The Atomic Energy Council (AEC) is finalizing a draft bill that will remove a 50 percent turnout requirement for local referendums asking residents to approve the creation of a secure storage facility for radioactive material.
The draft bill will relax one of the primary hurdles in the search that had once seen Taiwan engage in talks with North Korea, China and the Solomon Islands to store the 97,672 barrels of radioactive waste currently held in a temporary facility in Orchid Island (蘭嶼).
Tens of thousands of barrels are stored elsewhere, near the three operational nuclear plants in New Taipei City (新北市) and Pingtung County.
The two areas that are being eyed as possible construction sites are in townships in Penghu and Taitung counties, where most residents are Aborigines and depend on rural farming, but could be set to receive a massive windfall.
Proponents, including both the AEC and state-run Taipower, have been scrambling to find permanent housing to store the accumulating amount of toxic waste somewhere in the country after its attempts to ship it elsewhere drew international outrage.
An earlier version of the draft would have required a majority of residents to actively strike down construction through a public vote.
“We are trying to loosen the strict regulations on storing the waste after we had difficulties trying to find a site,” said Shao Yao-Tsu (邵耀祖), a deputy director in charge of managing nuclear waste at the AEC. “We were originally too optimistic.”
Existing regulations already give state-run Taipower leeway to hand out NT$5 billion (US$169 million) in funds to local township and village councils to shape public opinion and approve a facility that under law has to be located in rural areas.
Critics are dismissing the revision and the NT$5 billion fund as attempts to ram through passage of the proposal that will have lasting effects on agricultural exports and could lead to health concerns.
An official at Taipower, not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed the company recently led local county lawmakers and township representatives on a NT$4 million, all-expenses paid, luxury trip to Sweden to learn more about the management of nuclear waste.
Up to NT$120,000 were spent on each person over those nine days, the official said.
However, a second trip to Europe was canceled after a tabloid picked up news of the luxury excursion, leading some local councilors to threaten and sue the magazine.
“Taipower has for a long time tried to give benefits and bribes to trick the people of Taitung County into accepting a deal,” said Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Lai Kun-cheng (賴坤成) from Taitung County. “What they are doing is undemocratic and an outrage.”
AEC officials said public opinion has already led the agency to tone down some of the more controversial language in the earlier version, including a proposal to provide checks potentially worth hundreds of thousands directly to local residents as part of the billion NT fund.
However, officials, frustrated by their decade long search of a disposal site, said they are also honest about their intentions: to give residents a hefty monetary incentive to accept the tens of thousands of barrels of radioactive waste that no one else wants.
The official at Taipower pointed to the NT$1 billion in NT$200 per barrel subsidies, incentives and a land rental fee given out yearly to the Orchid Island Government for their temporary storage site, which has provided a significant boost to the island’s economy.