Taipower's No. 4 Nuclear Plant, near Taipei, is now tentatively mothballed. Photo: blogspot.com

Taiwan’s state power company has dodged questions about the fate of 1,700-plus fuel rods containing uranium pellets after its ill-fated No-4 nuclear plant on the outskirts of Taipei was mothballed amid a groundswell of public opposition and the government’s plan to phase out nuclear-power generation.

The island’s national grid operator, known as Taipower, has just said it has a three-year plan to process the bundles of unused fuel rods.

There have been reports that General Electric, the contractor for the plant’s water reactors, demanded that all rods be returned for disposal. The Taipei-based United Daily News revealed earlier this week that Taipower had already shipped 80 such rods from Keelung port and a second batch of 120 rods was expected to be sent in September.

The paper said a US subcontractor,the North Carolina-based Global Nuclear Fuel Americas LLC, had been appointed and would be responsible for dismantling and storing the rods.

A file photo of nuclear fuel rods inside a boiling water reactor. Photo: Handout

When asked to confirm such shipments, a Taipower spokesman said the company was bound by a nondisclosure agreement in regard to its handling of the rods. Yet he added that all 1,744 rods had been slated to be sent back to the US by the end of 2020, in eight instalments.

If so, the state power utility monopoly, whose profits have been on a decline, will have to dig deep into its pocket to foot the bill, as the cost of transporting, dismantling and storing the rods has been put at NT$690 million (US$23 million) in total.

It has also been reported that Taipower may consider extracting the uranium inside and selling it to foreign buyers.

Demand for power on the highly industrialized island, which has meager natural resources, has surged in the recent warm weather and Taipower is grappling to maintain its generators while ratcheting up supply.

Business leaders have urged the government to consider reactivating idle or suspended nuclear power plants to quench peak demand when the weather gets very hot between July and October.

The concrete shields of the Ma-anshan Nuclear Power Plant are visible from a popular beach in southern Taiwan’s Pingtung county. Photo: Taipower Co.

There have also been calls that Taipower should retain the fuel rods for research purposes, amid reports that the National Taiwan University might set up a compact test reactor.

It has also been alleged that Washington has expressed a wish for the rods to be returned quickly, after observers on the island suggested that Taiwan should revive its nuclear industry and research to counter threats from Beijing.

Last year a current affairs commentator close to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party raised eyebrows when he hinted that Taiwan should be ready to “reboot” its nuclear program, as Taipower has had decades of experience operating three nuclear plants and the island has people experienced in atomic energy.

Historically, Washington had been wary of a nuclear-armed Taiwan. Declassified archives have shown that the island was just a step away from owning its own atomic weapon in the 1980s and having a few weaponized prototypes, had it not been for a defector backed by the CIA.

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