The release of an ecological survey commissioned by Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) showing that there might have been a leak of radioactive materials on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼) should serve to bring the issue of nuclear power back into the public spotlight ahead of the elections next month.
A survey of the ground soil around the island showed rising levels of cobalt-60 and cesium-137 — two radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission that could only have come from the thousands of barrels of nuclear waste that Taipower has dumped on the island for decades. The company’s spin doctors have come out with their typical arguments, saying the levels of toxic material in the report by Academia Sinica research fellow Huh Chih-an (扈治安) were well below legal limits and that they were likely the result of minor levels of radioactive dust kicked up by the inspection and repackaging of radioactive waste.
That was a clever bit of spinning by Taipower, pinning the blame for the so-called “leak” on the repacking of nasty old rusty barrels of nuclear waste, something environmentalists had been demanding for years. However, if there really is no leak of radioactive materials on the island as Taipower claims, and any present contamination comes from repacking operations that began four years ago, then cobalt-60 and cesium-137 should not have been detected in the ground soil prior to 2008.
However, Peter Chang (張武修), a professor at Taipei Medical University’s School of Public Health, found radioactive materials in sweet potato and taro fields as early as 1999, and the levels have been rising ever since, from 10 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) when Chang inspected the soil more than a decade ago to 32.9Bq/kg when Huh looked at it this year.
Although Taipower’s nuclear waste management department director, Lee Chin-shan (李清山), says these levels are well below the safety limit of 740Bq/kg, cesium-137 and cobalt-60 tend to accumulate underground, and those surveys were taken from surface soil in agricultural fields and along the coast.
Taipower’s insistence that there has been no radioactive leak is about as trustworthy as the boy who cried wolf. Right from the beginning, the company lied to Tao Aborigines who inhabit Orchid Island, telling them that the nuclear waste dump was a fish canning plant and that it posed no threat. Now it expects the Tao to take their false assurances at face value?
Tao resident Sinam Mafefu says cancer is now the leading cause of death on the island, and points the finger at Taipower. Although this proves nothing — cancer is the leading cause of death throughout the nation — it shows the state of mind of residents who have long been aware that their home is a nuclear dumping ground that Taipower would just as soon forget about.
This nuclear contamination has wider ramifications for the presidential election, with Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) espousing a policy of phasing out nuclear power in Taiwan, while the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), insists on maintaining it. If Ma intends to keep nuclear power plants going, what does he intend to do with the waste? It can’t be exported to North Korea or Papua New Guinea, and there aren’t any Orchid Islands left.
How to ensure Taiwan’s safety from nuclear contamination will be on voters’ minds when they go to the polls on Jan. 14, and the candidate who comes up with the best answers will win points from the public.