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Serious flaws at Taiwan’s nuclear waste management

Japanese nuclear waste management specialist Masako Sawai yesterday identified flaws in Taiwan Power Co’s (Taipower) nuclear waste management, describing the contingent measures at the Guosheng Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s Wanli District (萬里) and a radioactive waste repository on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼) in Taitung County as “ill-planned and careless.”

Sawai, a member of Japan’s Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, spoke at a forum in Taipei to conclude her three-day visit to look into nuclear facilities and exchange opinions with local experts.
After visiting the Guosheng plant, she said that the methods utilized by Taipower to incinerate low-level radioactive waste were outdated and poorly managed.

The purpose of incinerating radioactive waste is to reduce waste volume, Sawai said, adding that using a plasma torch is the common incineration method around the world, as it generates temperatures of up to 15,000oC to melt mixed waste materials into liquid for storage as high-level radioactive waste, she said.

However, according to former Institute of Nuclear Energy Research researcher He Li-wei (賀立維), the Guosheng plant and the Ma-anshan Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung County are equipped with diesel-fueled incinerators commonly used to burn general household waste.

Diesel-fueled incinerators can only reach temperatures of 800oC to 1,000oC and are not capable of melting nuclear waste, leading to the generation of ash and emission of airborne, radioactive residues, Sawai said.

“Higher background radiation levels in the greater Taipei area could reasonably be attributed to two nuclear plants in New Taipei City and the incineration of radioactive waste if there is no other nuclear facilities in the area. Incineration does not reduce radioactivity of waste, so power companies have to ensure that radioactive emissions are captured,” she said.

Sawai called on Taipower to conduct radioactivity tests of nuclear waste both before and after incineration to assess radiation leakage.

According to He, Taipower officials gave contradictory answers when asked if the company conducted radioactivity testing before incineration, either saying they did not know what was going on or trying to withhold information.

“Even if Taiwan shifts to a plasma torch incineration method, there will not be improvement with such careless management of nuclear waste,” Sawai said.

Meanwhile, a reservoir built above the Guosheng plant is not placed high enough to pump water into the plant’s reactors using the force of gravity during a nuclear accident if electrical power is cut, she said, adding that the water taken from a nearby brook might contain sulphur, which would react inside reactors and cause risks.

Sawai said that in Japan, low-level radioactive waste is stored in iron drums that are buried 20m underground and surrounded by reinforced concrete walls, which is “unlike the careless treatment at Orchid Island,” where damaged drums were discovered in a 3m deep repository.

It is not uncommon around the world to neglect the danger of low-level radioactive waste and store different types of nuclear waste together, although the half-lives of some nuclear waste is more than 1,000 years, easily outlasting the storage facilities they are kept in, Sawai said, calling on Taiwanese authorities to handle the issue properly.

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