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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NUCLEAR FAMILIES

Scores of buildings in northern Taiwan are contaminated with radioactivity -- and no one is sure why

By Laurence Eyton / Taipei


IT BEGAN WITH AN innocent father-child experiment in the kitchen one evening in 1992. An employee of Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) was showing his young son how a radiation monitor works when, to his shock, the dial jumped into the danger level. The apparatus indicated that a wall was emitting large amounts of radioactivity. The Atomic Energy Council (AEC) later conducted tests and confirmed the finding -- and more. It established that large areas of the apartment building were emitting hazardous levels of radiation, and that the same was true of other structures in northern Taiwan.

More than four years later, the AEC has yet to establish the extent or the source of the problem and, most crucially, how dangerous the radioactivity really is for occupants. All authorities can say is that 105 buildings accounting for 1,249 apartments are contaminated, 20% of them seriously. The AEC has yet to conclusively test every suspect structure on the island. Its job has been made more difficult because its credibility was shattered when a newspaper revealed in 1992 that high-ranking AEC officials knew of the problem as early as 1985, and covered it up.

One organization doing its own research is the Association for Radiation Safety (ARS), a pressure group campaigning for compensation for affected residents. It was founded by Wang Yu-lin, who lived in one of the radioactive buildings. His concern was piqued when his daughter was diagnosed with cancer, which can be caused by exposure to radiation. ARS and AEC agree on only two issues: the source of the contamination is the steel reinforcing bars (rebars) in the building walls, and the rebars were made by the Hsin Jong Iron and Steel Co. in the northern town of Taoyuan.

This is the ARS theory: the contamination comes from some 604 tons of scrap metal sold to Hsin Jung in October 1982 by state-owned monopoly Taipower, which runs Taiwan's three nuclear power plants. Included in the delivery, it is claimed, was radioactive material. The scrap was mixed with other metal to produce some 20,000 tons of rebars, of which the ARS claims to have located 7,000 tons.

Not so, says the AEC. Its experts doubt that Taipower scrap could have produced such powerful contamination. More importantly, says AEC Department of Nuclear Technology Director Chen Yi-bin: "The only radioactive contaminant found so far in the buildings is cobalt-60. Taipower scrap would be contaminated with other metals, especially cesium-137." He says that investigations have found no trace of any cesium.

For its part, the AEC believes the source is a military institute in the Taoyuan area. "After China's first A-bomb test in 1964, the military decided that it needed to have the ability to detect radiation," he says, so it obtained cobalt-60 sources from the U.S. to use in training exercises. Chen believes that some of these radioactive materials were stolen. The military denied this but provided no proof to the contrary. Since the AEC has no authority over radioactive material under military control, and the army remains a law unto itself in Taiwan, the truth remains hidden.

How dangerous is exposure to this radiation? ARS paints a grim picture. "So far, we think there have been at least 25 deaths attributable to the radioactive rebars," says Hsu Ssu-ming, ARS secretary-general. He claims the latest death was that of a 15-year-old from leukemia last Dec. 18. The boy's illness was a direct result of his sitting next to a heavily radioactive window cage at his kindergarten, Hsu says.

AEC officials are skeptical. "The doses of radiation he would have received are minimal," says Chen Wei-li, director of the Department of Radiation Protection. "The fact is that people do die of cancer -- even young people -- naturally. You simply cannot say that any cancer death of someone who once spent time in a contaminated building or room is a result of that exposure."

Even if a direct link could be found, it might not help those who have lived or worked in the affected buildings get help or money. The AEC itself has no responsibility to compensate those in trouble; it only has an obligation to dispose of the contaminated steel. Liability rests with the construction firms that used the rebars, but Taiwan's consumer-protection and product-liability legislation has a five-year statute of limitations, and the buildings concerned are all over 10 years old.

Even worse, though the AEC has arranged a program to buy the most affected structures, many people find themselves in buildings that are not deemed hazardous enough to entitle them to compensation. In these cases, the actual health danger is often overshadowed by the mental strain of living in such an apartment. "We can't move because money is tight," says one 40-year-old Taipei mother who preferred not to be named. "I have sent my two children to relatives, and I have to live here and wait to die."

The AEC has been doing what it can. For example, it bought 93 of the most heavily contaminated apartments. It also set up a system demanding radioactive contamination-free certification for all new buildings. Despite the efforts, ARS officials complain that the search for further contamination is inadequate since the AEC is investigating only buildings completed from 1982 to 1984, though other structures have been found to be radioactive. But both sides do actually agree on one more thing. As Hsu puts it: "Let's make sure that this never happens anywhere else ever again."


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