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nuclear waste in ocean

Between 1946 and 1993, the seas were abused as a nuclear waste dump. Up until 1975, even high-level radioactive nuclear waste was disposed of in the world’s oceans.

The US demonstrated very early on how to quickly and cost-effectively dispose of nuclear waste: In 1946, the US put radioactive waste in 200-liter barrels and dumped them into the Pacific Ocean near the Farallon Islands, about 50 kilometers off the coast of California. As a result, the ocean became a nuclear waste dump. Decades later, the US government admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that up until 1970, the country had disposed of 90,000 barrels at different locations in the Pacific and the North Atlantic.

A statistic, published by the IAEA in the 1990s, shows that a number of other countries followed the US example: Belgium, Switzerland, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and most notably the UK, abused the Atlantic Ocean as a final nuclear dumpsite and collectively disposed of more than 100,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. Germany’s part in this came in May of 1967, when 480 barrels of the country’s radioactive waste were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, 450 kilometers off the coast of Portugal.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Russian Federation admitted to the IAEA that in Soviet times, around 1,900,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste disappeared into the Arctic Sea and almost 150,000 cubic meters went into the Pacific Ocean and the Baltic Sea – among them disused nuclear submarines and at least 16 nuclear reactors from submarines.

In addition, six nuclear submarines (three from the US and three from the USSR) sank, complete with nuclear missiles on board. The boats are still lying at the bottom of the ocean, at a depth of between 1,700 and 5,500 meters.

Today, nobody is able to provide exact numbers for the amount of high-level radioactive waste that was dumped into the oceans. The practice was not banned until 1975 when the London Convention on Marine Dumping came into force. However, even with the London Convention, low- and intermediate-level nuclear wastes were still allowed to be dumped. In 1985, the Nuclear Energy Agency, a subsidiary of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), stated in a report that once the saltwater ate through the walls of the barrels, the radioactive contaminants in the ocean would be diluted and distributed over large areas. Consequently, the thresholds for radiation exposure were easy to adhere to.

However, highly publicized protests by Greenpeace finally brought about a change in approach. In 1994, all countries that had previously used the oceans as a nuclear waste dump signed a moratorium that still stands today. One can surmise just how much harm was done to the oceans from the nuclear waste dumped there decades ago, from the German government response to an inquiry by the Green Party in 2012: “The barrels were not designed to ensure a permanent containment of the radionuclides at the bottom of the ocean. Therefore, it has to be assumed that they are partially no longer intact and the radionuclides have been released.”

That this is in fact the case, has been documented and made public by Greenpeace activists and journalists: Their films show fish and other sea creatures swimming around burst metal barrels containing radioactive waste. The commis­sion in charge of monitoring the compliance with the treaty for the “Protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic” (OSPAR), which consists of 15 governments, includ­ing members of the EU, stated in 2010: “The analysis showed elevated concentrations of 238Pu in water samples collected at the dumpsites indicating leakages from the packages. At some locations also the concentrations of 293+240Pu, 241Am and 14C in the water were enhanced.” Although it is clear that the released nuclear waste has contaminated the oceans, so far no efforts have been initiated to recover it. Most probably, the expenditure would be prohibitive since most of the barrels lie at the bottom of the ocean at depths of several thousand meters. Besides, the nuclear industry does not feel the need to take responsibility.

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