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The world’s oceans are the most diverse, largest and most abundant commons on the entire planet. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in April of 2011, the public concern surrounding radiological contamination has turned towards the oceans once again.
The nuclear age can be characterized by seven decades of conflict between stakeholders, scientists and politicians. The construction and operation of either a marine or terrestrial permanent nuclear repository is truly a global challenge that must be addressed on an international level. However, in the case of marine repositories there has been much contention in the international arena. Places such as the Marshall Islands, Bikini Atoll and the Farallon Islands in the late 1940’s housed some of the first attempts at disposing of both high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) and low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) by a single country. These sites are essentially cement-capped holes, slightly above sea level and are considered semi-permanent repositories for both political and scientific reasons. The above sea-level, capped containment has been heavily critiqued, especially in the light of new climatological and oceanic data that predicts sea-levels to rise several feet within the next one hundred years, submerging the cement-capped crater and exposing it to the harsh chemical and physical weathering processes of the corrosive Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific Ocean has a rich radiogenic history. Although these sites were the first of many ill-informed radioactive waste sites, by 1956 it was evident that more scientific knowledge was needed to begin to comprehend the physical, biological, chemical and geological effect that the voluminous amounts of radioactive waste were having on marine ecosystems. Thus, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Review Council established the Committee on Oceanography. Their initial findings were inconclusive, since most of the physical and biological processes in the oceans “were too poorly understood to permit precise predictions of the results of the introduction of a given quantity of radioactive materials at a particular location in the sea.” However only two years later, the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, the Atomic Energy Commision and the Office of Naval Research requested that the Committee on Oceanography continue their research into the disposal of solid and liquid LLRW in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The Committee’s primary research goal was to establish the maximum amount of radioactive waste that a marine ecosystem could bear before the contaminants measurably affect human enterprise or health. The Committee released three separate reports between 1959 and 1962; the Pritchard, Carritt and Isaac Reports. In short, the Pritchard study determined what type of container should be used in certain marine environments, the Carritt study determined the maximum allowable annual rate of disposing radioactive materials to be 250 curies of strontium-90 per two mile radius and the Isaac report delineated the locations and maximum number of waste sites along the coasts.
The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972, or the London Convention for short, is one of the first global conventions to protect the marine environment from human activities and has been in force since 1975. From the beginning of the Manhattan project until the enforcement of the London Convention, the idea of the oceans as a universal sewer, dumping ground or rather the great kitchen sink was a commonly held ideology amongst the nuclear nations. However this ethos was not limited to solely radioactive waste. Between June 1968 and October 1969 a total of 61.9 million tons of waste was dumped along all of the major United States coastlines. 9.3 million tons of this waste was dumped of the Pacific coast across fifty-four sites. These wastes consisted of dredge spoil, industrial waste, refuse, demolition debris, explosives, chemical warfare agents and radioactive waste.
Since the London Convention the ideological relationship between humankind and the oceans has shifted for many reasons. Throughout the 1970’s and into the 1990’s international agreements concerning the prohibition of transportation and disposal of wastes continued to be ratified in almost all of the world’s major oceans and seaways. However scientific findings often took a backseat to strongly politicized vernacular and public outcry. Cataclysmic meltdowns, protests, and activist groups in the seventies and eighties brought an onslaught of media coverage to the homes of many Americans. For example, in 1978 the environmental activist group Greenpeace showed films shot from their ship the Rainbow Warrior, featuring their attempt to stop the Nuclear Energy Agency’s annual ocean dumping. On one occasion in 1983, two 55-gallon drums of radioactive waste were thrown onto the Greenpeace inflatable from a Dutch ship. This resulted in the ratifying members of the London Convention to enact a voluntary moratorium on dumping for that year. By the early 1990’s further changes to the London Convention allowed governments to take preventative measures by shifting pollutants from a regulated gray list to a prohibited black list without any conclusive scientific research or consensus.
By the 1980’s the disposal of the United States’ radioactive waste was becoming a well-known problem. Political, environmental and geologic constraints limited the chances of a permanent repository on land. Thus, the EPA reconsidered the possibility of deep oceanic LLRW and HLRW disposal, continuing the research they began in the mid seventies. One EPA official went on record saying “With increasing public concern for waste management practices on land and the need to find permanent disposal sites, the United States is again looking towards the oceans as a possible alternative to land disposal for both low-level and high-level radioactive waste.” Of course, this information set a whole new fire beneath the seats of environmentalists groups and non-nuclear nations. Conservationists groups, commercial fishermen, local leaders, and activist groups like Greenpeace brought their campaigns to Capital Hill where they gained traction with the Reagan administration. Despite the amassed scientific evidence conducted by the EPA showing that the radiological effects of oceanic dumping had no observable impact on human health, in December of 1982 Congress passed a two-year moratorium on oceanic dumping due to the Reagan administration’s proposal four months earlier. The U.S. administrations were in great dismay because, since they still had HLRW and LLRW to dispose of.
In 1983 the U.S. Administration’s foreign policy approach was to oppose a transnational attack from nineteen developing countries demanding a unilateral ban on oceanic dumping of all radioactively contaminated waste. The vote was proposed by the Spanish government in article (LDC 1983a, Annex 3: Resolution LDC.14(7) Disposal of Radio-Active Wastes and Other Radio-Active Matter at Sea) under the London Convention. The six countries opposed were Britain, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland, United States. Controversies between nation-states continued until the Fourteenth consultive regime met in 1993 to address amendments to the London Convention.
Domestically in the U.S. by 1984, the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, in tandem with the NOAA “indirectly recommended that Congress and the administration revise the policy of excluding the use of the ocean for low-level radioactive waste disposal.” Although the individual states did not support the pro-dumping approach, the executive branch continued to vote against amendments to the London Convention concerning bans on oceanic dumping.
In 1991 at the thirteenth consultive regime meeting, new language was agreed upon, shifting an emphasis from “dispose and dilute” to “isolate and contain”. Environmental advocacy groups, stakeholders and opponents to oceanic dumping around the world, considered this a great victory. However the political and media firestorms reached their climax two years later in October of 1993, when Greenpeace exposed a Russian nuclear submarine dumping hundreds of metric tones of liquid LLRW into the Sea of Japan without any notice. In the fall 1993 when the consultive regime met for the fourteenth time, both Japan and the Clinton Administration reversed the foreign policy stance in support for a global ban of dumping LLRW at sea. Britain, France, Belgium, the Russian Federation, and China abstained from the vote under the rationale that there was a lack of scientific information on the subject of radioactive waste contaminating marine environments. However, all abstaining countries besides Russia claimed their support for the ban after the vote by contacting the Convention’s secretariat.
The ideological approach concerning the human relationship with the ocean and the anthropogenic impact of human activities has changed since the beginning of the nuclear age. There was a lack of scientific universalism and consensus on an international scale. The lack of understanding of the biochemical, geophysical and ecological relationships of the ocean led many arguments on both sides making value judgments that are outside the realm of scientific data. In fact the final decision to ban the dumping of LLRW at deep sea was not based on scientific evidence at all. It was the result of international political pressure in tandem the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace. Greenpeace informed the public, marshaled stakeholders and large commercial interest groups to effectively change the international ideological understanding of the human relationship with the ocean.
Currently, there is only one viable location sited to store the world’s nuclear waste at the Onkalo site in Finland and it will only be taking waste between the years 2020 and 2112. Needless to say this is not a permanent solution for the world’s spent nuclear fuel, not to mention other radioactively contaminated wastes. With political stalemates blocking terrestrial depositories on U.S. soil and little promise of adequate, permanent, repositories. In fact many scientists still consider deep-seabed permanent repositories as a viable option. 600 miles northeast of the Hawaiian islands, along the central Pacific basin lies an area four times the size of Texas that has been indentified as geologically and practically biologically inert for the last 650 million years . In 1973, Charles Hollister, a senior scientist and geologist, postulated the viability of nuclear sequestration in these inert sediments. By 1974, the DOE allocated funds for a sub-seabed research program was initiated with the help of Sandia National Laboratories. After years of research at the Sandia National Laboratory Hollister and his teams proposed the feasibility of sub-seabed nuclear waste disposal in illitic red-clays to be highly probable in the near future. The radionuclide absorbing, physical and thermal properties of the Pacific illitic-red clay showed great promise. The laboratory tests suggested “that if waste canisters were deposited just ten meters below the ocean floor, any toxic substances that leaked out would be bound up by the clays for millions of years. “
So why hasn’t the public heard of this amazing alternative to nuclear waste storage when there is no other proposed alternative? First, the environmental movement in the 1970’s strongly shifted the ideology surrounding the human relationship with the ocean from the great kitchen sink to a fragile ecosystem that is in our best interest to protect. Second, the London Convention proceedings between 1973 and 1993 have profoundly changed the international ideology of oceanic dumping and transport of radioactive wastes. Third, the DOE, in a 1986 decision cut funding to the sub-seabed research and other repository alternatives to focus its funds on the Yucca Mountain proposal, which ahs currently run aground.
It has been demonstrated that past decisions concerning the final resting place for the world’s nuclear waste have not relied on scientific information to inform their policy decisions. Atomic energy and the waste it produces still remain shrouded in subjective value judgments. An objective, transnational advocate is needed to lift this veil of passive political and scientific stalemate. Scientific inquiry and evidence have taken a backseat in one of the most important discussions surrounding the future of the human race. It is time for scientific objectivity and internationalism to take control of the debate once again.
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