Trouble in paradise

A long-running dispute over nuclear waste pits the Taiwanese government against the neglected indigenous people of Orchid Island.

Story by James Louie

Orchid Island's rugged north shore

“NO NUKES.” spray-painted on the concrete guardrail running along the western shore of Orchid Island, the words seem utterly incongruous amid the empty, raw landscape. We are 65 kilometres off the coast of southeast Taiwan, on a far-flung outcrop of volcanic andesite rising improbably from the open ocean.

Known as Lanyu to the Taiwanese, Orchid Island was named for a rare, endemic orchid that used to grow in profusion on its soil. Today the island is well known for its natural beauty; divers frequent its waters to explore what are believed to be the best coral reefs in Taiwan, while others come for the elaborate canoes and culture of the aboriginal Tao, whose ancestors migrated from the Philippines eight centuries ago. Subsisting on an annual catch of flying fish alongside staples of taro and sweet potato, the native islanders revere their homeland as Pongso no Tao, ‘Island of the People’. “We share the same language as the Batanes,” a smiling shopkeeper tells me, “even the landscapes are similar.”

Posters and travel brochures paint a glorious picture of a tropical idyll, while the Ministry of Culture has recognised the value of Orchid Island by including it on a list of 12 proposed World Heritage Sites, an impossible dream thanks to Taiwan’s disputed political status.

 “Lanyu is at the northern end of the tropics,” says Shanti, who runs our homestay with her local husband, “You’ll find a lot of plants here that are rare on Taiwan.” Her statement speaks of the island’s physical isolation, but it’s also an indication of how far removed we are from the dominant Chinese culture of the mainland.

We drive past swaying coconut palms and black sand beaches, crossing into the mountainous interior where the thickly forested hillsides are dotted with giant tree ferns, sporting feathery crowns and a distinctive crosshatch pattern on their trunks. I learn that Orchid Island possesses 35 endemic plant species found nowhere else, including the critically endangered Pinanga tashiroi palm tree.

Traditional Tao canoes on Orchid Island

But the island’s awe-inspiring beauty belies the long-simmering resentment of its indigenous residents. Cruising down the narrow ring road, a noticeable pattern soon emerges: bucolic scenes  interrupted by clusters of angry graffiti. We find the same words emblazoned on a poster in the living room of our homestay, and wrapped around the rafters of a seaside café on the far side of the island. “NO NUKES. NO MORE FUKUSHIMA.” After decades of marginalisation, deception and false promises, the Tao have clearly had enough.

*      *      *

In the mid-1970s, state utility company Taipower approached the illiterate Tao district commissioner, purportedly to build a cannery beside the island’s southeastern tip. Told that it would provide new job opportunities, he signed an agreement authorising its construction, along with a dedicated harbour to service the facility. But when its true purpose became known the Tao were horrified: reports revealed that the government “cannery” was in fact a dumping ground for Taiwan’s mid- and low-level nuclear waste – much of it from the main island’s three active nuclear power plants.

The first shipments arrived in May 1982, and the storage facility now holds 100,277 barrels of radioactive material, each one weighing roughly 50 kilograms. Chosen for its isolated position well away from the mainland, Taipower and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had intended the dumpsite to be “temporary”, outlining a 50-year storage period before the processed waste was finally dumped into a deep-sea trench in the Bashi Channel. This plan was thwarted by Taiwan’s belated acknowledgement of the 1972 London Convention, which effectively banned the oceanic dumping of nuclear waste.

Since then the radioactive drums have remained on the island, stored in rows of low green sheds dug into the gently sloping terrain. We get our first glimpse of the dumpsite from a nearby promontory, and I am immediately appalled by its exposure to the elements. Situated mere metres from the churning waters of the Pacific, a low retaining wall – and the narrow coast road – is all that separates it from Tao fishing grounds.

Orchid Islanders at an anti-nuclear protest in Taipei
Photo: Sipnadan Chiang

Out of sight, out of mind

Orchid Island lies directly in the path of oncoming typhoons – traditional Tao dwellings are half-buried in the ground for precisely this reason. Just last August Typhoon Tembin scored a direct hit on the island, creating eight-metre storm surges and destroying its sole gas station and supermarket.

It appears that these kinds of extreme weather conditions did not deter Taipower and the AEC; the dumpsite only stopped receiving nuclear waste in 1996 following reports that a few thousand barrels had corroded in the salty sea air. Environmentalists had long demanded the replacement of these rusting iron drums, but it was not until November 2011 that Taipower finished a four-year process to repackage 70,000 drums of toxic waste.

Coincidentally, an environmental report released the same month found increased levels of Caesium-137 and Cobalt-60, two radioactive by-products of nuclear fission, in the topsoil throughout the island. Measurements taken in sweet potato and taro fields showed a two-fold increase in radioactive material between 1999 and 2011, from 10 Becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) to 32.9Bq/kg.

Taipower stressed that these levels remained far below the safety limit of 740Bq/kg, falling “within the range of variation for natural background radiation”. More recently, the company reiterated its position in a statement released at the end of March: “All waste barrels are in a safe storage condition,” it claimed, “inspections are complete at the Lanyu facility; [it] has not contaminated the environment or working personnel.”

Orchid Islanders at an anti-nuclear protest in Taipei
Photo: Sipnadan Chiang

The rising tide

Ever since the late 1980s, Orchid Island residents have stood at the vanguard of Taiwan’s growing anti-nuclear movement. A significant turning point came in the aftermath of the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, when the Taiwanese were shaken by the nightmarish vision that the damage done then to the Fukushima nuclear plant, could be repeated on their earthquake-prone island. On the second anniversary of that earthquake and tsunami, as many as 200,000 protestors joined anti-nuclear demonstrations across Taiwan, half of them in Taipei alone.

Besides the waste dumping on Orchid Island, recent protests have been directed against the construction of the country’s fourth nuclear power plant, with Taipower’s safety standards repeatedly called into question. Located in Gongliao District, some 40 kilometres east of Taipei, construction of the Longmen Power Plant started in 1999 but is now suspended in a near-complete state. Amid increasingly vocal opposition from the public, President Ma Ying-jeou has proposed a national referendum later this year to decide if the facility will be allowed to operate.

As Taiwan is crisscrossed by active seismic faults, some environmentalists argue that the island is unsuitable for nuclear plants, pointing out that its existing reactors are sited in areas far more densely populated than that around Fukushima. A disaster on the scale of the earthquake and tsunami there would have an unprecedented impact, with 6.5 million people – more than a quarter of Taiwan’s total population – living within an 80-kilometre radius of Longmen.

Taipower is also feeling the financial strain, thanks to a surge in international fuel prices over the past decade. In a Taipei Times article published in March 2013, Hu Ta-ming, the director of Taipower’s legal affairs office, admitted that losses since 2006 had amounted to more than NT$197.4 billion (US$6.6 billion). He added that the fourth nuclear power plant was a necessity, not just for the island as a whole, but to ensure Taipower’s own economic survival. “If a referendum to halt construction is passed and the project is terminated, commercial operation would of course become impossible . . . the company would have no choice but to file for bankruptcy.”

Further in the future, Taiwan will have to face the issue of decommissioning its three existing nuclear plants. Together they supply almost 20% of the nation’s electricity, and if the intended 40-year lifespan is adhered to, all three will be retired between 2018 and 2025. Taipower has proposed deferring these closures by another 20 years, amid claims that the island will fall victim to “widespread power shortages” if the fourth nuclear plant at Longmen does not come online.

Ma Ying-jeou’s government has taken a similar stance, arguing that nuclear power is necessary to meet Taiwan’s carbon-reduction targets in the fight against climate change. The executive branch cites nuclear energy as a stable, cheap and highly efficient option, but the ultimate irony is its perceived role “in the transition towards a nuclear-free homeland”.

A Tao protest leader prepares for the anti-nuclear rally in Taipei
Photo: Sipnadan Chiang

Cash for trash

As for the waste on Orchid Island, earlier promises to close down the dumpsite have so far proved empty. A previous scheme to relocate the radioactive waste to an abandoned North Korean coal mine was halted by an international outcry, with strong objections from both South Korea and Japan. The government has now timetabled its removal by 2016, but islanders fear that may be pushed back by the difficult search for an alternative site. Anti-nuclear activists have baulked at recent proposals to move the waste to a site in southern Taiwan or the outlying islands off the coast of Fujian.

In the meantime Taipower has been quick to dish out financial compensation and other benefits to the Tao, which it euphemistically terms “feedback”. An annual NT$20 million is distributed between the island’s six villages, with up to NT$3 million more to lease the land for the dumpsite, as well as free electricity for all 4,000 residents. Orchid Islanders are also entitled to medical evacuations, a 50% discount on transport off the island, and scholarships for higher education on the Taiwanese mainland.

Tao activists have expressed alarm at the growing reliance on these hand-outs, which have skewed the economy of a remote outpost that has seen little development other than a fledgling tourism industry. Still, efforts to counter this trend have been spearheaded by the Tao Foundation, which educates the community and encourages migrants now working in mainland Taiwan to return and start their own businesses.

Sinan Mavivo, the foundation’s Secretary-General, is also making her voice heard on the mainland. On April 3, 2013, she was one of eight representatives from anti-nuclear groups who met with Premier Jiang Yi-huah in Taipei, fulfilling a wish 30 years in the making. Taking on the name ‘Mavivo’s mother’, it was the thought of her young son that propelled her into politics. “One day I told him I would stand for election and go into battle for the young and old of Orchid Island. As a member of the Green Party, this is the closest we have ever come to [political representation in] the Taiwanese legislature.” AA

A stand selling fresh pandanus juice on Orchid Island

Exploring Orchid Island

Apart from the maritime culture of the indigenous Tao, this laid-back island has plenty to offer the active traveller. The volcanic scenery features many unusual rock formations and large caves, all easily accessible from the 60-kilometre ring road. Best seen with the aid of a scooter, a full circuit of Orchid Island can take up to half a day with plenty of stops for pictures and perhaps a meal at Dongching (Iranmilek) village.

In the thickly forested interior there are hiking trails to the two ‘tienchi’, old rain-eroded craters at opposite ends of the island. The larger, southernmost one has filled with water, whereas its northern counterpart forms a raw clearing within the rainforest. Some homestays arrange night walks to spot local wildlife, the most famous being the Lanyu scops owl, a species found nowhere else on the planet.

The island’s biggest draw for adventure seekers is its string of dive sites, considered the finest in Taiwan. Its isolated location far off the mainland means visibility averages 30-40 metres year-round, and the healthy coral reefs attract endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles, as well as schools of barracuda, jacks and tuna. Wreck diving enthusiasts can visit a Korean freighter sunken at a depth of 35 metres, the unfortunate victim of a typhoon.

Part of Orchid Island’s appeal is the fact that it is relatively hard to get to – domestic carrier Daily Air runs 25-minute flights from Taitung on a 19-seater propeller plane, but these are often cancelled in the event of high winds and heavy rain. For those with stronger stomachs, the three-hour passage from Taitung’s Fukang Harbour on board a small ferry is somewhat more reliable, but travellers can expect rough seas on the way across.

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