Nuclear Waste

A Watery Grave?

When, in 1983, the London Dumping Convention banned the disposal of high-level nuclear waste into the oceans, there was no shortage of protests. High-level nuclear waste presents a tremendous storage problem, and simply tossing it into the oceans was by far the most “cost-effective” solution. Until the treaty, Atlantic Ocean dumping was common practice for such nuclear nations as Great Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Switzerland and Sweden.

The U.S. routinely dumped bombs, missiles and mines in coastal waters between 1946 and 1948. Photo: Glenn Oliver/Visuals Unlimited

The U.S. routinely dumped bombs, missiles and mines in coastal waters between 1946 and 1948.Photo: Glenn Oliver/Visuals Unlimited

Unfortunately, international treaties are frequently broken, and Greenpeace charges that this one has been repeatedly violated by Russia, a signatory. “Despite the official claims that they ‘did not dump, do not dump nor have plans to dump radioactive waste,’ Russia…has-and still does-dispose high, medium- and low-level waste [in the oceans],” charged a 1993 Greenpeace International television documentary. Some 18 nuclear reactors have been dumped, six complete with nuclear fuel, the documentary reports. And an estimated 300 nuclear submarines from the former Soviet Union are awaiting decommissioning by the year 2000, with only minimal on-site storage available.

Last year, Pakistani courts began investigating reports that 150 drums of nuclear waste-reportedly brought into Pakistan on board a ship-had been dumped in the open sea 30 miles northwest of Karachi. Violations might also be occurring in Great Britain, which between 1949 and 1982 used ocean dumping as its primary method of nuclear waste disposal.

Nuclear waste isn’t the only problem. Until the 1970s, chemical weapons were also routinely dumped at sea. Following World War II, for example, an estimated 150,000 tons of German and Japanese chemical armaments were dumped in the Baltic Sea. British chemical weapons were put overboard in the Irish Sea in the 1950s, and bombs, projectiles and mines were disposed of in U.S. coastal waters from 1946 to 1968. Fishermen reported as late as 1991 pulling up still-volatile mustard gas canisters in their nets.