In chapter six of his 2009 book Nuclear Energy, author John Tabak wrote that the US chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the final disposal of high-level nuclear waste, saying that it is an area with a small population, very little rainfall — the yearly average only reaches 19mm — and the absence of major fault lines. This means that it is very unlikely that repeated earthquakes would lift up the repository toward the surface of the earth, which means that there is little risk that nuclear waste will leak into the biosphere or set off changes in the groundwater level. Despite all this, funding for the site was terminated by the US Congress in 2011.
Looking at the situation in Taiwan, on Monday, the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper), quoted Atomic Energy Council Minister Tsai Chuen-horng (蔡春鴻) as saying that the council is still planning for long-term disposal of high-level nuclear waste, and that the council has not chosen a site yet. Tsai also said that there are some earth strata in Taiwan that are suitable for final disposal of nuclear waste, such as near Sioulin Township (秀林) in Hualien County, but that further investigation is needed since the related research has been obstructed.
However, there is a lot of rainfall and frequent earthquakes in Taiwan, which makes it all but impossible to find appropriate sites for the final disposal of nuclear waste. Tsai’s remarks were truly shocking. Does he have any expert knowledge at all about nuclear waste disposal?
In terms of the nuclear power issue, one could easily say that “it is the permanent disposal of nuclear waste that is the problem with nuclear power generation, stupid.”
Taiwan Power Co chief of nuclear safety Chien Fu-tien (簡福添) has said the site for final disposal of Taiwan’s high-level nuclear waste could be either domestic or abroad, but “that waste is currently stored at the three nuclear power plants.”
The possibility of final disposal abroad revealed by Chien was yet another shocking piece of news. The ideal solution is to reprocess high-level nuclear waste into uranium 235 or plutonium 239 domestically and convert it into nuclear fuel. However, enriched U-235 and recycled P-239 could be used in nuclear weapons, and the international community is sensitive to the reprocessing of nuclear waste, in particular if there are concerns that it might be used in nuclear weapons, and so is opposed to such reprocessing.
China started to build nuclear power plants with a total of 10 electricity units of 1,000MW each in Ningde City and Fuqing City of Fujian Province, as well as in Yangjiang City in Guangdong Province in 2008.
These plants are expected to begin operations sometime between this year and 2015, and nuclear fuel will be processed through a closed recycling technique.
This means that Beijing will be able to recycle U-235 or P-239 from high-level nuclear waste, which could be used for nuclear weapons.
If Taiwan ships its high-level nuclear waste to China for final disposal, it might indirectly enhance Chinese nuclear weapons. This is a frightening scenario.
Chen Yi-nan is convener of the Northern Taiwan Society’s science and technology subcommittee.
Translated by Eddy Chang