Much is said about environmental pollution that includes everything that alters our environment, but little is made of reference to the pollution suffered by the waters in our oceans. At the bottom of the northeastern part of the Atlantic Ocean, is the Atlantic trench, 400 kilometers from the Galician coast and 200 km from Asturias, where tons of radioactive waste solidified with concrete or bitumen were thrown into metal drums.
This nuclear waste was released into the sea periodically, between 1949 and 1982 by Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. These nuclear wastes are found at a depth of 4,000 meters, subjected to pressure and corrosion from the ocean.
Since 1977 and during the 1980s and 1990s, periodic inspections were carried out to measure the levels of radioactivity in this part of the ocean. However, as no recent control has been carried out, the current levels of nuclear contamination in these waters are unknown: If the discharges continue to alter the biodiversity of the marine ecosystem, whether or not it can affect human beings.
The current state of the drums containing the radioactive waste is not known. “The design of the packages for the dumped waste was not intended to guarantee the isolation of the radionuclides (or radioactive elements) within the drums, but rather to ensure that they were transported intact to the seabed; later a slow dispersal process was expected to occur in the surrounding water, “according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Organization (IAEA), of the United Nations.
It is estimated that there are more than 112,000 tons of nuclear waste inside 225,586 insulated drums. All this hidden in the depths of the Atlantic Trench has been classified by the IAEA as low and intermediate level radioactive waste, originating from nuclear power plant operations, from nuclear fuel cycles or from the decontamination and dismantling of plants.
Other discoveries made in the Atlantic Trench
The IAEA discovers one more piece of information in its report: “The large components of nuclear installations, such as steam generators or the main pump circuits, were discharged intact.” This is the state in which they are, also in the Atlantic, six nuclear submarines whose recovery has been impossible, with the exception of the Kursk: the Soviet Komsomolets and K-219 and the Americans Thresher and Scorpion remain on the seabed.
Since 1977, the countries involved in the disposal of nuclear waste, together with the IAEA, carried out periodic inspections on the dumps of the Atlantic Trench. “In general, these surveys did not detect any radioactivity associated with the dumping operations in the water samples, but in 1992 high concentrations of plutonium were found, indicating leaks in the drums,” says the organization in its inventory of radioactive material.
Nuclear pollution levels in the Atlantic Ocean
The radiation in the northeastern part of the Atlantic Ocean is estimated to be 42,320.7TBq, according to the database published by the IAEA, which includes those related to nuclear discharges. The contamination in the area could be compared to the levels of radioactivity that were released after the explosion of the high-level radioactive waste storage tank at Mayak, the world’s largest nuclear complex located in Russia.
According to the Greenpeace report, 74,000 TBq of radioactivity were scattered in this area of the Ural Mountains, which compared to the levels recorded, in the northeastern part of the Atlantic, there would be more than half of the radiation that was produced after this nuclear catastrophe over Russian soil.
Each of the eight countries dumped different amounts of nuclear waste with a different nuclear activity, so the levels of radiation they caused on the waters were different regardless of the tons dumped.
The absence of laws sponsored nuclear contamination of the Atlantic
As it is an area of the high seas on which there is no country that legislates in this regard, It represented for some time, the appropriate place to dump these nuclear waste. The 1993 London Convention explains the abuse with which certain countries acted on the high seas, polluting with waste or other radioactive materials.
Due to the proximity of this area to Spain, this country should be the most concerned about the situation, however, the consulted bodies at the state level do not position themselves or offer information in this regard. The authority over international waters, such as the Atlantic Trench, rests with International Organizations like the United Nations (UN).
“Monitoring discharges is not part of our mandate, nor do we carry out controls related to radioactive waste, but we can help Member States on request,” an IAEA spokesperson responds. At the end of 2018, a round of negotiations was held for the creation of the Constitution of the Oceans. In this regard, we will speak in a future installment on the issue of the protection of international waters.
The importance of the protection of international waters requires laws that regulate the activities that can be carried out on them and thus avoid events as harmful as the one that occurred in the Atlantic with the existence of this Trench, where so much damage is done to marine life. And also the human species.