Ocean groups protest radioactive waste dumping

Ocean protection groups oppose Japan and UK plans to dump radioactive waste into the sea: “Using the world oceans as a dump” must stop.

By Linda Pentz Gunter

The world’s oceans are awash in plastics.  This we know. We have seen the evidence. Vast islands of floating trash; sea creatures entangled; others who have died after ingesting plastics that look like food. Human-created detritus plagues the seas, including all manner of deadly chemicals.

As the World Wildlife Fund states: “Almost every marine organism, from the tiniest plankton to whales and polar bears, is contaminated with man-made chemicals, such as pesticides and chemicals used in common consumer products.” The damage humankind has done is immense.

And then there are the oil slicks — deadly, destructive of sea life and of the livelihoods of those who depend on the seas. BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig explodes and we ring our hands and call for a ban. Yet soon, corporations are back out there drilling as if no lesson can ever be too costly.

Oceans plastic sliders

The oceans are awash in plastics that harm wildlife. Photo: Kevin Krejci

Shockingly, researchers have now found that ocean contamination is so dire, captive dolphins are healthier than their wild cousins whose immune systems have been weakened by pollution.

But what of the pollution we can’t see? For decades, radioactive waste was dumped into our oceans in canisters destined to leak their cargo. For years, Greenpeace activists in inflatable dinghies challenged ships dumping that radioactive waste. These practices continued despite treaties and conventions banning such actions.

The London Convention, in force since 1975 and the London Protocol, in force since 2006, are meant to protect our seas. But there are loopholes. The nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities in France and Great Britain discharge their liquid radioactive waste into the sea through pipes, a practice which is not covered by the Protocol. In 1997, when Greenpeace divers measured the radioactivity at the pipe from the French La Hague reprocessing plant, the radioactive discharges were found at levels higher than those set by the European Community for controlled nuclear waste.

The Scientific and Technological Options Assessment report released in November 2001 by the European Parliament showed that the combined effect of discharges from the La Hague and Sellafield reprocessing facilities constitutes “the world’s largest releases of radioactivity into the environment, corresponding to a large-scale nuclear accident every year.”

According to a Johnson State College student research paper, the United States began dumping radioactive waste in 1946, and the practice was carried on by 14 countries over a 48-year period. During this time, 80 dump sites were used all around the oceans.  Over that period it was estimated that radioactive dumping had reached a total of 84,000 terabecquerels.

captive dolphins

Aquarium dolphins have been found to be healthier than wild ones due to human-caused ocean contamination. Photo by Uccio D’Agostino

Radioactivity has fallen from the air, too. The hundreds of atmospheric atomic bomb tests resulted in fallout around the planet and into every ocean. Radioactive loads have been shed from the skies as well — as happened when Apollo 13 had to jettison its 3.9kg of plutonium destined for the moon where it was supposed to power experiments but, where, of course, the ill-fated mission never landed. The plutonium, encased in a graphite fuel cask, was dropped into the deep Tonga Trench in the South Pacific. By now, it too has likely leaked.

Ocean groups around the world have long protested pollution. Now they are turning their sights to the renewed dumping of radioactive waste. Their first target was the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant site in Japan where in 2017, Japanese officials announced that they proposed to dump 770,000 tons of radioactively contaminated water into the Pacific ocean.


Water storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site. (IAEA inspection photo.)

With conditions at the Fukushima reactors still highly unstable, water must constantly be used to try to keep the destroyed reactors cool. The water has been stored on site in tanks, but space is running out. Close to 72,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated water a day is estimated to be leaking from the site since the accident. Water also flows down from the surrounding hillsides and through the site, picking up radioactive contamination en route.

By March 2016, it was estimated that 760,000 tonnes of contaminated water had leaked from the site.

loggerhead sea turtle

Sea turtles are numerically the most affected endangered species at coastal nuclear plants.

More than a dozen environmental and ocean protection groups, coordinated by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, whose main focus is on sea turtles, wrote a letter of protest about the proposal to dump contaminated water into the ocean. They addressed their concerns to Tokyo Electric Power Company which owns and operates the Fukushima site, and the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority.

“The time for using the world oceans as a dump is over,” the groups wrote, pointing out how for far too long chemical, industrial, nuclear and military waste, as well as sewage and trash, have been dumped into the oceans with little regard for the consequences.

We already know from a study that I and my Beyond Nuclear co-worker, Paul Gunter wrote and published in 2001, that sea turtles are the most gravely affected of endangered marine animals simply by living or swimming in close proximity to routinely operating coastal nuclear power plants. In our report — Licensed to Kill: How the nuclear power industry destroys endangered marine wildlife and ocean habitat to save money — we revealed that thousands of sea turtles along with seals, manatees, American crocodiles and countless fish were drawn into reactor intake systems and killed, injured and captured there.

Few solutions to that problem have been put in place. Nor, when it comes to the liquid radioactive discharges, is the solution to pollution dilution. “The Fukushima disaster, which resulted in the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean throughout history, has already negatively impacted the Pacific Ocean,” the marine groups wrote in their letter. “Researchers found high levels of cesium, which they noted could accumulate in fish, a concern for both the ocean ecosystem and humans who consume fish. Ocean currents transported the contaminated waters far in the Pacific Ocean, creating a shared burden across the ocean ecosystem.”


An American crocodile in Florida. Some live around the Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

That shared burden should not be confused with scare stories that claim the Pacific Ocean is “dead” due to the Fukushima catastrophe. Problems in the Pacific are profound, but began long before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which just compounded the crisis by adding to the growing stresses on marine life. However, the potential for bio-magnification of radioactive contamination up the marine food chain is a legitimate concern.

Testing of Pacific blue fin and albacore tuna, which migrate across the Pacific from Japan, has indeed shown the presence of cesium in those species caught off the U.S. West Coast. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which oversaw the study, plays down the levels as “harmless,” cesium when ingested lodges in muscle tissues and can cause long-lasting damage.

The ocean groups received no reply from Japanese authorities, but returned to the fray when they learned that British authorities were planning to permit the dredging of radioactive mud at the Hinkley nuclear power plant site off the Somerset coast in England. The mud, which was in the way of planned construction for two new reactors at the existing nuclear site —  a project that is strongly opposed — would be dumped in Welsh waters just off the Cardiff coast.

With little transparency and seemingly sketchy science this plan was given the go-ahead, including by the Welsh Assembly. But again, the potential consequences for sea life, as well as human beings, was largely overlooked and the risks downplayed. The ocean groups wrote to the Welsh Assembly, urging opposition to the dredge and dump proposal.

“As organizations working to preserve and protect the health of oceans and marine life, we are writing to express serious concerns about the decision to dispose of up to 300,000 tonnes of radioactively contaminated marine sediment, dredged from the seabed at the Hinkley Point nuclear site on the English coast, into the Cardiff Grounds marine dump site close to the South Wales coast,” wrote a coalition of 10 ocean protection and environmental groups.

“We are concerned that it has not been shown that the radioactively contaminated marine sediment is below the levels required for dumping to be allowed. We are also concerned that the likely long-lived and far-reaching health impacts on humans and wildlife have not been properly analyzed regarding the Hinkley radioactive sediment plan.”

The Hinkley dumping scheme received hundreds of thousands of signatures on several petitions opposing the plan. This week, the Welsh Assembly begins its evaluation and debate of the public petitions against the dumping. At the heart of the contention by petitioners is that the Assembly gave French Hinkley contractor, EDF, the green light to dump the mud even before it was properly tested for radiological content and that no Environmental Impact Assessment had been carried out.

Said campaigner, Tim Deere-Jones, who organized one of the petitions:  “It is the precautionary principle, that requires that before a decision about possible health risks in our environment is made, a full evaluation of the evidence must be undertaken to ensure that any plans are safe and in this case that cannot be done until further thorough research has been carried out.”

Once again, the guardians of the long-term health of our seas are pitted against the polluters who see only near-term profit. Those of us who prefer precaution argue that we cannot reasonably assume that discharging radioactive waste into the oceans has no effect. Everything we know about the radiological toxins says otherwise. Nor should we, from a moral point of view, dump these deadly wastes into the habitats of animals who are powerless to prevent such a poisonous human invasion of an environment they themselves regulate beautifully according to the natural order.

For more about the harm nuclear power operation causes to marine wildlife, read our report.

One Comment on “Ocean groups protest radioactive waste dumping

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