45,000 people join anti-nuclear rallies in Taiwan

TAIPEI (AFP) - Thousands of people took to the streets in Taiwan on Saturday to call for the island to scrap its use of nuclear energy and to voice opposition to controversial plans to ship nuclear waste abroad, organisers said.

Protesters in central Taipei waved placards and dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with slogans including "Goodbye to nuclear energy" and "We don't need nuclear power", just days after Japan marked the fourth anniversary of an undersea earthquake which triggered a massive tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Taiwan's government has faced growing public pressure over its unpopular nuclear energy facilities.

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

Last year, Taiwanese authorities were forced to seal off a nearly-completed power plant due to open in 2015, pending a referendum on its future.

But anti-nuclear groups said that was not enough, and demanded the government scrap the plant altogether. They have also called for the authorities to promise to decommission two older plants at the scheduled dates.

"We urge the government to reform its energy policy and focus on green energy and saving energy," said one of the rally's organisers Tsui Shu-hsin.

"Politicians should listen to the voices of the people... so Taiwan can become nuclear-free." The government says that Taiwan will run out of energy if it ditches nuclear power, which currently supplies about 20 per cent of the island's electricity.

The Taipei rally drew around 30,000 people, while two other rallies held simultaneously across the island had a combined turnout of 15,000, according to estimates by organisers. Police estimates were not immediately available.

Organisers were also collecting signatures in a bid to stop a plan by the state-run Taiwan Power Co to process its nuclear waste abroad, which they said was aimed at extending the operations of two plants which are approaching capacity.

The plants, which currently store the spent fuel rods, were launched in 1978 and 1981 and will each be decommissioned once they have been operational for 40 years.

"Taiwan is earthquake-prone like Japan and it is smaller so nuclear facilities are much closer to our homes," said Wu Bor-chyun, a banker who was living in Japan at the time of the 2011 nuclear accident.

"Nuclear power is not safe and it is very costly. Taiwan should heed the lessons in Japan."