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Orchid Island: Taiwan's Nuclear Dumpsite

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) Off the coast of the southeast Taiwan lie two small islands which, although geographically and historically quite different, share one distinction. They are both places where Taiwan sends its undesirables. One of them, Green Island, is famous for its high security prison. The other, Orchid Island, is where Taiwan dumps its mid- and low-level nuclear waste.

An example of Environmental Colonialism

Duncan R. Marsh
Edgar (Jun-Yi) Lin
Pi-yao Lin

Orchid Island, 65 km off Taiwan's southeast coast, is the homeland of the Yami people, one of Taiwan's nine aboriginal tribes. The Yami have traditionally supported themselves with agriculture (primarily taro) and fishing, although tourism is also a big part of the economy today. They have no written language, only a small number of pictographs. Young people today can communicate in Chinese and some have attained high levels of education in Taiwan. There are some 2900 Yami people, but only about 2000 people live on Orchid Island today.

For geographical and political reasons, the Yami have historically been the most isolated of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to the end of World War II, the Japanese designated Orchid Island as a culture reserve and strictly restricted access to those conducting anthropological research (some scholars say their purpose was to study the Yami culture as a model to understand the peoples of southeast Asia whom the Japanese were planning to colonize). After World War II, Orchid Island became isolated again. When the Kuomintang Nationalists took over in 1949, their policy for many years was to limit people from going out to sea. So until thirty years ago, the Yami had very little contact with Taiwan or modern society at all. The exception was religion. Canadian missionaries arrived in 1949 and today many Yami are Christians, divided between Catholic and Presbyterian. In the 1960s, the government of the Republic of China began to take a large role in the lives of the Yami with the introduction of mandatory primary schooling in Mandarin Chinese and later the construction of public housing. At this time, tourism began to take hold and has slowly increased ever since.

The Need for a Nuclear Dump

In the early 1970s, Taiwan's Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) convened a group of experts to examine various sites for a temporary storage facility for mid- and low-level nuclear waste. In 1974, this committee chose the Long Men (Dragon Gate) area on the southern tip of Orchid Island. A harbor was built in 1978, construction began on the depository 1980, and shipments began arriving in May of 1982. Since then, the site has been the depository for mid- and low-level nuclear waste from Taiwan's three nuclear plants as well as nuclear medical and research centers. To date, over 90,000 containers, each weighing 50 kg, have been stored there. (The Orchid Island facility is only for mid- and low-level radwaste. Taiwan's spent fuel radioactive waste is stored at the nuclear plants themselves.)

The radwaste has been stored in 23 concrete trenches, which constitute the first of six construction phases in the Long Men facility. The total planned storage space will accommodate 340,000 barrels (over 18,000 tons). The second phase, which had begun construction in 1990, has been stopped partly by protest from opposition groups and partly because the Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) is in negotiations with mainland China over storage facilities on the mainland. In the meantime, the first 23 trenches are expected to fill to capacity next year.

The reasons why Orchid Island was found suitable for a nuclear waste dumpsite were the following: size: the dumping site is one square km; isolation: no people lived within a 5 km radius of the site; geography: the Dragon Gate area is surrounded on three sides by mountains and the other side faces the sea; safety of transportation: ships could come directly to the facility; final treatment: dumping the processed low-level radioactive waste into the ocean. (Some people feel that this was the main reason for the choice of Orchid Island. Between Taiwan and the Philippines lines the Bashi Channel, with one of the deepest sea trenches in the world.) Ocean dumping of nuclear waste was later banned by the London Convention.

There may be another unspoken reason why Orchid Island was selected. The local population was remarkably unlikely to offer strong political opposition to development of a nuclear waste storage site. For they didn't know what nuclear waste was.

A Fish Cannery

The history of the Orchid Island nuclear waste depository is fraught with governmental deception of the Yami people. In the mid-1970s, when plans were being made for the facility, government representatives approached the Orchid Island Yami district commissioner, who was illiterate. He was told that the government was going to build a fish cannery on the Long Men site and would he please sign on the paper here? He did so, and for some years the government kept up this deception, even during construction. The people were told they could sell their surplus fish to the cannery. Eventually, people in the church discovered the truth form reading news reports. Even then, the Yami had little idea what nuclear waste was and what dangers it presented. By the time they became more knowledgeable, the site was constructed and operating.

The ROC government has never been open with the public about the nuclear waste site on Orchid Island, and, as with other nuclear issues, the govern-met has exerted pressure on scholars not to report on the site. An example is a report written in 1984 by Chang, Lung-sheng and Thomas NcHenry on government policy on Orchid Island. Mr.Chang today is the director of Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency and in 1984 was director-general of the Ministry of Interior's Construction and Planning Division. The 55-page report, which includes detailed information on various government projects on Orchid Island, does not include a single word about the nuclear waste site, which is the single biggest government project on the island. Chang's report was written two years after the waste site began operation and over six years after construction began. From reading their report, one would have no idea that such a site existed.

The term "temporary" is also a deception. Taipower and the AEC's "temporary" plan is for a 50-year storage period, totaling over 31,000 tons of radioactive waste. The final destination of this waste was wishfully intended by the Atomic Energy Com-mission to be the deep-sea trench south of Taiwan. Such dumping has since been declared illegal by inter-national law. Taipower presently claims it will move the accumulated containers of radwaste to another site but to do so would be extremely ex-pensive. The appearance is that the existence of this radwaste on Orchid Island is only as temporary as its half-life, which in some parts may be as much as 10,000 years.

Racial "Nimby"

The use of Orchid Island as a dumping ground for Taiwan's nuclear waste is the concept of NIMBY ("not in my back yard") on a national level. Taiwan's nuclear program, a product of Taiwan's backwardly inefficient energy production and policies, has little space on Taiwan to send its waste. So the waste which is the product of the people of Taiwan is being dumped on a small island tribe of 2000 people who were tricked into believing that the new site would be something which would benefit their economy. This is more than another reckless step in the desperate push to nuclearize Taiwan; it is the colonialism of the late 20th century. The colonialism of the last century borrowed the resources of the native peoples. The environmental colonialism on Orchid Island today means dumping the garbage of our civilization onto a minority people. It is racial discrimination in practice on a national level.

Since their realization of the government's deceit, the churches on Orchid Island have formed strong anti-nuclear groups. Those Yami outside of the church, though, have been less vocal. Nuclear opposition members say the hand of the government can be felt here, too. They claim that those who keep their mouths shut about the waste site are favored for secure government jobs on the island, and scholarships for their children. Those students on government scholarships aren't likely to protest for fear of losing their scholarship.

Around the Chinese New Year season in 1991, the Yami people rose up in protests which caught the attention of the media and public in all of Taiwan. Led by Kuo JIan-ping, a Yami Presbyterian missionary, and with the support of anti-nuclear groups in Taiwan like the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union and the Green Association, the Yami anti-nuclear group held demonstrations on Orchid Island and in Taipei, where they carried a protest letter straight to the Taiwan Power Company.

The Yami protest letter contained three requests: 1) the expansion of the second phase of construction on the waste site be stopped; 2) the immediate stoppage of transport of nuclear waste from Taiwan to the Orchid Island storage site; 3) by June 30, 1991, the shutdown of the storage site. Their first request was met, although there are likely other factors involved besides the protests. But the operation of the storage site has continued despite the opposition.

Kuo, who educated himself by reading numerous books and articles on nuclear energy while a student in Taipei, says the protests haven't continued because the Yami feel further protest now will have no effect on the operation of the plant. Rather, the Yami and Taiwanese environmental groups are waiting for Taipower's decision about future radwaste storage location. If Taipower moves to further expand to Orchid Island site, Kuo says the Yami are prepared to oppose it fiercely.

The Yami people opposed to the nuclear waste site claim that it is an infringement on their rights and their way of life. Traditionally, the Yami have been a self-sufficient society, relying on agriculture (primarily taro), and fishing for their food. Now they feel these two food sources are threatened by leakage from the waste site. They are concerned about radiation in the soil and sea contaminating their food. Many of them are now scared to eat fish or seafood. In the end, many are worried that they may not be able to stay on Orchid island permanently. In the words of Chung Jia-shan, a Yami church elder and labor organizer who now lives on Taiwan, "We are concerned about our destiny and our existence as a race."

Contact: Anti-Nuclear Coalition for Taiwan, Box 843, Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan 40704; phone/fax: +886-4-359-5622.