Monday, March 26, 2012

Safe Mariana Trench

James Cameron's dive into the Mariana Trench this week-end inevitably evokes for me the long campaign against radioactive waste dumping at sea I ran with Greenpeace for many years. During that campaign, we prevented the governments of the US, Japan and Taiwan from using the Mariana Trench as a radioactive waste graveyeard. Hadn't we been successful, James Cameron could have found a very different ocean floor, with mountains of radioactive waste barrels, crushed and leaking because of the water pressure (the nuclear industry was calling this the dilute and disperse approach to waste disposal).

I wrote in a peer-reviewed journal article published some 15 years ago  how the world's governments agreed to ban ocean dumping. We started the anti-dumping campaign in 1978  at a critical time, when many countries were developing or stepping up their nuclear power programmes. In the late 1970s, only five countries were  routinely chartering vessels to dump radioactive wastes in the high seas, but many more countries were planning to join this practice. One of the areas they'd identified as a convenient dumpsite was a site 600 miles North of the Northern Marianas. In 1979, both Japan and the US had announced their intention to initiate new programmes of radioactive waste dumping at sea. Japan was planning to dump up to 100,000 curies per year in the Mariana Trench, and in 1982 the US also considered a plan to scuttle ageing nuclear submarines in the Ocean. These dumping programmes would have involved the disposal of as many as one hundred decommissioned nuclear submarines, each containing 50,000 curies of radioactive wastes. In addition, the US Department of Energy had maintained hopes to be able to find ways to dump at sea thousands of cubic metres of radioactively contaminated soils dating back to the early years of their nuclear weapons programmes in the 1940s, the Manhattan Project which preceded the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The UK, France, Japan, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands were also spending millions of dollars annually to develop the sub-seabed disposal option for high-level radioactive wastes in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans: equipped with drilling gear and/or suppository-shaped  free-fall penetrators (containers which would penetrate the seabed like armour piercing bullets) ships from these countries would shoot the high-level wastes under the seabed. All these plans were shelved in 1983 when the Parties to the London Convention called for a moratorium on radioactive waste dumping at sea in response to the Greenpeace campaign, and they were scrapped altogether ten years later when the London Convention was amended to ban permanently the dumping of all radioactive wastes at sea.

It's good to look back because there's a conventional belief that advocacy campaigns by NGOs do not work, and that nothing can be done to stop environmentally harmful activities in the high seas