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The Other Atomic Concern in Taiwan—Nuclear Reactors


The Ukrainian nuclear reactor at Zaporizhzhia came dangerously close to a meltdown when Russian forces damaged power circuits, affecting cooling systems. This has sparked concern over Taiwan’s nuclear plants amid heightening tensions between China and the U.S. Considering China’s preparations to invade Taiwan, the United States should seek to establish a convention with China that explicitly forbids the intentional assault of nuclear establishments to both protect Taiwan against nuclear devastation, and also to open up much needed dialogue with China that may help relax tensions.

In a wartime scenario, nuclear reactors are something of a house of cards. It’s rather easy for stray ordinance to hit an unintended target, as demonstrated by stray missiles from the Ukraine conflict that landed in Poland, killing two civilians. Taiwanese reactors are not only near major population centers, but they also overlap with many optimal landing sites for Chinese invasion forces, heightening the risks of being damaged by close proximity to battlefronts.

Nick Roth, senior director of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Program, said that the risks of things going wrong either from direct or indirect attacks is “quite high.”

To manage rates of fission reactors rely on control rods to absorb radiation. If the control rods are damaged, there is nothing to limit reaction rates, and a small nuclear explosion can erupt. Cooling systems maintain temperature and pressure in nuclear reactors, and are extremely vulnerable in a warzone. If the power circuits to Taiwan’s Kuosheng reactor cooling systems get damaged, a meltdown could occur where temperatures and pressures reach explosive levels.

Even if these explosions themselves don’t have immediate anti-personnel effects, seasonal winds can still blow their radiation clouds onto large cities, sickening or killing thousands, and costing billions in damages.

Wenchung Liu, deputy minister of the Atomic Energy Committee in Taiwan, said in a September news conference last year that because of these risks of serious collateral damage, a deliberate attack by China on Taiwan’s nuclear power plants was “unlikely.” He claimed that military operations leading to damage and disruption of critical infrastructure were more realistic concerns

But Ian Easton, senior director at the 2049 Research Institute, disagreed. He pointed out that in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) course manuals the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stated, “Taiwan’s nuclear power plants represent high-value military targets…[and advise] PLA combat commanders to … [use] helicopter gunships armed with anti-tank missiles” to attack facilities. The manuals also instruct soldiers to “wash off” nuclear radiation and not let it “slow you down as you finish conquering the island,” clearly indicating the CCPs lack of care about radiation damage to their troops.

……………………………………………………………… Ultimately, China and America desperately need détente. On top of absolving risks to Taiwanese nuclear reactors, a collaborative treaty between America and China prohibiting attacks on nuclear facilities could be the olive branch both countries seek. Thankfully, as former U.S. State Department foreign policy expert Bennett Ramberg pointed out, “a perfectly serviceable template already exists” for such a treaty. “In 1988, India and Pakistan, two of the world’s most ferocious adversaries, cobbled together [an adequately detailed] accord” prohibiting attacks on nuclear establishments. He said “this model should be adopted as a universal norm.”

Regardless of the fate of Taiwan’s nuclear energy programs, the risks posed to existing facilities amid heightening cross-strait tensions demands international coordination—coordination that might make room for talks between America and China and a cooling of relations.


April 9, 2023 - Posted by | safety, Taiwan

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