Mainland might hold the key

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am

A DECADE-LONG debate about how to deal with the radioactive waste stored below Wah Yan College might soon reach a happy resolution - if a radioactive-waste facility near the Daya Bay nuclear-power plant in Guangdong agrees to help.

The saga started in 1991, when the Environmental Protection Department determined that a World War II air-raid shelter, a tunnel off Queen's Road East, was in poor condition, although repair work later improved it to a more acceptable standard. In 1995, the department also made plans to build a hazardous-waste facility in Siu A Chau. But that plan was shelved in 1997 when tenders came in almost 80 per cent higher than department estimates.

Conrad Lam Ping-kwan, a principal officer in the department, says Hong Kong has been negotiating with the mainland's State Environmental Protection Administration about exporting the waste to the Guangdong facility. He says the logistics of this approach would be complicated.

'For example, we have to consider how to transport the waste safely across the border, how frequently to export it, and the cost involved,' he says.

There have been three meetings with mainland officials since mid-1999. Experts from the mainland visited the Queen's Road East tunnel last year and were satisfied with it as a storage site. In January, local officials visited the Bei Long radioactive-waste repository, north of Daya Bay and about 60 kilometres from Central.

'The chances of reaching an agreement are high,' said a source in the SAR Government. 'Bei Long is a high-quality facility, and they are interested in providing us with the service. What we're concerned about is the budget.'

The Bei Long repository can store up to 600 cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste and serves all of Guangdong province. Many mainland provinces have their own storage facilities for radioactive waste.

Hong Kong is expected to produce only about a quarter of a cubic metre, or one barrel, of radioactive waste per year, according to the Government. Earlier, 22 countries were contacted about managing Hong Kong's waste, but none of them were willing to take it.

Clement Cheng Kit-man, the head of the Department of Health's radiation health unit, says the waste below Wah Yan College was recently re-packaged into stainless-steel barrels. Each drum cost about $20,000. 'There is no other place in the world where the government uses such expensive containers for low-level municipal waste,' he says.

Hong Kong has a stringent system for regulating the use of radioactive materials, according to Mr Cheng. The Radiation Board is responsible for licensing those who store, possess or import radioactive material. About 550 licences have been issued.