian military state until the 1990s, built Taiwan's nuclear plants, which makes the issue emotional. Nuclear is bound up with Taiwan's authoritarian past. Wu strongly associates nuclear energy with the period of KMT rule and martial law he was born under.

WU: (Through interpreter) The KMT controlled all the nuclear plants. They started confiscating land to build plants in the 1970s. But because Taiwan had not democratized, we did not dare protest against those plants.

FENG: Now they can, and protest, Wu did. But despite Taiwan's democratization in the 1990s, he says he still cannot trust the once-ruling KMT party and its promises on nuclear.

WU: (Through interpreter) We have long been tricked by the KMT, just as they tricked us on the promise of nuclear.

FENG: Instead, like many in the environmental lobby, he argues Taiwan should go all-in on renewable energy. Indeed, Taiwan is developing big offshore wind projects, but they're expensive and years behind schedule. And so the island remains dependent on energy imports that could be vulnerable to a potential Chinese blockade. In the shadow of the vacant Longmen Power Plant, Wu, now retired, gardens and raises animals.

WU: (Through interpreter) This is land my father left to me and his father left to him.

FENG: It's this connection to this land that drove Wu in his activism - land his family's had from before the KMT took control over Taiwan and before Beijing laid claim over the island.

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FENG: And it's also why the clash between conflicting priorities will continue between those who want to make Taiwan safe for its residents and those who want to make it safe against China.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Fulong Beach, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.