No place for nuclear waste

Oppose nuclear power in TaiwanThere is an article in today’s Taipei Times about the continuing search for a site to store Taiwan’s nuclear waste. It says that a final location for the “disposal” [This is the word used in the article. I hope they mean storage!] of nuclear waste, currently stored at Orchid Island (蘭嶼), will be decided on by the Executive Yuan in 2011.

In July 2004 I had the chance to join a tour organised by Friends of the Earth. We visited sites associated with the nuclear industry in South Australia. There is a long history of nuclear related activities there going back to the British testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and uranium mining, including the world’s largest uranium deposit at Olympic Dam. The area has also been proposed as a site for the storage of nuclear waste. The opposition of local communities has been successful in preventing this so far. The tour gave me a chance to appreciate the problems associated with the nuclear industry and the storage of nuclear waste that you just cannot get from reading books.

There are some significant similarities and differences between Taiwan and Australia regarding the storage of nuclear waste. A major difference is that is much of Australia is sparsely populated and geologically stable. Contrast this with Taiwan — a small densely populated island that experiences frequent earthquakes. If Australia has spent many years searching for a suitable place to store its own relatively small amounts of nuclear waste*, then how can Taiwan expect to find a suitable place?

A similarity between Taiwan and Australia is that indigenous people have had to suffer a disproportionate burden of nuclear activities. In Taiwan the Tao Nation, on Orchid Island, are the ones who have to live next to Taiwan’s nuclear waste. It is no coincidence that the poorest and most marginalised members of society are the ones that have nuclear waste dumped on them.

9% of Taiwan’s energy comes from nuclear power. Better planning and investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency could easily eliminate the need for these nuclear power plants to continue operating. However, even if all the nuclear operations were to stop today there would still be massive amounts of waste without suitable long-term storage facilities. The continuing use of nuclear power only exacerbates the problem.

Taiwan’s energy policy in general shows a tremendous lack of forward planning. The nation is almost entirely dependent on imported energy. Yet there has been a paltry investment in renewable energy or energy efficiency. Taiwan has also failed to adequately consider the twin threats of climate change and peak oil in forming public policy.

I wonder if the government really has any idea at all about what to do with the nuclear waste. Over two years ago the Taipei Times reported that the Atomic Energy Council with the use of new technologies “hopes to complete the relocation project by 2008”. At the beginning of this year the Taipei Times again reported on the issue saying,

The relocation of low-level radioactive waste on the island of Lanyu (蘭嶼) could be accelerated from the previously-scheduled 18 years to nine years, the head of the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) said yesterday.


If everything goes smoothly, the Lanyu nuclear waste receptacle can be decommissioned by 2014, Ou Yang said.

All this highlights how difficult the problem is when a basic time line for the project cannot even be decided upon. In many ways government institutions (not just those in Taiwan) are totally inadequate for dealing with a waste product that remains dangerous for thousands of years.

I don’t have any answers about how to safely store nuclear waste. But this highlights the problem. Why continue producing a dangerous waste product when there is no clear plan of where and how to store it? It is sheer lunacy.

* Australia has only one small nuclear reactor used for research purposes. Taiwan has three operating nuclear power plants, and a fourth under construction.

# The characters on the flag are 反核救台灣. In English it means, “Oppose nuclear power, save Taiwan.”

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