By Michael Gold
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Police in Taiwan fired water cannons on Monday to disperse hundreds of anti-nuclear protesters refusing to give up their campaign despite a government pledge to halt work on the island's fourth nuclear power plant.
The protesters had been occupying a main Taipei boulevard since Sunday, demanding the government scrap plans to begin operation of Taiwan's nearly completed fourth reactor.
"Anti-nuclear public opinion is very high," said 26-year-old protester Huang Ting-chiao. "The government should respond to the public's desires as soon as possible."
Taiwan sits on the so-called ring of fire region of seismic activity around the Pacific Ocean and many of the island's residents are alarmed at the prospect of an earthquake triggering a disaster like the one at Fukushima in Japan that followed an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered on Sunday before the government announced it would halt construction pending a public vote.
Despite that, hundreds of protesters remained out overnight and police used water cannons to clear them in the morning.
"Many people had hoped for a complete abandonment of the fourth nuclear plant," the government said in a statement issued later on Monday.
"Under this scenario, rising electricity prices are unavoidable."
Media reported several people were injured but police denied that.
On Friday, Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou refused opposition demands for an immediate referendum on the future of the plant, but reiterated that the government would hold such a vote before the facility starts operations.
Taiwan's three operating nuclear power stations would have to remain in operation for longer if the fourth one does not start generating power as planned, the Economics Ministry has said.
Taiwan's first nuclear plant is set to be decommissioned from 2018-19, while the second is set to close between 2021 and 2023.
Some 40 percent of the island's electricity is generated by coal, 30 percent by natural gas and 18.4 percent by nuclear power, according to the Economics Ministry.
(Additional reporting by Damon Lin; Editing by Robert Birsel)