Taiwan Nuclear Waste Stored By Poor Village For Government Money

NANTIAN VILLAGE, Taiwan -- They tried sending it to North Korea. They tried sending it to China.

Now, they're trying to send it to this remote seaside village in southeast Taiwan.

Like nuclear energy-using countries worldwide, Taiwan is struggling to find a final resting place for its radioactive nuclear waste.

Strange to say, many villagers here are willing to accept the toxic duty. The reasons, according to village chief Chang Chih-hsin, and other residents: Money and development.

"Some people nearby are protesting, but here in the village, most people support it," said Chang, in an interview at the village office.

Critics of the plan say this poor village is merely being bought off by the government's generous compensation proposal, and is low-balling the health risks.

The debate highlights the growing problem of nuclear waste, as more nations -- and especially, neighboring China -- turn to this "cleaner" energy source to fuel their economies.

It also points to a global phenomenon. Whether it's inner-city America or a remote Aboriginal village in Taiwan, toxic and other waste often ends up dumped near the poorest, most marginalized communities.

In Taiwan, Nantian Village is about as poor and marginal as they come. Tucked between vaulting mountains and the pounding Pacific on Taiwan's southeast coast, only pokey local trains bother to stop anywhere nearby.

Of the 360 villagers, only some 10 percent have completed high school. Most grow coconuts, betel nuts and melons, in a narrow strip of cultivable land.

Three-quarters of them are Aborigines, meaning they hunted, fished and farmed here long before Chinese settlers showed up four centuries ago. Genetically, they're closer to native Filipinos.

The village consists of a strip of low-slung buildings, a crumbling community center, and agitated dogs. There's the occasional totem of the "100-pacer" snake, which the Paiwan tribe worships as a god. (The name is a reference to how far you can walk before dropping dead, after one of the venomous serpents bites you.)

Taiwan's state-run energy company has proposed storing low-level nuclear waste at a site a few miles down the coast. Exactly how many miles, the villagers aren't agreed (I touched off a heated debate when I asked).

If the plan goes ahead, it would solve a long-running headache for Taiwan's government. Taiwan's first reactors went online in the 1970s, and it started looking for a place to stash low-level nuclear waste. The government buried tens of thousands of barrels near another Aboriginal community, on a small island about 40 miles southeast of Nantian Village.

Those Aborigines protested, forcing the government to look for another dumping ground. Starting in the 1990s, it cooked up schemes to ship nuclear waste to North Korea, China, or the Solomon Islands -- only to see those plans nixed amid protests.

After years of delay, the government has now narrowed down possible dump sites to a handful of locations in Taiwan. Residents at another possible site, a small island off Taiwan's west coast, are up in arms, and "not in my backyard" sentiment is running high there.

Which makes this sleepy village the leading candidate. Over lunch, village employee Gao Yen-shi, 45, who also goes by the Aboriginal name Oranos, explained why he backs the plan.

"It can help our next generation be more competitive, and it will be great to get some money," said Oranos. "The government forgets about us down here so this is a rare opportunity."

He brushed aside health concerns, saying it was far more dangerous to live near one of Taiwan's active nuclear power plants (two of which are within an hour of the capital Taipei, and a third which sits next to a popular beach resort.)

Later, the village chief took me around to talk to other residents. A small group idled next to a nearby pig-sty, as one woman knitted an Aboriginal pattern. She chided the chief for not bringing by a bottle of red wine.

Another asked why she supported the plan to host nuclear waste, said in broken English, "I love money ... I love you money," drawing guffaws from the group.

Taiwan's Aborigines -- 2 percent of the population -- are the island's least advantaged, with poverty and alcoholism rates similar to those on Native American reservations in the U.S.

Villagers talk about 5 billion -- the payout, in New Taiwan dollars (about $150 million) -- that the power company has said will go to the county. How much of that would go directly to these villagers is still unclear.

But Chang and several villagers said the windfall could include money for retirement plans, college scholarships, even marriage subsidies.

Another villager, who did not want to be named, cited the example of Japan's once-poor Rokkasho Village. He said it saw booming development after it was picked as the site for nuclear waste disposal (though Rokkasho has had its own controversy over nuclear processing).

A female villager, 50-year-old named Saoniao, said the benefits of the plan outweighed the dangers. "Of course we think about the risks, but we also have to think about the next generation," she said.

"If there was a referendum today, I'd support it."

Powerful Opponents

But a battalion of county politicians, tourism officials, geologists and anti-nuclear activists are aligned against those villagers. They have a long list of gripes.

Nantian Village sits in a geologically active earthquake zone, and so is a dicey place to store radioactive waste, they say. They say that exposure to even low levels of radiation can cause genetic mutations, and in their printed materials raise the specter of Chernobyl.

They point out that such health risks apply to the entire area, and not just the small village that likely stands to profit most from the plan.

At an April 8 public hearing, emotions against the plan reportedly ran high, with two protesters forcibly removed by police.

The state-run utility says the plan must pass a referendum to ensure it has the support of a majority of local residents. But so far, politicians in the county council have blocked such a vote.

One of them is Hsieh Ming-chu, a long-time councilor at the county seat about 35 miles up the coast from Nantian Village. In a recent interview in the empty council chamber, she ticked off a list of objections.

She said hosting a nuclear waste dump will hurt the county's image as a source of high-quality fruits and fish, much of it exported to Japan. "Our county has so much appeal for its natural setting," she said. "Now you want to put nuclear waste here?"

Hsieh and others simply don't believe Taiwan's government can do as good a job safely storing nuclear waste as, say, Japan. "We don't trust them and they're just using money to get people to agree," she said. "That's not right."

She also laid some blame on Nantian villagers for focusing on the short-term payout, instead of taking a longer-term view.

In addition to those concerns, she said if the island moved to renewable energy sources, nuclear waste wouldn't be an issue at all.

"You don't have to use nuclear power -- solar power is also good," said Hsieh. "And solar power doesn't pollute."

That touches on the broader debate of how Taiwan will feed its energy appetite. In line with global trends, the island wants to reduce dependency on oil and coal (which supply more than 80 percent of the island's energy usage), and move to cleaner energy sources.

The island is an outsized polluter: It's Asia's third-largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide, after Brunei and Kazakhstan, according to a 2008 report from the International Energy Agency.

But technologies such as wind and solar power are still in their infancy, providing only a small fraction of Taiwan's energy needs. A renewable energy bill to boost the development of such sources has been stuck in the legislature for years.

That leaves nuclear power as an attractive, shorter-term option. Taiwan's three nuclear power plants already provide about 20 percent of Taiwan's electricity. A fourth plant is due to come online next year.

The current government wants to boost nuclear energy, in line with plans in other Asian countries (China will build 23 new reactors by 2015, South Korea plans eight more and Japan, ten more by that time).

But to do so, it will have to overturn a 2001 government pledge to make Taiwan a "nuclear-free" homeland by mid-century. And it will have to take on the island's fierce anti-nuclear movement.

At an energy conference in Taipei this week, the government and activists met for a showdown -- the latest skirmish in a protracted war over nuclear power here.

But far away from the debates in fancy conference centers and council halls, Nantian Village appears to have its mind made up.

Many here want development. And they view critics' environmental concerns as something of a luxury, enjoyed by people in more comfortable places.

"Doctors, lawyers -- that type of people oppose the plan, but poor people support it," said one villager, who did not want his name used. "You should most respect local peoples' opinion. We're the most affected."

"Tell people what we think here," he added.

But at only a few hundred strong, the voices of this ramshackle village look likely to be ignored -- drowned out by politicians and activists a world away.