The Nuclear Dump That Created a Generation of Indigenous Activists

No one bothered to inform the residents why the southern end of their island home was suddenly no longer accessible. All they knew was that the place where women for generations had scoured the craggy tide pools for crabs and where farmers had long tended fields of taro and millet had suddenly become a huge construction site.

Rumors began to fly. It was a pineapple cannery. No, it was a fish cannery. Whatever it was, the locals decided, it would mean more jobs for the islanders.

It wasn’t until years later, in 1980, when a local pastor saw an article buried on the back page of a newspaper, that the islanders discovered what the site actually was: a huge nuclear waste dump.

“The government deceived us,” Pastor Syapen Lamoran, 76, said recently in an interview at his home in Lanyu, a lush volcanic island off the southeast coast of Taiwan that is the traditional home of the Tao, one of the 16 officially recognized Indian tribes. in taiwan. “They didn’t care that nuclear waste would kill us, that the Tao people would become extinct.”

More than three decades after that revelation, the nuclear waste dump remains in Lanyu, a painful reminder to the Tao of the government’s broken promises and a symbol to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples of their long struggle for greater autonomy.

The dump on Lanyu, also known as Orchid Island, or Ponso no Tao, has been one of the highest-profile causes taken up by indigenous Taiwanese, who were the main inhabitants of these islands until four centuries ago, when settlers Colonials began to arrive from mainland China, Europe, and later Imperial Japan.

Today, ethnic Han Chinese make up more than 95 percent of Taiwan’s population of 23 million. The approximately 583,000 indigenous people, by contrast, make up 2 percent, and many still face widespread social and economic marginalization. Lanyu itself is home to just over 5,000 residents.

The movement for greater indigenous rights has gained momentum in recent years as Taiwan, a self-governing territory claimed by Beijing, pushes for a distinct identity separate from mainland China. In 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan became the first leader to formally apologize to the island’s indigenous people for centuries of “pain and mistreatment.”

But on the issue of nuclear waste, the government has been slower to act.

Following the revelation that the site was a nuclear waste facility, the Tao fought vigorously to persuade the government to remove it. For years they organized mass protests on the island and in front of government offices in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. They became self-taught experts on nuclear waste.

But despite repeated government promises to relocate the site, the dump remains.

On a recent afternoon, Taiwanese tourists in snorkel gear laughed and frolicked in the sparkling blue waters, apparently unaware that just above them, hidden in the tree-covered hillside, was the nuclear waste site that, according to some Tao, it has contributed to increased cancer rates. mutated fish and other health problems among the islanders.

Taiwanese officials and Taipower, the state-owned company that operates the dump, have said residents’ exposure to low levels of radiation from the dump has been minimal, citing numerous scientific studies.

The health effects of such dumps, which are typically located in remote areas near operating nuclear facilities, remain a contentious issue among scientists and nuclear power skeptics, said Thomas Isaacs, an expert on nuclear waste management and Former Blue Ribbon Senior Counsel. Commission on the nuclear future of the United States. “Scientists will tell you that when you look at places that are exposed to low levels of radiation, you can’t find any impacts.”

Statements by Taiwanese officials and Taipower have done little to assuage the concerns of the islanders.

“I don’t think the problem is really solved,” said Syaman Jiapato, 63, a retired teacher, sitting in the shade of a log cabin, carving a model of a traditional fishing boat. “We have been living with such man-made threats for years.”

Behind the skepticism of the islanders lies a deep distrust of outsiders. For good reason.

For centuries, the Tao lived a largely isolated existence on this 17-square-mile island, interacting only occasionally with shipwrecked sailors and people from the northern Philippine Islands. Then, beginning in the late 19th century, Taiwan, including the Lanyu, came under the control of Japanese colonists, who began to study the Tao, whom they called the Yami, as ethnographic subjects.

It was more than an innocent academic pursuit: the Japanese wanted to learn more about the peoples of the Pacific so they could help their empire expand its territorial reach into Asia.

In the eyes of the Tao, the island’s later rulers, members of the Kuomintang government, were not much better. They took a more hands-on approach to rule, forcing the Tao to wear modern clothing, banning their native language from public spaces, and forcing them to move from their traditional underground homes. The new government also sent convicted criminals to the island, some of whom raped Tao women, according to historians and a recent government-led investigation.

It was against this background that the authoritarian government decided in the 1970s to build a site at Lanyu to store the more than 10,000 barrels of low-level radioactive waste that had been produced by various nuclear power plants on the main island of Taiwan. Lanyu was remote, so the reasoning went, and there were few inhabitants in the immediate area.

The Tao was not given a voice.

“There have been so many lies,” said Hailin Chung, 42, a Tao woman who runs a coffee shop on the island. “Outsiders have changed our territory in drastic ways.”

When Pastor Syapen Lamoran saw the article in the newspaper, he immediately started spreading the word to his fellow Tao at home about the “poison” dump. Beginning in the late 1980s, Tao organized numerous large-scale protests, even after the dump opened in 1982. In 1988, protesters stormed the offices of the nuclear site. Years later, they dumped rocks into the port to prevent Taipower from bringing in new barrels of nuclear waste.

“We were pushing the limit and seeing hope,” said Shaman Fengayan, 58, who led the island’s protest movement in the 1980s.

Along the way, the protesters achieved small victories. The government finally agreed to stop bringing in additional barrels of waste.

But efforts to relocate the waste fell short. In 1993, a group of countries voted to permanently ban the practice of dumping all nuclear waste into the ocean. Other potential options were ruled out, including a plan to export the waste to North Korea.

In 2018, the Taiwanese government released what many Tao saw as a long-awaited report acknowledging its failure decades ago to consult the islanders on the construction of the nuclear waste site. After publishing the report, authorities agreed to pay the Tao $83 million in compensation, with an additional $7 million outlay every three years.

The most ardent anti-nuclear activists have scorned the payments, calling them a “candy-like” sedative that has assuaged the anger of locals and undermined the movement. Others are less bothered.

“It’s not as bad as some people say,” said Si Nan Samonan, 45, a Tao woman who has worked as a tour guide at the nuclear waste storage site for the past seven years.

Taipower said in a statement that it was still “working hard” to find a permanent storage site, but had struggled to overcome resistance from residents in the proposed relocation areas.

With no resolution in sight, the anti-nuclear movement of recent years has lost steam. While posters and stickers with the slogan “No nuclear!” still plastered in bars and restaurants across the island, many young Tao say they have little interest in running a campaign that has consumed much of their elders’ time and energy.

For them, the focus these days is tourism and attracting the hordes of young Taiwanese who arrive on the island by ferry or small prop planes and get around on rented scooters. Some Tao youth say they would rather focus on social problems that can actually be solved, such as picking up trash on the island and educating outsiders about Tao culture.

“’Antinuclear’ is a cliché term now,” said Si Yabosoganen, 34, lounging on the patio of his seaside bar as the sun set and a light breeze blew. “Promoting Tao culture is much more important than repeating the same old tune. .”

But for the older generation of activists in Lanyu, removing the nuclear dump remains a cause worth fighting for.

“Tourists come, have fun and leave,” said Sinan Jipehngaya, 50, who owns the Anti-Nuclear Bar in Lanyu, a roadside shack that serves powerful, brightly colored cocktails with names like “Nuclear Waste Get out of the trash.” Lanyu.”

“We have no backup,” he said. “This island is our only home.”