Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday proposed that commercial operations of the island's nearly completed fourth nuclear power plant be put on hold after it passes a safety check, until a referendum decides the fate of the controversial facility.
The proposal - made during a meeting with the leader of the island's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party - was seen by local media and pundits as a concession by the administration amid a growing tide against nuclear power in Taiwan.
The facility, in New Taipei City's Gongliao district, is due to be completed in 2016.
"We all support holding off the commercial start-up of the plant as well as the installation of fuel rods" until a referendum was held, Ma told DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang in a 85-minute meeting open to the press.
He was referring to a resolution made by the legislative caucus of his ruling Kuomintang party on Thursday night to address the issue. The resolution was later supported by both the island's premier, Jiang Yi-huah, and Ma.
Taiwan's three existing nuclear plants supply about 20 per cent of the island's electricity. Construction of the fourth was originally due to be finished by 2004, but political wrangling has delayed the project.
In recent months, tens of thousands of people have joined rallies calling for the project to be scrapped. On Tuesday, the movement received fresh momentum when former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung, a respected political veteran, began a hunger strike over the issue, attracting hundreds of supporters.
One of the challenges opponents face is the high threshold that referendums require for a successful "no" vote. Under current rules, half of all eligible voters in Taiwan must take part in the poll and half of them must approve the proposal.
Su yesterday met Ma at his office in hopes of lowering the threshold, but they became locked in a heated debate, which was carried live by local TV.
They disagreed over whether the KMT government or the previous DPP administration should take responsibility for allowing plans to go ahead in the first place.
Su said the KMT started the project, while Ma argued that Su had increased the plant's construction budget when Su was premier. Ma also said the DPP had agreed to the criteria for the referendum law.
Local media and pundits said the KMT resolution would help the Ma government avoid an immediate showdown with the anti-nuclear camp.
But the administration should use the time before any referendum was held to reach out to the public and establish better channels of communication, they said.
KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang, who raised the proposal during the caucus meeting, said the referendum would show whether the public be willing to accept higher electricity prices if they decided against a fourth nuclear power facility.
The project has remained mired in controversy since it was first proposed three decades ago. It came under renewed scrutiny following the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in Japan in 2011.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse