Nuclear waste poses huge problem

By Wang Chung-ming 王鐘銘  / 

Wed, Mar 20, 2013 - Page 8

The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis taught the world one thing: The danger of nuclear waste is just as serious as having nuclear reactors in operation. Two years after the disaster in Japan, Taiwanese should not only insist that construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant be halted, but that the government should face up to the fact that it is incapable of handling nuclear waste and seriously think about how to solve this intractable problem. The nation needs to come up with concrete and feasible policies for nuclear waste as soon as possible.

Environmental impact assessments (EIA) on management policies for radioactive waste are a crucial part of this process. However, the government has been lazy and has overlooked the formulation and assessment of such management policies. In May 2011, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and the Atomic Energy Council (AEC) did not tell concerned civic groups what they were planning to do and secretly held the first-ever task force meeting on the matter.

After learning in November about the clandestine meeting, these groups attended the next meeting, which erupted into a dispute. Surprisingly, no other meetings on the matter were held after that. Does the government think that dealing with nuclear waste is a policy that only involves government officials and that the public should be excluded?

The environmental impact assessment submitted to the EPA by the AEC is riddled with contradictions and misinformation. When this document came out, civic groups identified five major problems. First, it is impossible to process nuclear waste outside of Taiwan, but neither is it feasible to process it within Taiwan because of local geological conditions.

Second, spent fuel rod storage pools have reached their legal capacities, increasing the risks of radioactive accidents.

Third, dry storage facilities are not the answer to the problem of overstoring spent fuel rods in these pools.

Fourth, despite precedents overseas of radioactive matter leaking into groundwater, the EIA failed to address this risk.

And fifth, forcibly storing low-level radioactive waste in less developed remote areas runs counter to the principle of promoting equal development for all regions.

It has been almost a year-and-a-half since the groups raised these five questions, but the AEC has yet to provide an answer, and the EPA has not taken the council to task over this. EIAs for nuclear waste policies are very important, but instead of following up on the matter or offering an answer or response to these groups, the AEC and the EPA have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and pretend the problem with nuclear waste does not exist.

Apart from highlighting how inefficient the government is and how it shirks responsibility, these phenomena are also proof that nuclear waste is an issue that has no solution. Since there is no solution, the only option is to immediately abolish nuclear power and stop the production of more nuclear waste.

The state-run Taiwan Power Co and the AEC often say that nuclear waste is a fact and there is nothing that can be done about it. In doing so, they are treating nuclear waste that has yet to be produced as something that already exists.

Such discourse is tantamount to blackmailing the public and is aimed at making people think they have no choice but to accept only one way of dealing with nuclear waste.

Trying to reduce nuclear waste levels was one out of four of the guiding principles for the management of radioactive waste and this is aimed at lowering output volume. However, the environmental impact statement only mentioned incineration and compression as methods for reducing nuclear waste and completely ignored other, more effective methods.

In its environmental impact statement, the AEC provided numbers on current and projected levels of high-level radioactive waste.

According to these estimates, assuming the nation’s four nuclear power stations were to operate for another 40 years, we have to date already produced approximately 42 percent of the total projected level of radioactive waste.

Viewed from another perspective, it means that if nuclear power were abolished immediately, 60 percent of the projected nuclear waste will never be produced.

Apart from coming up with ways to solve the problem of that 40 percent existing nuclear waste, the public needs to do one even more important thing: Stop operations of the three existing nuclear power plans and halt construction of the fourth. This way the nation could minimize its output volume at the source and stop nuclear waste from being produced ever again.

Wang Chung-ming is a member of the executive committee of the north coast branch of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union.

Translated by Drew Cameron