Taiwanese environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners say they are perturbed by the risk of a cataclysmic nuclear disaster hitting the island nation. They claim that fallout from such a disaster could exceed that of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident that devastated northeastern Japan.

Some remain fearful even though Taiwan has moved a step closer toward the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s stated goal of a “nuclear-free” Taiwan by the middle of the 2020s. The first reactor at the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City, aka No. 1 Nuclear Plant, has now been taken offline for decommissioning.

But in the meantime Taiwan is faced with another thorny issue that may linger on for many more years, even after the island phases out all of its reactors: where to safely put spent nuclear fuel rods that have been piling up in temporary storage.

The decommissioned Jinshan reactor alone has added 816 more rods to the deadly stockpile.

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The Jinshan plant has two reactors that have been in operation since the late 1970s. Photo: Taipower

Even after having closed down the Jinshan facility, state-run Taipower still operates two other nuclear power plants, one in New Taipei City’s Wanli district and another in southern Pingtung County.

Taipower admitted on Tuesday that spent rods and other radioactive waste presently has to remain at the Jinshan facility as existing storage facilities are already at full capacity. This means the plant’s safety systems must be kept running until a permanent site can be built and flustered locals can be mollified.

Anti-nuclear advocacy group Green Consumers’ Foundation insisted that the dry cask storage facility at the Jinshan plant was built on a seismically unstable location and too close to built-up areas.

Over the years, about 20,000 bundles of spent fuel rods have been produced by the three nuclear plants in Taiwan, after the island turned to nuclear power generation to satisfy its need for electricity at the end of the 1970s.

The tsunami and resultant disaster at Fukushima’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011 resulted in the evacuation of all residents within a 250-kilometer radius, and experts say Taiwan will need a 1,000-km-radius evacuation zone should a similar reactor meltdown occur at the Jinshan plant, mainly due to the amount of rods stored there.

In the event of a catastrophe at the Jinshan plant, which sits near the northernmost tip of Taiwan, mainland coastal cities like Shanghai, 670 km to the north, will also have to brace itself for potential radioactive fallout due to the prevailing wind direction.

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Location of the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant. Photo: Google Maps

Nonetheless, Taiwanese Premier William Lai said his cabinet would respect the passage of a pro-nuclear referendum, one of the ten held alongside the island’s regional elections at the end of November. The plebiscite has effectively overthrown previous bills to close or mothball all nuclear facilities by 2025.

This latest development has thrown the DPP’s “zero-nuclear” policy into chaos.

Lai said the government would examine all options and consult the public about what to do with the island’s existing nuclear plants.

Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council said the decommissioning of the Jinshan plant would go ahead as planned, as the deadline for any proposal to extend its 40-year operation permit had already lapsed.

Such a proposal would have had to be submitted five to 15 years in advance to give the council sufficient time to assess feasibility and safety plans.

Read more: Idea of Taiwan-made nukes has historical resonance