New York Times


Nuclear Dump Disrupts a Peaceful Taiwan Island

By Keith Bradsher
June 30, 2002

Lanyu, Taiwan-- June 27 -- Steep volcanic slopes carpeted with tropical vegetation vault out of crystalline waters and magnificent coral reefs here, while a peaceful tribe of aborigines, largely insulated from the outside world until the early 1970's, tries to cling to ancient ways.

This island seems like a tropical paradise except for one problem: it is also home to one of the world's most troubled nuclear waste dumps. Up to 20,000 barrels of radioactive debris need to be fixed because chemical reactions inside are cracking the concrete with which the waste was mixed, the site's director says. The barrels are in seaside concrete trenches on the most windswept tip of this typhoon- and earthquake-prone island, at the base of a 1,500-foot-high bluff prone to rockslides.

After President Chen Shui-bian recently said that Taiwan's government would be unable to keep a promise made 12 years ago to remove the dump by the end of this year, most of the island's 3,000 people, who belong to the Tao tribe, descended from Polynesian explorers, marched to the site. Some overran the dump and occupied it overnight.

Local leaders threaten that unless action is taken soon, they may resort to more drastic action.

"We will burn or dig out the waste and throw it into the ocean,'' said the Rev. Syamen Nga Rai, general secretary of the 25-member tribal committee that is negotiating with the government. "It will be in the whole world, because the ocean moves."

Chen Chien-nien, the government's minister for indigenous peoples, who make up 1.7 percent of Taiwan's population, said the Tao were right to be upset. "If the residents were Chinese or Taiwanese in the beginning, they probably would not have built the dump there," he said.

But Mr. Chen, an aborigine himself from the Puyuma tribe who is not related to the president, said the Tao should trust President Chen's recent promises to find a new home for the dump. "The Tao thought that once you say that, you have to do it immediately," he said. "Even if you want to work on it, removing the dump site takes six or seven years."

Taipei has set up two task forces in the last month, one to step up the search for a new home for the waste and the other to draft an economic development plan for Lan Yu, one of the poorest places in Taiwan.

The government's favorite choice, burying the waste under the seabed next to Wu Chiu Islet in the Taiwan Strait, still requires environmental studies. The plan is also likely to face objections from China, since the islet is just 16 miles from its coast.

The dump here has only a 10-person technical staff, none of them aborigines, and a dozen local security guards and janitors. There is a six-foot-high stone wall around the dump.

Wu Ruey-yau, the planning director at the government's Atomic Energy Council, said it would be difficult for anyone to break in and remove any radioactive waste. Each panel of the trenches' lids weighs 12 tons, and the only cranes on the island are at the site.

Under Japanese colonial rule through the end of World War II, this island was closed to outsiders and treated as a "living laboratory" for Japanese anthropologists to observe the Tao people. Tribal members wore loincloths made from the fiber of trees and led an unusually peaceful life in which land was communally held, warfare and weaponry were unknown and all decisions were made by panels of village elders. Flying fish were venerated as gifts of food from the spiritual world.

After World War II and the Chinese civil war, the island became a military outpost for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, who had fled the mainland after their defeat by the Communists. Presbyterian missionaries visited and converted much of the population.

Taipei opened the island to visitors in 1969 and, in the name of progress, bulldozed most of the traditional, stone-walled homes over the objections of residents. The government built them three-story, concrete-block apartment buildings and banned the use of the Tao language.

Most of the Tao have lived in the apartments ever since, although some older residents still live in surviving stone-walled dwellings, fish from handmade canoes and wear loincloths. Their language is no longer banned, but nearly all school instruction is in Chinese.

Oil price shocks in the 1970's prompted the government to build three nuclear power plants on the main island of Taiwan.

Mr. Wu, of the Atomic Energy Council, said Lan Yu residents were not told that the construction project at the southeastern tip of their island, where two powerful sea currents meet and create the island's richest fishing ground, was actually a nuclear waste dump.

Construction of the dump was finished in 1982. Workers at nuclear reactors on the main island of Taiwan began mixing radioactive waste with concrete, sealing it in 55-gallon steel drums and shipping it here for storage in the 23 reinforced-concrete trenches. But until 1993, the drums were made of inexpensive steel that was not treated to prevent corrosion, and many of these barrels are now rusting, Mr. Wu said.

Incomplete records were kept of what was in the early drums. Only low-level waste is supposed to be inside, but it is not clear what kind. Workers will begin removing drums from the trenches later this year and drill holes in them in an effort to determine the contents.

Low-quality cement was mixed with the radioactive waste in many of the early barrels, and is now expanding and cracking the steel barrels, said Paul T.H. Huang, the director of the site. As a result, the government is preparing to grind up to a fifth of the 98,000 barrels here and remix them with fresh cement.

Up to 10,000 or so barrels have good cement but the barrels are corroded, Mr. Huang said. The government plans to pack these barrels in larger containers and pour fresh cement around them. As many as 30,000 drums need repainting to protect them from corrosion, while the remaining drums, nearly 40,000, are fine, Mr. Huang said.

All this work is scheduled to begin here as soon as next year and must be finished before the waste can be moved to another storage facility.

Michael Lin, the nuclear waste director at Taiwan Power, the state-owned electric utility that has operated the site since 1990, said no radiation had leaked from the site. One of the semiunderground trenches developed a crack a decade ago, allowing water to seep in, but the crack was soon fixed, he said.

Residents here are distrustful, saying there has been a spate of cancer cases lately and some fish have been deformed or have washed up dead on the beach. ``There's no way we can prove a link, but we are scared,'' said Syanan Gu Malin, a housewife with two young girls.

Facing thousands of miles of open ocean, Lan Yu is battered several times a year by some of the most powerful storms on earth. A typhoon in 1984 had gusts of up to 201 miles an hour, according to data from a somewhat sheltered weather station in the middle of the island.

The typhoons also dump up to a foot of rain a day, sending torrents down the bluff toward the site. The government has tried to divert the rain away from the dump with a 25-foot-wide drainage ditch, but this is filling with silt.

Three months before construction began here in 1978, the island was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8. Boulders tumbled down the bluff onto the site. Several dozen protective concrete pillars now stand at the base of the bluff to stop falling rocks.

Until 1996, water contaminated by radioactive waste was distilled to remove as much of the contamination as possible and then dumped into the ocean in front of the site. Now the water is also stored.

Large trawlers from the main island of Taiwan have recently swept the sea here practically clean of fish, forcing the aborigines to look hard for food. At low tide on a recent afternoon, several aboriginal women walked across the jagged volcanic rocks below the nuclear waste dump's sea wall, occasionally stopping and using long metal spikes to pry crabs from their holes. "I've been catching crabs here since I was a kid," said one of the women, who said she was in her early 50's. "Before there were plenty of crabs and fish; now there are not so many."