Most people on the windswept outpost, 62 kilometres east of Taiwan's mainland, would love to see the 100,277 barrels of nuclear waste gone. But many admit they are concerned about their livelihoods if that day comes. Orchid Island has been a flashpoint for Taiwan's environmental movement since nuclear waste was first shipped there in 1982. Local residents, mostly members of the Tao aboriginal group, say the waste was put on the island without their consent. Periodic protests have claimed negative health and environmental effects.
In response, Taiwan Power Co has showered the community with cash handouts, subsidies, and other benefits. Orchid Island received subsidies worth 110 million Taiwan dollars in 2011, according to company data. That doubled local government spending, according to township secretary Huang Cheng-de. "The current situation, basically, is that Taipower gives us quite a bit of money, and our people are becoming pretty reliant," Huang said. Most of the funds are divided into government-managed accounts for each of the island's 4,700 residents, who can apply for it if they have a business or career-oriented need. Residents also receive free electricity, health-related emergency evacuations, scholarships for higher education and a 50-per-cent discount on all transportation costs to Taiwan's mainland. Statistics indicate local residents are taking advantage of the benefits. In 2011, they used nearly twice as much electricity per household as the national average, according to company data.
Protests have weakened and for many residents, including Chou the restaurant owner, the existence of nuclear waste has become more acceptable. "Most people here are against the nuclear waste, but since its already here, they should pay us for using our land," Chou said. "For now, I'm okay with it as long as they don't add any more barrels." The utility plans to move the waste off the island by 2021, but only if another township in Taiwan agrees by referendum to take it, according to Huang Tian-Huang, a company deputy director. If it goes to plan, "so goes the compensation," Huang said, although he acknowledged that gaining consent from another community will be difficult. Questions remain on what would support Orchid Island's economy if those subsidies end. Much of the island is little developed, with most residents depending on subsistence farming and fishing. Tourism is starting to grow, but transportation is underdeveloped. The island is served by one 19-passenger propeller aeroplane and one daily ferry. Both are often cancelled due to bad weather, or insufficient passenger numbers. Some residents insist that the notion of relying on nuclear waste for economic development is perverse. "Taipower is really good at advertising how generous they are, and it makes locals think the community will lose if the subsidies stop," anti-nuclear activist Sinan Mavivo said. "But if you think about it, how sick is the logic that we need nuclear waste to survive?" Mavivo helps run the Tao Foundation, which serves to educate the community to stand on its own, and encourage young people who have left the island to come back and start businesses. She concedes that the community is isolated and needs government support, but believes residents must find some way to utilize local resources rather than nuclear waste to improve their quality of life. "Orchid Island has its own advantages in a rich culture, a mild climate, natural beauty, and biodiversity," she said. "My goal is to get people use our positive assets, rather than default to something that could be so bad for us."
For Taiwan aborigines, nuclear waste is blessing and curse, www.timeslive.co.za, Sept. 16, 2012