(Corrects title to DPP chairman, not spokesman, in fourth paragraph)
By Clare Jim
TAIPEI, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Taiwan’s main opposition party called on Tuesday for a change in the law governing referendums to give voters a fair chance to decide whether to halt construction of a fourth nuclear power station on the self-governing island.
The ruling Nationalist Party, long a backer of the project, bowed to opposition demands on Monday to hold a referendum on halting the construction of two reactors in New Taipei City county in northern Taiwan.
The opposition says provisions of Taiwan’s Referendum Act make it difficult to pass any motion submitted for approval, as half of all voters must take part, and half of them must vote in favour of a motion for it to pass.
“We want an impartial and fair referendum,” opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Su Tseng-chang said in a statement. “Not with this ‘bird cage’ referendum law and not in this deceptive manner.”
The government is clearly gambling on a favourable vote to proceed.
Construction is 98 percent complete and tests have begun on the first reactor. Any halt to the project would incur huge costs, with the budget standing at T$283.8 billion ($9.57 billion), according to state-owned Taipower, and the cabinet is expected to seek additional funds in June.
Opposition to nuclear power swept across the world following the 2011 crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. But pressure on governments to reduce reliance on oil and tap cheaper energy forms is bringing projects back to the drawing board.
Last month, South Korea decided to expand its nuclear programme despite safety concerns and scares that closed two reactors.. China this month started up the first reactor commissioned since the meltdowns at Fukushima, the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years.
Taiwan has run its affairs separately from China since defeated Chinese Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war in 1949. It began introducing democratic procedures in the 1980s, including multi-party elections, the right of assembly and referendums.
Opposition-backed demonstrators have demanded a halt to the New Taipei City project, with many protesters citing design and construction flaws.
Nationalist Party lawmakers backed Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s call to proceed with a referendum despite longstanding support for plans to expand Taiwan’s capacity of six reactors. Nuclear power accounts for 18.4 percent of electricity production.
A referendum could be held in August once parliament gave its approval, said Nationalist Party official Lin Hung-Chih.
Six referendums on various issues since 2004 have failed to pass owing to the requirements on participation and voting set down in the law.
“With the high threshold, it’s very difficult to kill the project,” said Tsai-yi Wu, a vice president of the Taiwan Research Institute.
Tsai said a failure to bring the new station on line by 2015 would mean Taiwan could not meet its goal of achieving a capacity reserve of 15 percent at least until 2020 and would probably lead to mandatory power consumption limits. ($1 = 29.6555 Taiwan dollars) (Reporting by Clare Jim; Editing by Manash Goswami and Ron Popeski)