Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Radioactive waste in the oceans is hardly a new threat

Since an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and damaged two nuclear reactors,
Image via Flickr user karin.noso.
the world has been attempting to show support and condolences for a country that is very much in need. It’s almost a month later, and the death tolls continue to rise while the full extent of the damage is just being realized. Unfortunately, the news continues to get worse…. Recently, it was revealed that radiation from the nuclear plants had been leaking into the ocean (the leak has since been stopped), sparking fears of contaminated seafood and prompting the government of Japan to set limits, for the first time, on the amount of radiation permitted in fish.

While this is undeniably quite frightening, most people fail to realize that there is a similar threat located much closer to home — just 20 miles off the coast of San Francisco. The waters surrounding the Farallon Islands were used by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a nuclear waste dump for almost 30 years. It is estimated that 47,500 55-gallon steel drums were dumped in the vicinity from 1946-1970, most of which have been sitting there for 50 years and are now corroding (and are therefore essentially a ticking radioactive time bomb).

If the idea of a huge nuclear waste dump just outside of one of the US’s major metropolises isn’t terrifying enough, consider this: the exact location of the drums is unknown. The environmental hazards associated with them are currently unknown. It is thought that it would be riskier and potentially more hazardous to remove them than to leave them undisturbed. According to an article in Mother Jones Magazine entitled You Are What You Eat: A Glowing Report on Radioactive Waste in the Sea, radiation was found in parts of edible fish from the Farallons at levels up to 5,000 times higher than background radiation (a level that includes natural radioactivity and the plutonium spewed into the environment from years of atmospheric testing of atomic weapons).

Image via Flickr user Panegyrics of Granovetter.
To add to that, the Farallons aren’t the only place in the U.S. where our oceans were used as radioactive waste sites: there are over 50 known ocean dumps, stretching down the east and west coasts of the United States, where radioactive trash was dumped from 1946-1970. The largest dumps are in the waters surrounding New York, Newark, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco – all of which are prime fishing areas that serve the top 20 cities in the country. Of course, dumping radioactive waste into the ocean wasn’t only a US pastime – European countries dumped just as much in the waters of the Atlantic.

It’s impossible to say which poses the more imminent threat to the ocean environment and the organisms that live in it — the nuclear disaster in Japan or the radioactive dumpsites in US waters — mostly because very few studies have ever been conducted to determine the extent of the danger of the radioactive dumpsites. In fact, the Mother Jones article previously mentioned goes on to point out that the EPA and the AEC have tried to keep the dumpsites hush-hush, and have actively kept any such investigation from happening. Only $250,000 has ever been spent studying the existing dumps since 1974, while $30 million has been given to scientists looking for a way to stash high-level waste beneath the ocean floor.

Clearly, the nuclear disaster in Japan is of the utmost importance at the moment, not only because of the radiation that’s been leaked into the surrounding environment, but for the millions of citizens of Japan who’s lives and health are currently being threatened. However, it is also important for everyone to at least be aware that radioactive waste in the oceans is not a new threat, by any means – it’s something our government exposed us to in the past, and has dodged any responsibility for ever since – and there is no evidence whatsoever that the contamination of seafood out of Japan right now is any worse than what we’ve already been exposed to by our own government.

Nuclear power has long been a source of controversy within the environmental movement, but in my opinion, its risks far outweigh its benefits. For more information on the dangers of nuclear power and radioactive waste, please check out the Nuclear Information and Research Service at their website: http://www.nirs.org.

Contact the author of this post at scannon@coare.org.

This blog is cross-posted from the Rainforest Action Network's youth action blog, RYSE.  

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