Nuclear waste looms as challenge in Asia

GYEONGJU, South Korea - With royal tombs and a history dating back 1,000 years to the Shilla Kingdom, Gyeongju is a cradle of Korean civilization. But it's about to get a tomb of a different type. A hillside bunker overlooking the Sea of Japan is to become one of Asia's first permanent nuclear dump sites, ending South Korea's 19-year quest to deal with low- and medium-level waste such as contaminated clothing and old parts from its 20 nuclear power plants. It's costing the government nearly $320 million in subsidies to the town of 300,000 for voting to accept the dump, and it doesn't even begin to address the country's real problem - 6,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel with hundreds of thousands of years to live and nowhere to go. As Asia goes nuclear in a big way to feed its appetite for energy, environmentalists are warning that the growing stockpiles could either be stolen by terrorists and used to make a bomb, or end up polluting the environment.

The nuclear industry says a permanent solution will eventually be found and that the waste issue will not slow the growth of nuclear power in Asia. Temporary sites, they said, are safe. But only the United States and Finland have come up with permanent sites, and the one at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is years behind schedule and mired in legal disputes. One solution is to recycle spent fuel by extracting its plutonium and combining it with uranium. But the plutonium is weapons-grade and could fall into terrorist hands, warns the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Waste-dumping has rallied anti-nuclear forces in Asian democracies that allow them to function freely. Taiwan, which has three nuclear plants and is building a fourth, has been thwarted three times in its search for a waste dump. "The failure to find a solution to nuclear waste could slow the development of nuclear power in democratic countries," said Michael Yang, a National Taiwan University professor who follows the storage issue. "You already had so many demonstrations over the issue in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan."

Australia, has no nuclear plants but has struggled for 15 years to find a permanent site for low-level nuclear waste from its medical, industrial and research facilities. It settled in 2004 on three potential sites in the Northern Territory, which is home to Aborigine communities as well as world-famous Ayers Rock, or Uluru. Authorities expect to choose a final site by 2007 and open it in 2011.

"People are outraged," said Michaela Stubbs of Friends of the Earth Australia (Source: Associate Press,The Mercury News, July 08, 2006)

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