The disposal of nuclear waste into the world’s oceans


Humans have been altering the oceans for millennia. Up till now, five critical environmental issues have affected the oceans: over-fishing, chemical pollution and eutrophicaion, habit destruction, invasion of alien species and global climate change. However, one of the major threats the oceans may face in the twenty-first century is radioactive pollution.

The Wall St. Journal has recently claimed that plutonium levels are 1,000 times above normal on the seafloor 50 miles from San Francisco where 50,000 containers of radioactive waste lay at the bottom of the seafloor after steel barrels of nuclear material were disposed of a few decades ago. They also claimed this is globally significant and is impacting the ecosystem. This is a first study of this kind.

After World War II, for many decades, the nuclear industries used the oceans as a dumping ground. It was only two decades ago that dumping from ships was internationally banned.

From 1946 through 1993, thirteen nuclear capable countries used the ocean as an ends to dispose of nuclear/radioactive waste. The waste materials included industrial, medical and weapons, both liquids and solids housed in various containers, as well as reactor vessels, with and without spent or damaged nuclear fuel.

The United States alone dumped vast quantities of nuclear material off its coasts between 1946 and 1970—more than 110,000 containers. More specifically, for up to 15 years after World War II, the USS Calhoun County dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into the Atlantic Ocean, often without heeding the simplest health precautions. In order to make sure the waste-containing drums sank, the sailors would sometimes shoot them with rifles. On top of that in the Pacific, there is an estimated 47,000 containers which lie at the bottom of the ocean floor near San Francisco and Japan has also disposed of a magnitude of radioactive waste into the ocean.

Russia, on the other hand, dumped some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel. The K-27 sank in 1989 and is currently resting on the floor of the Barents Sea, one mile deep, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads. In total, there are now 6 nuclear submarines lying at the bottom of the Oceans, lost as a result of failure – 4 Russian and 2 American.

In Europe alone, some 28,500 containers of radioactive waste were dropped into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963 by European states, some of which are being now discovered to have leaks. In addition, lots of radioactive waste was disposed of off the coast of Japan and in the South Korean Sea. In all honesty, every nuclear nation, to some extent or another, could be possibly linked to the dumping of radioactive waste, and, most of them to that of the oceans. Collectively the known containers from Europe, let alone the rest of the world, translate to hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste. It is like having a tooth x-ray every time you enter your bath – and yet that is too much.

While in Europe waste was all supposed to be disposed of in waters at least 4,000 meters deep, many of the ship log documents are inaccurate or are left, “incomplete or unknown” in the location of the dump, sometimes dumped even in water only 100 meters deep and only miles away from the coast. Also, the captain’s main concerns were the safety of the crew not about the exact location of the dump. The barrels of waste were radioactive and the crew was getting radioactive doses. Therefore, once the radioactive safe zone timer was up, the crew just dumped the barrels regardless of location. The issue here is how one checks the current radioactive leakages and levels of the waste if the locations are unknown.

It wasn’t until 1993 that nuclear and radioactive ocean disposal had been fully banned and ratified by international treaties. (London Convention, Basel Convention, MARPOL). Beyond technical and political considerations, the London Convention places prohibitions on disposing of radioactive materials at sea and does not make a distinction between wastes dumped directly into the water and waste that is buried underneath the ocean’s floor. It also does not exclude dumping radioactive waste through pipelines, which companies in Europe are actually doing. Some claim that populations of humans located near these pipelines are 10 times more likely to die of cancers. While others state the risks are insignificant.

It seems that the general consensus is that storing radioactive waste in the ocean is harmful to the organisms that inhabit the ocean and to humans as well due to radiation and in addition it is a rather expensive process. Poor insulation of the containers, leaks, volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, limited locations, and several other factors prove that storing radioactive waste in the oceans has a potential of becoming a catastrophe. Yet for some, it is more practical than alternatives such as storing it on land or launching rockets off towards the sun.

Nevertheless, many argue that ocean-based approaches to the disposal of nuclear waste have significant advantages. First, disposing waste at the bottom of the ocean is hard for terrorists, rebels, or criminals to steal for use in radiological weapons or in nuclear bombs. The world’s oceans also have a vastly greater dilutive capacity than any single land site in the event of unintended leaks.

In the US for example, Federal officials have long maintained that, despite some leakage from containers, there isn’t evidence of damage to the wider ocean environment or threats to public health. The Wall Street Journal review of decades of federal and other records has found many unanswered questions and evidence which proves otherwise. It is also well documented by the scientific community, that even lose doses of radioactive exposer can increase the rates of cancers. However, more specifically, endocrine disruptor in form of radioactivity can cause cancer in the same manner, as it can cure cancer.

The 1993 Treaty remains in force up until 2018, after which the sub-seabed disposal option can be revisited, creating new opportunities for nuclear waste disposal and a more potentially radioactively ocean. Companies are already writing up plans to convince the public and governments about the importance and safety of ocean-floor disposals.

Back then, and even now, many believed the ocean is fair game when it comes to radioactive waste. Especially since the impact of radioactivity on human health was largely underestimated. Fortunately the case is not the same today. While radioactive and nuclear waste is no longer disposed from ships into the oceans, great risks still remain.



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