Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Welcome to nuclear beach

Pack your swimsuit, sunblock and a Geiger counter

Global Post, August 16, 2009

KENTING, Taiwan — Here on Nanwan Beach, smoke-belching tractors haul jet-skis across the sand. College girls scream in terror at the approach of knee-high wavelets. And the favorite sport of young Taiwanese men? Wet sand fights.

But perhaps the most jarring sight, at least for foreign eyes, here at one of Taiwan's most popular beaches: the twin reactors of the island's Third Nuclear Power Plant.

They loom on the north side of the beach, perched on the edge of this earthquake-prone island, discharging reactor cooling water into an inlet that's popular with coral-peeping snorkelers.

Aren't locals concerned? Hardly.

Or to be more specific, "Bu pa!" (we're not afraid), said scornfully a 50-something woman hawking jet-ski rides at $30 for a half-hour spin.

"Rich people worry about that. Poor people don't," she said. "We're poor." Then, cutting our time-wasting interview short, she added: "So do you want to ride a jet ski or not?"

A 52-year-old parking lot attendant laughed when asked if the plant worries locals. "We're used to it. Anyway, it's already been built, so what can we do?"

The plant went online in 1984. "Back then, we didn't know it can be dangerous," he said. "Now we know." To date, Taiwan has a near spotless nuclear safety record. That means few here fear having their beach time ruined by a meltdown. "Maybe we've just been lucky," the lot attendant added with a laugh.

But he said the beach has changed dramatically since he was a child. Then, coral covered the shallow sea floor. "Now, they're all dead," he said. "I don't know if it's because of global warming or the nuclear plant."

I went up to Taipower's visitor center to get their side of the story. Taipower is the state-run utility that operates the island's three nuclear plants. Nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of the island's energy generation.

Two Taipower officials rattled off a lengthy list of safety precautions. Scores of monitoring stations keep an eye on radiation levels in a 3-mile radius of the plant; during my visit the level in Kenting was 0.048 Sieverts, a standard measure of radiation ("warning" levels are 0.2 to 20 Sieverts, with anything above 20 considered an "emergency").

Fish and food are inspected regularly, and the plant reports all its data to the government. Moreover, a system installed in 2007 will automatically shut down the plant if a strong earthquake strikes (the system is triggered at 0.2 g — a measure of acceleration force — the plant itself is built to withstand forces of up to 0.4 g).

If there is a major accident, the military will help evacuate the public out of the area by bus from six evacuation points. So far, that hasn't been necessary.

"We have a good safety record," said Paul Shen, deputy director for safety at the plant, citing performance measures from WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators).

Shen gave a few reasons. With only three plants, Taiwan simply has far fewer facilities to worry about than the U.S., which has more than 60. Additionally, an official from Taiwan's nuclear regulatory agency lives on site, meaning there's constant monitoring of the plant's safety.

The plant keeps its nuclear waste on site — both highly radioactive spent fuel rods and some 7,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste. The barrels are due to be relocated to a more permanent site, perhaps nearby on the east coast.

Taipower officials admit that discharged reactor cooling water damaged the area's coral in the plant's early years. But they say they fixed that problem years ago by diluting the discharge with cool seawater.

Monitors now ensure the water temperature near the discharge area stays within 4 degrees Celsius of normal, and underwater cameras keep a 24-7 eye on coral near the seawater intake facility.

Instead, visitors' center manager Wu Jue-hua said current damage to the area's coral is more likely caused by hotel discharge, sediment washed down by storms, and snorkelers. Higher water temperatures due to global warming are also to blame, Wu says.

Still, Taipower officials admit that they have an image problem. That's why they opened the visitors' center in 2005. It includes hands-on exhibits that explain how nuclear power works, the plant's safety precautions, and how nuclear waste is handled. Kids come on field trips, and teachers attend seminars.

I saw kids cranking a model nuclear "centrifuge" to see how fast they could whirl it around; others were trying to pick up toy, yellow nuclear waste barrels with a mechanical pincer (a nuclear version of the grab-a-stuffed-animal night market game known here as a "wawa ji.").

Can such games convince Taiwanese kids that nuclear power's safe?

"Actually, the students who come here aren't very worried," said Shen. "Maybe they don't understand."

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