TAIPEI, Taiwan, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- Taiwan's controversial fourth nuclear power plant could be ready for loading of fuel rods as early as this month, the government says.
Testing of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant refueling platform, scheduled to be completed last month, is now expected to be completed the end of this month. Construction on the facility, in New Taipei City, started in 1998.
"Once the testing is over, the fourth nuclear power plant will have the capacity to load fuel rods and replace spent fuel rods," Kyodo News reported Victor Sung, deputy director of plant's project office, under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as saying on Tuesday.
Taiwan's three existing nuclear power plants -- Chinshan, Kuosheng and Maanshan -- provide 17 percent of the country's overall energy needs. Built in the 1970s, the facilities are operated by state-run Taiwan Power Co., known as Taipower, under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Those facilities are scheduled to be decommissioned beginning in 2018.
Taipower aims to start No. 4's operations in 2015, Kyodo reports.
Even before Japan's March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, the No. 4 facility had been bitterly opposed by residents, environmentalists and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's administration has promoted holding a public referendum on the fate of the No. 4 plant. The proposed referendum is awaiting legislative approval.
But last month lawmakers from the DPP scuffled with lawmakers from the ruling Kuomintang party, or KMT, at the legislative podium in an attempt to block the KMT's vote to pass the referendum.
And on Tuesday, a KMT lawmaker said that he was withdrawing a proposal for the referendum, citing poor timing amid political disruption, Focus Taiwan News Channel reports.
In response, Taiwan's Minister of Economic Affairs Chang Chia-juch said that ongoing safety inspections of the plant would continue as scheduled, whether or not there is a referendum on the facility's fate.
If the plant is not put to a referendum vote, Chang said, the government will try to communicate with the public through other means before making a final decision, Chang said.
Separately, two European nuclear experts, who co-authored a review critical of stress-test reports on the No. 4 plant, on Wednesday called for the nuclear plant project to be canceled during a Taipei press conference organized by Greenpeace.
Citing existing natural hazards, weaknesses in design and deficiencies in the structure, system and components of the plant, as well as its short distance to New Taipei City, they said a severe accident would have disastrous consequences for millions of people, the Taipei Times reports.
More than 6.5 million people, or about a third of Taiwan's population, live within 50 miles of the plant's site.