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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)


Rad-waste for Food? Taiwan Looks to North Korea for Nuclear Relief

by Anna Gyorgy, Green Korea

Imagine an island with a lot of people, three nuclear power plants with storage pools full of highly radioactive irradiated fuel rods, and nowhere to dispose of thousands of barrels of other radioactive waste. That is Taiwan, which since the mid-1960s has based its rapid industrialization on nuclear energy, with little consideration for the resulting pollution.

Now imagine a poor mountainous country 1,000 miles away, across an almost enclosed body of water (the Yellow Sea). In this tightly controlled society where people only know what they are told, the economy is in shambles and the population is suffering from food shortages and malnutrition after serious flooding and poor harvests. The government-whose ideology has for decades been based on the concept of self-reliance-appeals for international food and financial aid. This is North Korea today.

There was outrage in capitalist South Korea when the (government owned) Taiwan Power Company announced that it had signed a contract with North Korea on January 11, 1997 to ship 200,000 barrels of low-level waste to North Korea beginning as early as March 1997. The contract called for an initial shipment of 60,000 barrels within the first two years. The North reported that it would receive US $1,150 per barrel, "in addition to an undisclosed lump sum for site preparation and shipping (assuming North Korean freighters are used)." This is foreign exchange that economically isolated North Korea badly needs.

The South Korean government quickly condemned the plan, without mentioning its own radioactive waste woes. And Korea's dynamic environmental and other civic groups quickly responded with a series of actions ranging from an initial burning of the Taiwanese flag (later rejected as too provocative a tactic in a region where nationalist sentiments run strong) to signature gathering and demonstrations, some, as on February 14, coordinated world-wide, with demonstrations taking part at Taiwanese missions in Asia, Europe, and the US. Anti-nuclear groups opposed the deal-the first time that one country has attempted to "dispose" of its rad-waste permanently in another-as a form of "environmental imperialism."

In late January six Green Korea activists flew to Taipei to hold a week-long hunger strike in front of the Taiwan Power Company ("Taipower") headquarters in Taipei to oppose the planned shipments. Their action was supported by and coordinated with the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU), which has long opposed nuclear construction in Taiwan and past government plans for waste storage. Green Korea and TEPU called on their countries to offer technological and economic assistance to North Korea, instead of "selling" them nuclear waste. After two days the peaceful group, seated in front of Taipower with banners against the waste export, was assaulted by ultra-right-wing Chinese-Taiwanese nationalists as police stood by. Later that day the Koreans were expelled from Taiwan, and continued their protest in front of the Taiwanese representative's office in downtown Seoul.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese environmental activists continued the protest in front of Taipower, issuing a statement that read in part:

If Taiwan is incapable of managing the nuclear waste problems, it should not develop nuclear power. The Taiwan government must terminate construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and immediately stop operating the No. 1, 2 and 3 nuclear power plants. The only way to solve the nuclear waste problem is not to produce wastes in the first place.

Taiwan: With Democracy, Opposition to Nuclear Power

Taiwan's nuclear program was developed under a tightly-controlled authoritarian regime. "As Taiwan society gradually became more and more liberalized," the president of TEPU reported to the No Nukes Asia Forum in 1995, "the people ceased their silence. In 1984, the building of nuclear Power Plant No. 4 was proposed, and it received open criticism from congressmen. Yet little attention was paid until the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in 1986."

"We now see a new form of 'environmental imperialism' in which richer countries try to pass on their dangerous radioactive waste legacy to others who desperately need foreign exchange…"

Since 1982 the state-owned Taipower has shipped low and mid-level nuclear waste from its three nuclear power plants to the Long-men Nuclear Waste Depository on Orchid Island. Also called Lan Yu, this beautiful island off Taiwan's southern coast has a unique ecosystem and is home to 3,000 Yami, the most isolated of Taiwan's indigenous peoples. After storing 98,000 barrels of nuclear waste on the island, Taipower faced widespread protests in 1995 when it broke its promise to the Yami to cancel any expansion of the facility and approved plans to store an additional 100,000 drums of nuclear waste in Long-Men. The Yami fear contamination of soil and sea from leaking barrels; the Taiwan Atomic Energy Council has admitted that some of the drums of waste have rusted. Now, all the wastes, including those previously stored at Lan Yu, are to go to North Korea.

"We now see a new form of 'environmental imperialism' in which richer countries try to pass on their dangerous radioactive waste legacy to others who desperately need foreign exchange to help their economic situation," said Green Korea in an international alert following their expulsion from Taiwan. "A victory over this export attempt will set an important international precedent against storing 'waste for cash' in other nations' back yards, and strengthen the movement towards nuclear phase-out."

North Korean sources reported that the waste would be stored in a closed mine in Pyungsan, Whanghaebukdo, North Korea. According to the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM): "The underground water table can be infiltrated due to the carelessly developed tunnel and mining area. Furthermore, there is danger of an earthquake as the mine is located near geological faults. In addition, it will take at least 5 or 10 years to build the treatment facilities for the nuclear waste. If 60,000 barrels of waste are dumped within two years, it will only be discarded as waste in a closed mine with its (limited) facilities."

The Larger Picture

The waste export deal has a number of important international implications. By seeking this tie with North Korea, Taiwan may well be looking towards future investment there, as the North's state-controlled economy slowly opens after the collapse of the Cold War-era socialist trading bloc. Certainly, Taiwan's newly strengthened relationship with North Korea will anger both China and South Korea. Since the Korean War, China has been a close ally of the North, so "Pyongyang's (NK) recognition of Taiwan means a slap in the face for Beijing" (Korea Times).

Taiwan has also had less than friendly ties with South Korea since that government switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1992. Thus, South Korean government appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Taiwan. And a Pyongyang representative in Taipei said that Seoul should "tend to its own business before interfering with that of others." (Korea Times, Jan. 20, 1997)

Touché. This is not the first time that the divided Koreas have squared off on rad-waste plans. For the nuclear plant-laden South has yet to find a site for its own radioactive wastes. The most recent choice was a small island in the Yellow Sea off Korea's west coast, close to the border with the North. At that time (end of 1994-1995) the North opposed the site as a danger to their own health and safety. The plan was finally dropped in the face of citizen protest and geological studies showing deep fissures in the island's supposedly stable rock.

Meanwhile, plans proceed for a twin 1000 Mw reactor light-water nuclear facility to be built by the south in the north, the result of a US-engineered "trade-off" in which North Korea shut its small weapons-related nuclear reactor. There has been some discussion in the Korean press that the big reactor deal may be threatened if the North does not reject Taiwan's wastes. But as early spring came to the peninsula in late February, plans and initial site work for the project were proceeding.

the nuclear waste management treaty currently being drafted by the IAEA...allows the uncontrolled export of radioactive materials.

Not only is the Taiwan-NK deal the first rad-waste export contract, but such trans-boundary exchanges are currently allowed. The Base 1 Convention and the London Dumping Treaty set a baseline international consensus against the export of hazardous wastes. The Lomé and Bamako Conventions prohibit the export of radioactive waste to developing countries. However, Article 26 of the nuclear waste management treaty currently being drafted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is seriously flawed, because it allows the uncontrolled export of radioactive materials. If this article is approved as it currently stands, there could be a movement of radioactive waste internationally. Poor countries might find it acceptable to store the cancer-causing legacy of others. The IAEA treaty as currently drafted will legalize "environmental imperialism."

Not one of the 38 countries with nuclear power plants has yet solved the nuclear waste dilemma. Both Taiwan and South Korea have had serious technical and social problems with their waste policy. Despite the heavy burden it places on our society, the South Korean government plans to operate a total of 29 nuclear reactors around the year 2010. In East Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and China also plan to depend on nuclear-generated electricity. Says Green Korea: "We must recognize that the only way to prevent the specter of nuclear wastes contaminating the environment and people over thousands of years, is not to create them in the first place."

© Anna Gyorgy, March 1997

International support is needed and welcomed.
Contact: Green Korea: Fax: (82-2)325-5677; environ@chollian.dacom.co.kr
Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU): Fax: (886-2)362-3458; tepu@ms1.hinet.net

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