This stance begs certain questions: For example, why are radiation and gas readings not taken for each individual cask? If this is not done, then how can it be detected if the sole thermometer malfunctions? What happens if a landslide blocks the vents, or the cylinder material is damaged, or the integrity of the welding compromised?
Taipower should be running practical tests on non-radioactive material to be prepared for any contingency. Of course, such tests would not be necessary if the company and the council carried out computer simulations that could dispel any safety doubts.
How well prepared are Taipower and the council to handle the nation’s growing pile of nuclear waste? To answer this question, one can infer a few things from the way nuclear waste is handled on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼).
In theory, high-level atomic waste remains radioactive or radiotoxic for 100,000 years and therefore needs to be stored for that amount of time, while low-level waste becomes inert — and therefore safe — after only 300 years.
During the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authoritarian era, Lanyu was chosen as a site for the interim storage of low-level radioactive waste. Originally, the plan was to dispose of the toxic material in a nearby ocean trench, but this idea was abandoned when dumping nuclear waste in the ocean was prohibited by international conventions on atomic waste management. However, low-level waste was still shipped to Lanyu to be warehoused there, a practice that only stopped when incensed local residents reached the end of their patience and prevented the ships carrying the waste from docking.
The cylinders containing low-level waste that were already on the island started rusting just 10 years after they were built. In 2008, when the council conducted a comprehensive inspection of the Lanyu containers, it found that they were already severely rusted and some had broken open — not a single one was in a perfect condition.
If the authorities take this approach to low-level waste, which is comparatively simple to handle, it is no wonder that the public is concerned about how they tackle high-level waste, which is thousands of times more dangerous. Despite this, officials refuse to carry out practical simulations, carry out drills on recontaining waste in the event of a cylinder being compromised, or establish a comprehensive monitoring system.
Dry cask storage is supposed to be an interim solution to be employed for several decades only. However, Taipower and the council seem to view it as a permanent solution. Given this, it seems inevitable that sooner or later, a high-concentration radioactive leak will occur that will turn this beautiful country into a ghost island that will be impossible to bring back to life.
Gloria Hsu is a professor in National Taiwan University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
Translated by Paul Cooper