The Rarely Discussed Reality of Radioactive Pollution

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Story at-a-glance -

  • For decades, the common method of nuclear disposal was to dump plutonium-filled steel barrels into the ocean. Today, many if not most of these barrels have corroded and disintegrated, releasing radioactive material into the environment
  • “Versenkt und Vergessen” (Sunk and Forgotten) investigates what happened to the barrels of nuclear waste, and how radioactive material is disposed of today
  • In 1993, nuclear waste dumping into the ocean was banned worldwide, yet the ocean remains a primary dumping ground for radioactive waste
  • Instead of ditching barrels overboard, the nuclear waste industry built pipes along the bottom of the sea, through which the radioactive material is discharged directly into the open sea
  • Cancer deaths are considered acceptable to keep costs for the nuclear waste industry down. According to the International Commission on Radiological Protection, this cost-benefit consideration is part of Epicurus’ utilitarian ethics, which states that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

By Dr. Mercola

A rarely addressed environmental problem is radioactive pollution from nuclear waste disposal. For decades, the common method of nuclear disposal was to simply dump plutonium-filled steel barrels into the ocean.

Starting with an overview of the past, the featured documentary, "Versenkt und Vergessen," (Sunk and Forgotten), notes that in May 1967, 100,000 tons of nuclear waste from Germany, Great Britain and France were dumped in the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea and the English Channel. And that was just one of many loads.

Officials claimed the waste would be safely diluted at depths of about 4,000 meters (2.5 miles). The motto was: "The solution to pollution is dilution." But was it? The film crew investigates what happened to these barrels of nuclear waste, and how radioactive material is disposed of today, now that ocean dumping is no longer allowed.

1970s Activism Raised Awareness but Could Not Stop Nuclear Dumping

Greenpeace began raising public awareness about the practice of dumping nuclear waste in the ocean during the 1970s. Alas, the nuclear industry remained unfazed. Instead, environmentalists were attacked and criminalized. John Large, a nuclear physicist who was involved in the development of a British nuclear bomb in the 1960s, knows a thing or two about nuclear dumping.

In addition to barrels filled with plutonium, nuclear reactor fuel rods were also routinely dumped into the ocean. And, while specific sites had been chosen for the disposal, there are no guarantees the rods or barrels actually made it there.

The reason for this is because the ship's crew were continually exposed to radioactivity as long as the rods remained onboard. This meant the captain had to pay careful attention to exposure times to protect the health of the crew, and if they ran into bad weather, the cargo would have to be dumped wherever they happened to be when the clock ran out.

Dumping Inventory Records Tell Us Little

In addition to that, many entries in the disposal inventory records simply read, "not known," when it comes to the amount, content or location of the disposal. With such an apparent lack of precision in the dumping inventory records, how might the fate of the barrels and fuel rods be ascertained?

The filmmakers turn to the British Health Protection Agency (HPA), which is responsible for radioactive waste. Alas, they have little choice but to rely on the information they're given, no matter how incomplete. Michael Meacher MP, who was Minister for the Environment between 1997 and 2003 and an opponent of the nuclear dumping policy, believes the lack of record keeping is no accident.

He suggests it was probably an agreement between the British ministry of defense, the Army and the nuclear industry — none of which really wanted anyone to know how much was dumped, what kind of materials were disposed of or exactly where. The less information anyone has, the lower the chances of any of them being held responsible. "This is a sort of conspiracy," Meacher says, adding that the long-term effects of dumping radioactive waste into oceans are entirely unknown.

Fundamental Assumptions Proven Wrong

The idea that nuclear pollution can be rendered safe by extreme dilution has been proven wrong. As noted by Large, "The fundamental underlying problem was that they assumed that if you dilute the radioactivity with tons and tons of water, it's safe to discharge. And that has been proven wrong time and time again." Evidence of this was collected by a German research group in the mid-'80s.

The exploratory group visited nuclear dumping sites in the Atlantic where they retrieved several barrels, and found plutonium in the water, seabed and fish. An internal document titled "Position paper on the implications of deep sea disposal of radioactive waste," issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), notes that "increased concentrations of plutonium in the dump sites indicates plutonium leaks from the barrels."

Now these toxins have dispersed into the biosphere, and dispersion does not equate to safety. At its headquarters in Monaco, IAEA scientists are conducting experiments to assess the impact of radioactive waste on marine life by feeding marine animals with contaminated food sources. The IAEA, which continuously monitors the ocean floor, claims it has not found any other dumped barrels. The assumption, therefore, is that the barrels ditched in the English Channel have all disintegrated.

Nuclear Waste in the English Channel

There have been no additional investigations at the dumpsites since, however, so is the IAEA correct in its assumption that all dumped barrels have corroded and no longer retrievable? The film crew decides to conduct its own investigation, and travels to an area called Hurd Deep, located in the English Channel near the island of Alderney, where 28,000 barrels of radioactive waste and munitions is known to have been deposited at a depth of 100 meters (328 feet) or less.

With the use of a small unmanned submarine, the team surveils the area. What do they find? On the very first dive, the camera-equipped submersible documents a still undamaged barrel, which could potentially be salvaged. On the second dive, a thoroughly corroded and disintegrating barrel is found — barely half an hour's boat ride from the coast of France.

With nuclear waste dumped so close to land, what effects might it have on the environment and residents? The team follows professor Chris Busby to Alderney, where a doctor has reported an unusually high number of cancer cases and deaths. Unfortunately, exact statistics on cancer deaths cannot be obtained due to data protection protocols.

Based on informal inquiries, however, the team finds that the island, which has a total of just 2,400 residents, has had quite a few cancer-related deaths. The government, however, assures Busby that everything is fine, and that levels of radioactivity in the environment are far too low to cause harm. According to the IAEA, the dilution hypothesis does work, and despite very large amounts of radioactive waste having been deposited in some areas, the water would still meet safe drinking water standards, were it not saltwater.

Busby disagrees, as does Claus Grupen, a nuclear physicist at the University of Siegen in Germany, who says, "If the amount in which [the radioactive waste] is diluted is infinitely vast — if I discharge it into outer space — then it might be well-diluted. But the Earth is a very small body, and the concentration is growing." The conclusion is that the radiation is merely spreading out. It's not actually "disappearing" at all, and according to Busby, every single radionucleotide has the potential to trigger cancer.

Nuclear Ocean Dumping Continues

In 1993, nuclear waste dumping was banned worldwide, in large part thanks to the ongoing efforts of Greenpeace. But that doesn't mean the practice has stopped. The nuclear industry has merely changed the way it's doing the dumping. Instead of ditching barrels overboard, the industry built pipes along the bottom of the sea, through which the radioactive material is pumped. To where, you might ask? Directly into the open sea.

One of these nuclear waste pipes is situated in La Hague, Normandy, where physicist David Boilley has founded an environmental group against nuclear ocean dumping. In his view, the nuclear accident in Fukushima has had global ramifications, forcing us to rethink how we view "clean food." It's no longer possible to assume that clean water equals clean and healthy fish.

A fish may ultimately be caught in water considered clean, but if that individual fish has, at any point in its life, swum through a contaminated area or eaten contaminated food, it will be contaminated to some degree. So being caught in clean water is no guarantee that it will be free of radioactive contaminants. "It's like gambling," Boilley says. "You may be lucky or unlucky."

Back in Boilley's lab, water samples prove to have tritium levels that are fivefold higher than those provided by the French nuclear operator Areva. This is why the group, and other environmentalists, refuse to rely on "official" measurements, and insist on taking their own. Fish and shellfish bought at the local market are also tested, as are other marine animals found on the ocean floor.

Microbiologist Pierre Barbey explains that radioactive materials bioaccumulate. A worm can contain 2,000 to 3,000 times higher levels than its environment. The worm is then eaten by another marine animal, which gets eating by another, and so on. At each step, the radioactive level rises. Barbey has identified reproductive defects in sea crabs, caused by radioactive contamination, and these genetic defects are passed on to future generations of crabs.

Are we to believe the same is not happening in humans, who are at the top of the food chain? According to Barbey, the cellular impact is the same. Plutonium has been found in gray seals off the coasts of Europe, and cesium has been found in porpoises. Since the ecosystem is a closed system, every animal must be protected from radioactivity. None is "disposable." And what happens to the animals will ultimately affect us too.

Why Ocean Dumping Continues Despite Ban

Next, the team visits Sellafield, home of 80 percent of the U.K.'s nuclear waste. This site also has waste pipes dumping radioactive materials into the ocean. In 1997, Greenpeace activists drew attention to the pipe. One of the activists was Shaun Burnie, who to this day continues his fight against the nuclear discharges. He's particularly concerned about the health and welfare of the locals, especially those who live right on the beach.

Their homes have been found to contain plutonium-contaminated dust, and tests reveal these high-risk individuals have higher levels of radioactivity in their bodies. They even have plutonium in their teeth. Radioactive material originating from Sellafield has also been found along the coast of Norway. But how is it that the nuclear industry can continue disposing of radioactive waste into the ocean when ocean dumping has been banned?

The answer may surprise you. The industry claims the pipes are part of a land-based disposal system, and therefore legal. When asked if there's a scientific, logical reason why barrels are banned while open discharges into the ocean are allowed, Hartmut Nies with the IAEA replies, "I think it is more of a philosophical question."

Wolfgang Renneberg, an expert on radioactive waste disposal and director general for nuclear safety in the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, offers a more definitive answer: There's only one reason why open discharges are allowed, and that is economics. To install a system to ensure discharges have a near-zero radioactivity would likely be so expensive, it would likely render the plant economically unviable.

Rising Childhood Leukemia Rates Dismissed

So, despite reports of rising rates of leukemia in Sellafield — which, according to Busby are 10 times higher than the rest of the country — the discharges continue. And, since investigations into cancer clusters keep finding the nuclear operation at Sellafield is not a factor, plutonium-contaminated beaches remain open to the public.

Many locals have come to suspect the authorities are being "deliberately imprecise in their work" to hide the extent of the problem. In an area of the beach where official soil testing has not been done, the filmmakers find plutonium levels up to 10 times higher than the permissible limit. Still, some nuclear industry experts insist the dangers associated with radioactive material is small. One 30-year veteran in the industry, Richard Wakeford, says:

"I assess the risk of radiation … to be very small, and should really not be a major [concern] to parents or anyone else. There are much more important things to be worried about. There are two major ideas: Either childhood leukemia is a rare response to a common, but as of yet unidentified, infection, or [it's due to] large-scale urban, rural population mixing."

As noted in the film, "Conclusion: Either a virus or population mixing around Sellafield is responsible for cancer — but not the highly toxic nuclear waste from the sea?!" The team turns to another expert, the German physician Klaus Hoffmann, member of a number of German federal radiation protection committees. When asked what he thinks about the U.K's denial of a link between rising leukemia rates and radioactive pollution, he says:

"They are simply wrong. There is little evidence for the population mixing hypothesis, and there's absolutely no evidence of the virus hypothesis. There is neither a virus, nor are there antibodies. In other words, forget this whole infection hypothesis. These hypotheses have arisen primarily to explain away any risk from radiation."     

Industry Cost Savings Weighed Against Human Life

The fact of the matter is that a certain number of cancer deaths are considered acceptable in order to keep costs for the nuclear waste industry down. The question no one has the answer to is: At what point do the deaths begin to outweigh the cost savings of the nuclear industry?

As to where such cost-benefit considerations came from in the first place, the filmmakers identify the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) — an independent charity "established to advance for the public benefit the science of radiological protection, in particular by providing recommendations and guidance on all aspects of protection against ionizing radiation."

While interview requests with the Commission went unanswered, they discovered a video online in which former ICRP chairman Roger Clarke explains the cost-benefit principle by quoting one of Epicurus' utilitarian ethics, which states that, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

In this case, you could argue the nuclear industry is hardly operating for the benefit of the many. If the true costs of operations were considered, it would become clear that there are far less expensive, not to mention less toxic, ways to produce energy. As noted in the film, we need safer forms of energy. The waste pipes need to be closed, and any retrievable barrels recovered from the ocean floor and secured. If we do nothing, our environment will continue to deteriorate, and so will human health. 

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