Nuclear waste storage concern equals the threat of meltdown
The China Post news staffNorth Korea's reported impending lawsuit against Taiwan over an allegedly unfulfilled nuclear waste disposal contract is a blindside amid the feverishly boiling public debate over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant referendum. All of a sudden, one of the world's most infamous and secluded states has thrown itself into the debate, and this raises a tangle of painful questions about Taiwan's nuclear policy.
March 4, 2013, 12:26 am TWN
Reports say that the waste disposal plans were halted due to international pressure and that North Korea had continued to invest in waste grounds until finally deciding to sue. Taiwan Power Co. released a statement Friday in response to the reports, acknowledging that it did sign a contract with North Korea in 1997 over the disposal of 60,000 barrels of nuclear waste. However, Taipower said that North Korea would not allow inspections upon completion of the site as required by the Atomic Energy Council, with the dispute preventing the project from continuing. Since it did not begin, Taipower argued that the contract has since expired.
No matter to which side the legal advantage eventually goes, Taiwan must review why and how it has found itself mired in these nuclear power controversies. In addition to Nuke 4, there is the problem of poor domestic storage as exemplified by complaints about decaying storage containers at Orchid Island (Lanyu), off the coast of Southern Taiwan. The poor state of management and lack of preplanning seems to haunt the country's tussle with nuclear power.
Lanyu was supposed to have been a temporary storage facility, but a final destination has yet to materialize. Newer waste storage facilities built by Taipower are indoors, and are equipped with moisture and temperature control systems, in addition to a capacity limit of 30,000 containers versus the close to 100,000 currently rotting away, exposed to the elements.
In a documentary late last year by the Japanese station TBS, the situation at Lanyu was titled “The Overlooked Crisis.” Pictures taken of the site reveal chipped, mangled and splintered yellow containers in piles, some already collapsed, others deformed.
In interviews, some aboriginal residents said their family members have been tricked into working for the storage facility. One said his uncle worked for a few years at the facility, and later contracted cancer and died at around 40 years old. A woman testified that residents have suffered a high incidence of thyroid cancer, saying that she herself knows three.
The sorry story inevitably leads to questions of whether the whole facility is being maintained at the cost of the health of its residents.
Sending nuclear waste offshore is not an infeasible option in itself. Taiwan's geographical minuteness limits its capacity for storage. But the problem seems to reveal a lack of commitment to facing the costs of nuclear power, and the necessity of long-term planning. The fact that Taiwan considered resorting to one of the world's most unpredictable nations to deal with its radioactive waste, as well as the ongoing environmental concern in Lanyu, highlight the hidden costs in the treatment and disposal of radioactive waste, which is no less a concern than the integrity of the power plants themselves.
As the radioactive waste leaks in a Washington state facility reported last month show, nuclear plant meltdowns on the scale of Fukushima or Chernobyl are not the only safety concern. The slow damage to the environment and the people brought by leaking tanks or rusting containers may lack bang but they are no less profound.