Effects of Radioactive Waste in the Ocean

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Effects of Radioactive Waste in the Ocean
Years of unregulated dumping has resulted in radioactive waste littering the ocean floor. (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Nuclear power is an enormous global industry. There are more than 440 nuclear power plants worldwide as of January 2011, according to the European Nuclear Society. A byproduct of these plants is large amounts of radioactive waste. Disposal of radioactive waste is a major challenge for countries operating nuclear reactors. Countries used to dump their radioactive waste into the ocean until research showed how harmful it was to both ocean life and humans.

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History of Radioactive Waste in Oceans

From 1946 to 1970, it was common practice for nations to dump radioactive waste into the ocean. As oceans were traditionally used as a dumping ground for other forms of human waste, there was little inquiry into the ecological effects of such behaviour. Beginning in 1969, the U.S. began to regulate what could and could not be dumped into the sea. This movement spread globally, culminating in a 1982 UN convention titled "The Law of the Sea." This convention banned further dumping of radioactive waste into oceans in light of research showing it could pollute fishing habitats and poison fish that humans eat. However some nations, including Russia, continued dumping radioactive waste until the early 1990s.

The Spread of Radiation

Initially, the U.S. and other nations believed that the radioactive waste barrels they dumped into the oceans would remain intact and that, over time, the waste would leak out and slowly be dispersed by the seawater. However, independent testing revealed that the barrels were susceptible to rupture from the atmospheric pressure of the ocean floor, with as many as a third of the barrels failing during tests. This meant that radiation did not leak slowly but instead became embedded in large amounts in the mud on the ocean floor, where it could not be carried away by ocean currents.

Radioactive Fish

The ocean's food chain is based on the presence of microscopic organisms known as plankton. The plankton are consumed by small sea animals, those animals are consumed by larger animals, and so on. Plankton raised in radioactive mud carry the radiation with them into the ocean, where it is introduced into the entire food chain. In 1971 fish tested off the coasts of New Jersey and San Francisco, both heavily used radioactive-waste dump sites, were found to have levels of radiation 5,000 times higher than normal.

Harm to Humans

Radioactive fish are both an economic concern and a health concern. People who consume radioactive fish are at a higher risk for developing cancer. Unfortunately, the lack of study in the early years of dumping means that any changes in the cancer rates in the subsequent decades would be difficult to link to the contaminated fish. Economically, fish populations that are deemed too polluted to be harvested would have a major impact on the livelihood of fishermen and on the price of food in fishing heavy countries such as Norway and Japan.

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