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Asia must plan for the safe disposal of industrial poisons

Published April 19, 2011 | Asia Now

GERMANY - Police turn a water cannon on 6,000 demonstrators trying to block a rail shipment of radioactive wastes on the last leg of its journey to a storage site. The operation, which involves the deployment of 30,000 officers nationwide, costs nearly $40 million. In Seoul, South Korea, another agitated group fills the streets to protest a deal to bury in underground caves in North Korea 60,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste produced in Taiwan. In Thailand, some 100 villagers at Ban Don Bay, 550 km south of Bangkok, rally in front of provincial government offices. Their oyster farms, they complain, have been destroyed by toxic waste water from nearby factories.

Around the world these days, there is an intensifying drumbeat of news about problems relating to the dispatch of toxic wastes, both radioactive and non-radioactive. For Asia, such challenges are set to multiply along with rapid industrialization and economic development. The region's main concern, for a long time, was being on the receiving end of hazardous wastes unloaded by developed countries. This remains a factor in some nations -- from India, where discarded heavy metals continue to be imported in large quantities despite a court ban, to North Korea, which is willing to accept hazardous discharges because of a dire need for hard currency. But more and more, Asian countries are creating their own dangerous waste. Sadly, many of them are not taking measures to dispose of it safely.

The Philippines, for example, now generates 6.5 million tons of toxic material annually, according to United Nations figures. Said a report prepared recently by the World Health Organization for the Philippine International Toxic & Hazardous Waste Congress in Manila: "Industry as a whole seems ill-prepared, both technically and financially, to institute the necessary measures for the management of toxic and hazardous wastes. In general, [they] are improperly stored, transported and disposed of." The document notes that most of the waste is discharged into "the municipal sewerage, canals and other bodies of water or are disposed of on site or in conjunction with municipal solid waste." Such criticisms are equally valid throughout much of the region.

Adding to the effluents is the growing amount of radioactive waste Asia is producing. Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan all have for some years generated much of their electricity from nuclear-power plants. North Korea is to receive two large light-water reactors under a deal with the United States. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have talked about building their own plants. Low-level radioactive wastes are also generated from industry, non-powered research reactors and nuclear medicine. Australia has proposed building its first nuclear-waste reprocessing plant, even though the country has no nuclear-power plants.

Ideally, industrial development would proceed in tandem with the proper control and disposal of the resulting toxic effluents. But things seldom work out that way. The experience of Japan, Asia's oldest and most advanced industrial nation, is instructive. By the 1970s, pell-mell industrial development had made the country a byword for industrial pollution. In one dramatic incident, over 1,000 people died and more were crippled from eating fish caught in a bay near a chemical plant that simply discharged mercury into nearby waters. Bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen were finally prodded into a major cleanup that Japan can take pride in, but lawsuits from victims of "Minamata disease" dragged on for decades.

The means to dispose properly of toxic and radioactive wastes are not beyond the technology of the producing countries. What is needed is the will to put regulations and enforcement machinery in place -- which is so often lacking. A recent U.N. report put it this way: "Most countries in [East Asia] do not have specific programs for control of toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes. Where legislation exists, institutions are not sufficiently developed to control the manufacture, registration, labeling, packaging, marketing, transportation and disposal of toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes."

Dangerous discharges can be divided into two categories, radioactive and non-radioactive. The latter include chromium residues, phosphorous, cyanide and other catalysts from chemical plants, as well as slurry, metallic slag from smelting and lead in batteries. They are produced in mining operations, chemical plants, textile dyeing, tanneries and even painters' workshops and printing presses.

They must be disposed of in such a way that they do not mix with other wastes, such as sewage, or trickle down into water tables or be eaten by fish or animals. That is to avoid the possibility of their eventual consumption by humans. Generally, such materials must be placed in a carefully selected landfill, often after some processing in the form of solidification, compaction or even incineration. Disposed of in much the same fashion are "low-level" radioactive wastes, either the by-products of nuclear-power generation or other industrial uses such as nuclear medicine or research reactors.

"High-level" radioactive wastes, usually spent fuel from nuclear-power plants, are a different matter. They are a special problem because they are both intensively radioactive and contain some elements, such as plutonium and uranium, that remain so for centuries. For the moment, most high-level waste in Asia is simply stored "temporarily" in spent-fuel pools near the generating reactor, which keep the rods from overheating and provide a barrier to radiation. The generally accepted long-term solution is "vitrification": turning the waste into a water-resistant, glass-like substance and then burying it either in underground caverns or in concrete igloos on the surface.

The technical problems may be easier to surmount than political opposition. As the recent protests in Germany and South Korea make clear, the disposal of hazardous waste arouses powerful passions. The point was further underscored last week when an explosion at a reprocessing plant near Tokyo sparked alarm about radioactive leakage. In perhaps no other issue is the "NIMBY" (not in my backyard) factor so much at work. Too often, the easy way out is to persuade some impecunious country, powerless minority group or tiny South Pacific island nation to take on the burden for a handsome price.

While most industrialized countries should take care of their own toxic wastes, there is scope for regional cooperation. Certainly, few nations in Southeast Asia will ever have a nuclear-power establishment large enough to justify building their own reprocessing plants. Though a nightmare to some environmental and community leaders, the idea of siting such a reprocessing center in the large, empty spaces of technologically advanced Australia to also service Southeast Asia, is perhaps not so far-fetched. Hazardous wastes are an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of industrial development, but that's no excuse not to have workable plans to deal with it.

Siource: CNN News
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