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Resource-short Taiwan plunges ahead with nuclear power plans

While safety and environmental concerns stymie nuclear power plant construction in many parts of the world, Taiwan is plunging forward with plans to produce almost half of its power from muclear by the end of the century.

To achieve this, the Taiwanese have to overcome problems of safety, uranium supply, and waste disposal as well as a brain drain of qualified technicians.

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But with imported fuel now providing 80 percent of power requirements and with virtually no domestic energy resources, officials in Taipei believe they have no choice but to push the nuclear program. The government is aiming for an eventual energy mix of about 45 percent nuclear power, 27 percent coal and liquefied natural gas, and only 26 percent oil -- whose rising price this year has pushed the balance of payments into the red for the first time in years.

The first two nuclear reactors went into operation in 1978, and four more under construction are to come on line before 1983. The Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) will soon invite bids on the 27th and 8th nuclear units. It plans to continue adding at least one reactor a year until there are 20 in service by the late 1990s.

Nuclear power is no easy alternative for Taiwan. The small island crowded with 17 million people lies on a major earthquake fault line. Only the northern and southern tips are suitable for plant siting.

The planned southern units will be located very close to one of the island's prettiest tourist resorts, and this has aroused some opposition. But the antinuclear protests have not been so vociferous as in Japan, the United States, or Western Europe. There has been talk of siting future reactors underground, but Taipower officials say it is too early to know if this really a serious idea.

So far Taiwan has bought two pressurized water reactors from Westinghouse and four boiling water reactors. In the future, says Richard Hsu, deputy director of Taipower's atomic power department, the bidding will be opened up more to non- American companies, especially in Western Europe. Several French and West German companies already are interested in taking up the Taiwanese offer.

The move to encourage Europeans to compete against the US giants is part of a policy to diversity fuel sources. Privately, Taipower officials admit they want to avoid dependency on the US for supplies and enrichment because of worries about changeable US nuclear policy. Taipower recently signed a contract with South Africa for 4,000 tons of uranium and is currently prospecting for ore in Paraguay. The rest comes from the United States.

The Taiwanese have signed a contract with Canada but cannot implement it because of their lack of diplomatic relations with Ottawa. This precludes the signing of an agreement for the peaceful use of atomic energy, which Ottawa says is a pre- condition for sales. Other alternatives include France and Urenco, a consortium formed by Britain, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

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Besides supplies, the country stll has to work out where to dispose of its spent fuel. Time is running out: The two reactors in operationhave a fuel life of only eight years; two of the four units under construction have been modified to last for 10 years, the other two for 15 years.

"We are merely buying time at the moment while we study international attitudes to fuel disposal," says P. C. Liu, director of the atomic-power departmen.

Another snag to be worked out is the staffing of the planned reactors. Many workers who are traind in the US, Mr. Liu says, prefere to stay there because salaries are higher. Although the Taipei governmen strictly controls salaries, Taipower officials are urging that a special exemption be made for power plant workers.

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