While North Koreans face near-famine conditions their rulers have been negotiating a significant import deal. But it’s not exactly food they are bringing into the country. It’s a massive consignment of nuclear waste – 60,000 barrels of the stuff – from the country’s traditional foe, Taiwan.
The shipment will take place over the next two years, with an option for 140,000 more barrels later. North Korea will receive $1,500 per barrel as well as funds for site preparation and shipping if North Korean ships are used.
UNICEF estimates that 38 per cent of North Korean under-five-year-olds are currently suffering from malnutrition – that’s 800,000 hungry children – following failed harvests. Meeting environmental safety requirements for nuclear disposal is unlikely to be a top spending priority for the Government. Besides, it would take between five and ten years to build proper nuclear waste treatment facilities.
For the Taiwanese authorities, exporting the waste means ridding itself of a major domestic headache. The country has been managing six nuclear power plants since 1978. In 1982 the Government deceived its people and constructed a nuclear-waste facility in Orchid Island. Residents reported high rates of leukaemia and cancer due to radioactive leaks. In the end, the Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) promised to ‘clear the island of its nuclear wastes by the year 2002’.
Taiwan’s radioactive waste is now destined to be buried in a disused coalmine at Pyungsan in Hwanghaedo, North Korea. Pyungsan is hardly suited to the purpose: the area is geologically unstable and earthquake-prone. Furthermore, the mine has an underground lake, increasing the chances of nuclear containers corroding and of radioactive materials such as caesium and tritium seeping into the surrounding area. It’s not hard to imagine the likely effect on the health of local people.
Taipower, which is exporting the waste, responds to such concerns by stating that North Korea ‘has had ten years’ experience of managing small-sized nuclear power plants and dealing with nuclear wastes.’ North Korea does have atomic experience in that it ran two nuclear reactors from October 1987 to May 1994. But the quantities of nuclear waste being handled were relatively small.
Shipping the waste is another cause for concern. International regulations specify that nuclear waste should be transported in a special 2,000-tonne vessel lined with a concrete wall for protection in case of collision at sea. But Taiwan possesses only smaller 800-tonne vessels and North Korea has no special vessels at all. The North Koreans are reportedly planning to ‘remodel’ one of their ships to bring in the nuclear waste. If this happens it means there will be at least 100 journeys back and forth. The shipping route goes through shallow waters and if an accident did occur it would turn the Yellow Sea into a deadly one.
The situation is not helped by the fact that there is no international regulation banning the export of such waste. International transactions of harmful wastes are regulated by the London Dumping Accord and the Basel Convention. The London Dumping Accord has been blamed for increasing waste exports from rich countries to poor countries, while the Basel Convention does not include nuclear waste at all, having succumbed to pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the more powerful nuclear nations.
The only regulation that might be applied is the IAEA requirement that when nuclear waste is shipped from one country to another safety standards should be met by both parties.
Not surprisingly the deal between Taiwan and North Korea is causing deep unease in the region – especially here, across the border in South Korea. There seems to be no option but to appeal to international public opinion and to protest against this crime, this exploitation of one country’s poverty by another, which puts an entire region and its people at risk.
By Shin Seung who works with Green Korea, an environmental group at 385-108 Hapjong-dong, Mapo-ku, Seoul, South Korea. e-mail: [email protected]
© Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997