Multinational Monitor

APR 1997
Vol. 18 No. 4


The Campaign to Eliminate the Separation Between Banking and Commerce
by Jake Lewis

The Case for Preserving the Separation Between Banking and Commerce
by Jonathan Brown

Conquering Peru: Newmont's Yanacocha Mine
by Pratap Chatterjee

Taiwan Dumps on North Korea: State-Owned Taipower Schemes to Ship Nuclear Waste
by Jonathan Dushoff


The Political Economy of the Occupation of East Timor
an interview with
Jose Ramos-Horta



Behind the Lines

Don't Let This Merger Take Off

The Front
Slow Motion Bhopal - Indecent Proposal

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Their Masters' Voice

Names In the News

Trade Watch

Book Notes


Taiwan Dumps on North Korea: State-Owned Taipower Schemes to Ship Nuclear Waste

by Jonathan Dushoff

TAIPEI -- Opening a new chapter in the annals of the international hazardous waste trade, Taiwan's state-owned power company, Taipower, sealed a deal in January to dispose of up to 200,000 barrels of "low-level" nuclear waste in North Korea.

The agreement with North Korea allows Taipower to ship 60,000 barrels of its nuclear power plant waste to North Korea over the next two years, with an option to ship up to 140,000 more barrels in the future. The terms of the deal are secret, but Taipower is rumored to be paying North Korea between $1,150 and $1,300 per barrel. At around $240 million for all 200,000 barrels, this is a deal that the cash-strapped North Korean government apparently could not refuse.

The South Korean government, in contrast, strongly condemned the deal, accusing both Taiwan and North Korea of trying to turn the Korean peninsula into a nuclear waste dump. South Korea has threatened economic reprisals against both if the shipments go through. Many South Korean expect Korean unification within the next decade or two, and believe the richer south will bear the ultimate financial responsibility for storage of the waste.

Taiwanese and South Korean environmentalists have staged protests in South Korea, Taiwan and in the waters over which the waste would travel. The environmentalists are concerned with the long-lasting dangers of "low-level" nuclear waste; the consequences of opening international trade in nuclear waste; the trustworthiness of the two parties, Taipower and the North Korean government; and Taiwan's nuclear power expansion (Taipower is planning to construct a fourth nuclear power plant in the next few years) when the island cannot even manage its low-level waste, let alone the more difficult problem of high-level waste, internally.

Taipower and the governments of North Korea and Taiwan have stood firm in the face of criticism. Taipei has repeatedly referred to the shipment as "a simple business deal," in which it has no reason to interfere directly. North Korea and Taipower have pledged to honor the arrangement.

Transboundary nuclear waste

Environmentalists worldwide have long opposed rich countries dumping hazardous materials in developing countries. The environmental group Green Korea opposes any kind of trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste, particularly nuclear waste. "This would be the first example of trade in nuclear waste," says Nam Sang Min, international coordinator of Green Korea. "We don't want to set such a bad example."

Exporting nuclear waste to North Korea is all the more troubling since political freedom is virtually non-existent there. In many other countries, citizen activism has proven a vital safeguard against reckless nuclear management practices, even when activists have not succeeded in stopping nuclear projects outright.

Such citizen action is all but unthinkable in North Korea, Nam says. He says that he attended a meeting with an anti-nuclear peace delegation from North Korea in 1995. "They told us that North Korea does not have environmental problems. Socialism and the ideal of Kim Il Sung do not permit environmental problems. Pollution would be anti-patriotic," he reports. "In reality, they have serious environmental problems in their major industrial cities. ... It is impossible for people to get information."

Proponents of the plan minimize the dangers it might pose, emphasizing that the waste is "low level." Professor Edgar Lin, who opposed Taiwan's nuclear industry at substantial personal risk during the martial law period, believes that the shipment should pose little risk. Lin now serves as the director of the Department of Environmental Protection in the Taipei city government, which is controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party, the leading national opposition party. He says that handling low-level nuclear waste "is not a high-tech business. If handled properly, it poses no threat."

Most environmentalists, however, say "low-level"is a misnomer. Among the radioactive elements commonly found in nuclear reactor "low-level" waste, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resources Service, are: tritium, which has a hazardous life of 120 to 240 years; strontium-90, which has a hazardous life of 280 to 560 years; nickel-59, which has a hazardous life of up to 1.5 million years; and iodine-129, which has a hazardous life of up to 320 million years. In contrast, the vast majority of radioactive medical waste is hazardous for less than eight months.

Disposal of low-level waste raises serious concerns about storage to prevent release into the environment; and transportation of the waste risks release as a result of accidents during shipping.

"The shipment will pass through important fishing grounds in the East China Sea, used by Taiwan, South Korea and Mainland China," notes Professor Yang Zhao Yue, a member of the board of directors of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU).

Taipower officials say environmentalist concerns about the nuclear waste plan are misplaced. The disposal site is safely designed and will be operated safety, says a Taipower official who asked to remain anonymous. He adds that North Korea has experience in dealing with nuclear waste (the country has several military reactors, but no civilian reactors).

Citing the company's poor record, environmentalists completely discount Taipower's assurances. The TEPU and the Anti-Nuclear Coalition of Taiwan have documented dozens of accidents and problems at Taiwan's three operating nuclear power plants. These range from deformed fish in the ocean near one of the plants, to worker deaths, to dozens of emergency shut-downs.

"Nobody buys Taipower's word about anything," says Yang. "They have a lot of problems in their corporate culture, very poor management."

Taipower's accident-ridden nuclear power plants are also likely to produce more radioactive and dangerous "low-level" waste than is produced in better-operated facilities, making the proposed waste shipment even more troubling, says Yang. "Smooth operation of nuclear power plants leads to less dangerous waste," he says. "We measured cobalt-60 levels in the mud next to outlet pipes at nuclear power plant Number 2, and found levels that are 100 times those found in Japan."

Where to put it?

Opposition to the waste shipment raises the question of what the small island of Taiwan should in fact do with its nuclear waste.

Many activists who support the phasing out of Taiwan's nuclear industry say that if the island does export its nuclear waste, the waste should be sent to an industrialized country. "According to the principles of the Basel Convention, every country should handle its waste by itself,"says Professor Liu Wen Chao, founder of the Sustainable Ecology Association. "If that is not possible, it should transfer the waste to a country that can handle it. ... North Korea is not capable of handling the waste."

Renata Hsu, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, is willing to nominate a candidate country to take Taiwan's waste. "The United States has put a lot of pressure on Taiwan" to develop a nuclear industry, she says. "We feel that if we need to dispose of nuclear waste outside the country, it should be handled by the United States."

Nuclear nationalism

Taipower and the ruling KMT party have successfully deflected domestic protest by recasting the controversy as one between South Korea and Taiwan, rather than between the nuclear industry and the environment. The nationalist card has played well, building on existing Taiwanese resentment against South Korea for cutting diplomatic ties and recognizing Beijing in 1992.

After South Korean demonstrators burned a Taiwanese flag outside Taiwan's mission to Seoul, protesters in Taiwan burned a South Korean flag, as well as an effigy of South Korean President Kim Young Sam.

When Green Korea members went to Taiwan to protest outside the Taipower building, Taipower union employees greeted them with signs reading "Korean Go Home." Despite disassociating themselves from the Seoul flag-burning and nationalist sentiment in general, the Korean environmentalists and their allies from Taiwan were repeatedly confronted physically by passersby, and on at least two occasions attacked. Ultimately, the Green Korea delegation was deported from Taiwan for "violating the terms of their visas." Leader Jang Won, who was on a hunger strike, left Taiwan in a wheelchair after being kicked in the back by a nationalist.

Fearful of the nationalist sentiment, the opposition DPP, which opposes construction of the fourth nuclear power plant, has been unwilling to take a stand against the nuclear shipment plan.

Anti-nuclear activists say the whipped-up nationalism is simply a diversion from the real issues. "We do not see this as an issue between Lanyu and North Korea, but between people versus governments," says Si Maraos, a human rights activist for the Tao, an indigenous group on outlying Lanyu (Orchid Island), where Taipower currently sends its waste. "We don't want to see nuclear waste in any land where people live, or in any land that is precious environmentally."

A murky future

The effectiveness of Taipower's nationalist defense notwithstanding, growing international opposition to the deal may be having an effect. South Korea has attempted to organize international opposition to the shipment, including by issuing an appeal at a meeting of European and Asian foreign ministers. Environmentalists across the globe have denounced the waste trade scheme. South Korean activists have organized large-scale protests, and threaten an ocean blockade, if necessary.

In mid-February, Taiwanese newspapers quoted an unnamed Taipower official as saying that North Korea had requested that the shipment be delayed due to the international pressure. The Taiwanese media speculated that this could signal the unravelling of the deal.

The Taipower official reached by Multinational Monitor, however, called the reports "a misunderstanding" and said that the shipment would proceed as scheduled. The actual scheduling of the shipment is secret.


Taipower's nuclear waste export scheme is an outgrowth of a political controversy surrounding Taiwan's current low-level nuclear waste dump, on outlying Lanyu (Orchid Island). Safety problems and allegations of broken promises have plagued the Orchid Island site for more than 10 years, and a Taipower commitment to close the Orchid Island site means the company must find another disposal site.

Lanyu is inhabited by approximately 2,600 Tao people (more commonly known by their Japanese name, Yami), who have been fighting against expansion of the site and to hold Taipower to its promise to eventually remove the nuclear waste.

Many of the Tao claim that Taipower originally said that the facility it began constructing in 1976 was a fish cannery that would provide jobs for the local economy. When the facility was revealed to be a nuclear waste dump, Taipower described it as temporary -- despite a six-phase construction plan for a facility that would hold up to 50 years' worth of nuclear waste.

Although the dumpsite began receiving waste in 1982, the Tao did not appreciate the danger of nuclear waste and begin to organize protests until 1987. Since that time, they have sent several delegations "overseas," as they consider Taiwan, and have been remarkably effective in opposing expansion of the site. Through a combination of political organizing and direct action, the Tao stopped construction of Phase II and a proposed expansion of Phase I.

Nuclear waste has diminished the Tao quality of life. The Tao report concerns about the safety of the fish and vegetables they eat; the dumpsite is on the ocean near important fishing grounds. "The death rate from cancer on Lanyu has increased significantly," according to Si Maraos, a Tao human rights campaigner who now lives on Taiwan. "In several cases, children were born deformed." He worries that the full effects of the waste may not be known for many years.

There are disturbing reports of shoddy facility maintenance. Many of the barrels in the dump site have corroded in the island's damp climate, and now leak nuclear waste, which eventually finds its way to the sea, according to Si Maraos and other activists. The Anti-Nuclear Coalition for Taiwan, a Taiwan-based academic group, visited the waste site in 1993 and reported that the radiation meter at the front entrance was not working, and that at least one trench was not properly sealed.

A Taipower official who requested anonymity acknowledges that there had been some problems with corroded barrels, but claims that they have not contaminated the environment. "So far the trenches have been very safe,"he says. "We have had workers living at the site for 10 years, and every year they have physical examinations." He says that the site is also monitored for radioactive leaks.

Taipower now says it is planning to start removing waste from Lanyu in 1998 and to empty the site by 2002. The Tao people are wary, however, remembering broken promises by Taipower, including a 1991 statement that the company would remove the waste by 1996. The Tao people will not accept more trickery, says Si Maraos. When opposing new construction in 1995, he says the Tao "wanted to keep our dignity, but also to keep the peace. If the government does not keep its word about 2002, there will be violence."

- J.D.



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