ORCHID ISLAND, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan will shut a nuclear waste dump on sparsely populated Orchid Island by 2016, eliminating a toxic risk and a source of friction with indigenous people on this tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean.
The decision to move the dump from this island 65 miles
east of Taiwan follows a complex, 25-year battle between the site’s operator, Taiwan Power Co., and Orchid Island natives who believe they have been poisoned.
It was a classic case of hazardous waste dumps located in a sparsely populated, isolated region despite protests, the same sort of problem that has addled communities in Japan and South Korea.
“They tend to locate in far-off islands and isolated communities, in fact in places where the local governments can be bought off,” said Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace International in Asia.
Greenpeace says the site contains “a soup of highly radioactive poisons,” even as Taipower insists the waste there contains low levels of radiation.
What the Lan Yu Storage Site does contain is 97,672 barrels of semi-solid nuclear waste in a poorly marked former millet-growing area along the rocky coastline. That waste will move to one of three sites on Taiwan’s main island.
Many of the island’s 3,100 aboriginal Tao people welcome the departure plan, because they suspect nuclear waste has caused an increase in stomach cancer, mutated fish caught in the Pacific Ocean and contaminated soil where they grow taro and yams.
“People’s lives are shorter now. Before you could be in your 90s and still working,” said activist Shya Pak Kotan, 82.
Taipower considered shipping the waste to North Korea in 1997 and has talked of looking to other overseas recipients over the years, but none of those efforts has borne fruit.
Indigenous islanders have campaigned against the dump since the late 1980s, demonstrating outside its gates and occasionally breaching the stone wall.
Protesters say they thwarted plans to expand the dump and ultimately got Taipower to agree to the relocation.
Taipower, pointing to a government report, says it has not contaminated the 45-square-kilometre island since the dump was opened in 1982.
Islanders may be celebrating the dump’s removal, but many will also suffer a less obvious downside with its departure as Taipower ends local economic incentives it provided as an offset for setting up the facility.
The departure will mean no more scholarships or free emergency medical care, as well as about T$5 billion ($150 million) that went to Orchid Island’s village governments, according to Taipower.
Orchid Island residents say they can handle the break in financial aid, even as some question whether Taipower will really shut down the dump.
According to its timeline, Taipower will choose its new site in 2011 and begin moving the maxed-out dump five years later, followed by an Orchid Island site cleanup through 2024, said storage site head Paul Huang.