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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Taiwan Aboriginal Village Targeted for Nuclear Waste Disposal

By Thibault Worth
30 September 2009

Taiwan has tried and failed to sell its nuclear waste to North Korea and China. Now, the government is seeking a burial place at home. The top choice is a poor aboriginal community.

When it comes to nuclear waste, most people say, "not in my back yard." But most residents of Nantian village in southeastern Taiwan's Taitung County favor building a low-level nuclear waste dump five kilometers away.

Taiwan has thousands of barrels of low-level waste - mostly contaminated clothing, boots and mops used by the workers at the island's three nuclear power plants. Engineers at Taipower, the electricity monopoly, say it will take about 100 years for the harmful radiation to decay.

Tu Yueh-Yuan is the company's chief engineer. She says that is a short enough period of time to guarantee the safety of a long-term storage facility.

Based on the design of the storage containers, she says, once the nuclear waste is contained, it is harmless.

Three-fourths of the Nantian's 380 residents are Paiwan aboriginals. Ethnically closer to Filipinos than to Han Chinese, Taiwan's aboriginals farmed the land and fished the waters here long before Han Chinese immigrants started arriving three hundred years ago.

Aboriginals have fewer educational opportunities, and suffer greater unemployment than Han Chinese. Critics say the nuclear waste disposal plans are just the latest form of discrimination against them.

But the villagers have a different idea; about 60 percent of them favor the dump, because it will bring jobs and money.

Nantian village chief Chang Chih-hsin says representatives from the power company visit often and make presentations to promote the facility.

Chang says Taipower gave a presentation, and they said there is no danger. In fact, Taipower told us the waste dump will emit less radiation than the background radiation from nature.

Taitung County is famous for its organic vegetables and hot springs. But residents earn only $650 a month on average, half the Taiwan norm. The county has about 80,000 aboriginals, about 16 percent of the population.

If selected for the nuclear waste dump, Taitung County will receive $155 million. The central government calls it a "Friendly Neighbor" payment. It is not clear how much money the Nantian villagers would receive.

Pan Han-shen is the Secretary General of Taiwan's Green Party, which opposes nuclear power. He thinks Nantian is being considered for a waste storage facility because it is a poor, aboriginal community.

Pan says this is a phenomenon all over the world. Governments always chose minority inhabited areas for nuclear waste disposal sites. In Taiwan, he says, all the sites are inhabited by aboriginals.

Taipower says the $155 million it is a land use fee, and not connected with any potential health risks associated with nuclear waste.

Taipower chief engineer Tu says the village's poverty is a not significant factor in the selection of the site.

She says if Taipower were to pick a non-aboriginal neighborhood, even if the residents were quite wealthy, the company would still offer the compensation money.

Before the site gets the go-ahead, a majority of Taitung County residents must approve it in a referendum. And opposition in the county is stronger than in Nantian village.

County Councilor Hsieh Ming-chu is one of several officials strongly opposed to the nuclear waste dump. She has voted down every effort by the central government to organize a referendum, and says she will continue to do so.

She asks if the government messes up this nuclear dump, who is going to be willing to visit or invest in Taitung? She says their organic agriculture and beautiful nature will be ruined. Taitung would become a no-man's land.

Taipower says the nuclear waste will not harm local agriculture or tourism, pointing to similar facilities that have been built in Japan and other countries.

If Taitung County ultimately rejects the proposal, the government and Taipower will have to go back to the drawing board. New sites will have to be located, and the process of wooing residents begun anew.

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