Sat, Aug 06, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Nuclear waste cannot be ignored

Questions have been raised again about the safety of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, which is still under construction. The Atomic Energy Council asked Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) to provide a list by the end of the year of the structural changes it will make to ensure safe operations at the plant, following the release of a paper by a nuclear engineer and adviser to the council that highlights construction flaws.

However, of even greater concern than the proposed start-up of the fourth plant in 2014 is that Taiwan has almost run out of space to store the nuclear waste that has been produced since the nation’s first three plants became operational. And the government has almost no feasible options for new containment sites.

The two facilities that collect waste from the Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant in Shihmen District (石門), New Taipei City (新北市) — the first one built — are at 89.95 and 85.5 percent of capacity, the Ministry of Audit said on July 29. The storage unit for the Guosheng plant in Wanli (萬里), New Taipei City, is more than 70 percent full and the unit for the Ma-anshan plant in Ma-anshan (馬鞍山), Pingtung County, is almost half full.

Construction of spent fuel dry-storage facilities will not begin until April 2015 at the earliest — that’s if the Ministry of Economic Affairs can figure out where to build the facility in the first place. Not surprisingly, the counties that have been mentioned as possible sites are not keen on the idea. Why should they be when they can see the disastrous way Taipower has run its waste storage facility on Orchid Island, not to mention its lackadaisical approach to maintentance at the plants themselves?

The government selected Longmen (龍門) on Orchid Island’s southern tip for what was billed as a “temporary” nuclear waste disposal facility, even though it planned to store as many as 340,000 barrels there over a 50-year period. It lied to the people of the island for years, telling them it was building a fish cannery. Shipments of nuclear waste from Taiwan proper began in May 1982 and continued until 1996. However, a three-year-long inspection and rehousing project that began in 2008 found that 78,000 of the 98,112 barrels stored in more than a score of concrete trenches at the repository were rusted. It seems no one realized that Orchid Island’s high temperatures, high humidity and salty environment might make it a bad place to store iron containers in an open-air facility.

Then there are the complaints about accidents and poor maintenance at the three operating plants. Robert Greenspan, president of US-based Midco Diving and Marine Services, which had been hired to do underwater maintenance at the Guosheng plant’s suppression pools in late 2008 and early 2009, told the Taipei Times in April that Taipower’s nuclear power plants looked more “like the back room of a lousy auto parts store.”

While the Ministry of Audit might win some praise for raising the storage issue, it is worrisome that it said it noticed the problem while examining government spending last year. The question of storage is not a new issue. Taipower signed a deal with North Korea on Jan. 11, 1997, to ship 200,000 barrels of low-level waste there — an arrangement that was quickly scotched after protests from South Korea and others — and in 2002 there were reports a deal was being negotiated with the Solomon Islands to send nuclear waste there.

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