Taiwan leader promises referendum on disputed nuclear plant

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou on Friday promised to let the public decide the fate of a controversial nuclear facility amid growing concern over the safety of nuclear power.

The plant outside Taipei, known as "Nuke Four", has been one of the most contentious projects in Taiwan over the past three decades. Intense political wrangling has repeatedly delayed its construction, which began in 1999 and has already cost around Tw$300 billion (S$12.5 billion).

"A referendum can decide whether the plant should start operating or not ... this cannot be decided by any individual or political party. It should be the people's decision," Ma said, without giving a timetable.

The vote should be held after safety checks of the nearly finished facility had been completed, but before fuel rods are installed in the plant, he said.

Concerns about Taiwan's nuclear facilities have been mounting since 2011, when the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan was hit by a tsunami which knocked out power to cooling systems and sent its reactors into meltdown.

State-run Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) currently operates three nuclear power plants, which supply about 20 per cent of the country's electricity. Like Japan, Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes.

Ma was speaking during a televised meeting with Su Tseng-chang, chairman of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP opposes the power station project on safety grounds, while Ma's ruling Kuomintang party says the island will run short of power unless it goes ahead.

Ma rejected Su's calls for the government to directly scrap the power station or to hold an immediate referendum with a lower threshold - currently for a referendum to pass, 50 per cent of eligible voters need to turn out, with over half voting in favour or against.

Su is calling for the turnout threshold to be reduced to 25 per cent.

Lin Yi-hsiung, a respected 72-year-old former DPP chairman and leading anti-nuclear activist, began a hunger strike on Tuesday to urge the government to terminate the project.

"We can't stall the issue any longer as Lin is racing against time ... if we stall Lin will die," Su said towards the end of the meeting with Ma.

Anti-nuclear groups vowed to stage mass street rallies and sit-ins outside the presidential office over the weekend to show support for Lin.