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Plugging into nuclear poses a few problems

Achieving a nuclear power input of 50 percent of national energy needs is no easy task for Taiwan.

First, there is the high cost of building power plants: At several billion dollars each, it is no light burden for a developing economy of only 18 million people.

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Then there are difficulties of finding sites and overcoming public opposition on a small, crowded island, both for reactors and for storing their volatile waste products.

As a result, the Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) is proceeding cautiously with its nuclear power development program. The first nuclear unit went into operation in 1977, triggered by the world oil crisis, which made Taiwan painfully aware of its virtually total dependence on imported energy.

The fourth unit recently began producing power, making nuclear's contribution to total electrical generation around 30 percent. US companies have dominated the scene - General Electric providing all existing units, and Westinghouse providing units 5 and 6, under construction in southern Taiwan.

But now France has stepped into the fray, bidding for the contracts on units 7 and 8, which are to be awarded soon (these will be followed by four more plants in the 1990s).

''We don't want to go any faster,'' says Taipower chairman L. K. Chen. ''We don't have the money to speed things up anyway. And our whole approach is on the cautious side. We don't want to rely on any single energy source, even nuclear.''

Uranium fuel is now supplied equally by the US and South Africa, with the former handling all the enrichment. Mr. Chen says Canada and Australia have been approached -- without success -- as suppliers. Canada refused on grounds that supplying Taiwan would be ''politically very sensitive.''

France, with its uranium mines and enrichment capability, is interested, especially if Taipower will buy French reactors. The seventh and eighth units are crucial in one respect: They are the first in which some locally made parts will be used.

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All parts were imported from the US for the first six units, although the Taiwanese have a joint venture with a US firm, Bechtel, to handle most of the plant design.

As more reactors come on line, however, the problem of waste disposal becomes more pressing. ''Originally we expected to send the waste to the United States, but the Americans didn't want it.'' says Mr. Chen.

''Then we asked the British about reprocessing, but the State Department vetoed the idea, insisting we keep it on Taiwan until an internationally accepted solution could be worked out. So we are storing the waste at the power stations. In another eight years, however, our present storage facilities will be full.''

Low-level radioactive waste is now packed into 50-gallon drums sealed in concrete. Each reactor produces 2,000 such drums a year. Mr. Chen says Taipower has an idea for eventually moving all the drums to an offshore island dumping site.