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Radioactive Waste Disposal : Out of the Sight, End of the Plight?

Radioactive Waste Disposal : Out of the Sight, End of the Plight?

By Anupriya Singh

Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

The dawn of the ‘nuclear power’ era had far wider implications on the globe than just wars and the gift of abundant energy. With the nuclear reactors came the issue of getting rid of the highly hazardous nuclear waste generated. Back then, dilution was cited as a solution by the experts, but sadly it was a mere delusion. Dumping waste in space can perhaps be called ‘dilution,’ but dumping it in seas is sheer disposal!

Around three decades ago, it was the British crew aboard the ship Topaz who initiated this process of diluting the radioactive wastes by dumping the large metallic cylinders consisting of high quantity nuclear waste in the North Atlantic Sea and the English Channel. Around 28,000 containers were dumped in the English Channel itself. Environmentalists and organisations like Greenpeace drew attention towards this procedure and their adverse environmental implications. What followed this move was an outcry across Europe and the far West. These whistleblowers were treated like criminals and arrested, and in extreme cases, some were even murdered. This process (legally) stretched as far as the Niagara Sea for over half a decade.

Today, we see the aftermath of the mess that was created three decades ago. High content of plutonium traces (a radioactive element) have been found on the sea floor, covering fishes, and interspersed with sand and weeds near dump sites; strongly indicating leakages from these cylinders. Some rusted containers are just at 90m to 100m depth from sea level. Nuclear Energy Expert John Large has advocated for quite a long time that the spread of these dumping sites is next to impossible to gauge as authorities do not possess the correct information regarding this ‘disposing act.’

Greenpeace volunteers have been crying hoarse over several deaths pertaining to leakage of radioactive substances in the Alderney Island in Guernsey. The German seabed has been tested to reveal weeds that contain five times more radioactive element content than the stipend figures. The local fish market has also been found to sell contaminated fish, and thus, it is through these food channels that radioactive substances from the leaked containers find their way to the human body. This situation is worse in Sellafield, England, where nuclear waste is still being dumped into the sea. In the early 1980s, when this dumping of nuclear waste in European Seas was criminalised, radioactive industries switched to the pipes in order to pump radioactive waste to the seabed directly from the sites where it was being generated. Though the nuclear reprocessing company Sellafield Ltd. strongly denies it, the city is suffering from adverse consequences of the disposal of radioactive wastes in the vicinity of human dwellings. Nuclear waste regularly washes up on the beaches, and this effect can be traced as far as Norway. Leukemia cases have been on a constant rise due to exposure to these radiations. Cancer figures in Sellafield alone are over 10 times higher than everywhere else in the country. Despite such strong evidences and implications, no one in the official capacity admits to these facts and figures, or accepts this as an effect of radiation exposure.

It is no longer a local problem; sea pollution has now evolved into a global issue. The future effects of such radioactive exposure are unknown. The intact containers of radioactive wastes on the sea floor need to be retrieved, and the pipes pumping these to the seabed should be blocked with immediate effect. Denial will not delay the disaster we are heading towards, and only acceptance and immediate action can rectify the wrong that has marred our nuclear history.

Anupriya is a second year undergraduate student in Economics at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi. An avid reader, she wants to travel across India to comprehend the varied façade of the Indian culture and traditions. Apart from academics, Anupriya has also dabbled in extracurricular activities like debate and documentary making. She has won numerous awards for her documentaries on social issues. Sports, primarily football, and painting constitute her main interests.

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