1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

Book Review: Watery wastes

Report of the Independent Review of Disposal of Radioactive Waste in the Northeast Atlantic. Chairman: Professor F.G.T. Holliday. HMSO 1984. £4.90


The problem of the disposal of radioactive waste may seem small compared with the famines endemic throughout large parts of the globe. In one important respect, however, it is potentially worse. When socialist society is established every effort will be made to eliminate hunger and two decades would probably be a conservative estimate of the time required to effect the necessary changes. In contrast significant components of radioactive waste have half lives of 24.000 years or more — which means that at the end of this period they will still emit half as much deadly radiation. As the radioactive process is irreversible, containment requires completely indestructible containers sufficiently thick to prevent significant penetration by the emitted rays. The life of the containers used for dumping at sea is somewhat speculatively put in this document at 300 years maximum.


The committee who produced this report have the cheek to call their work an independent review. Independent of whom? They were appointed by and reported back to the present British government. They assume the continuation of capitalism, with its nuclear arms race and escalating atomic power programme based on nuclear fission. In other words a steady increase in the number of deadly dumps, vastly greater than the dissipation of radioactivity of existing stocks by natural decay. This of course covers waste products only and excludes the effects of bomb tests or accidents such as nearly occurred at Three Mile Island. let alone a nuclear Armageddon.


A large part of the scientific portion of this document is devoted to a theoretical assessment of the hazards of life inherent in dumping in deep ocean waters. It is argued that no experimental evidence is available, a weakness pointed out in a letter to the Times on 10 May. For fourteen years up to 1963. packages of waste were dumped and imploded in the Hurd Deep in the English Channel. where the sea depth is relatively shallow. The practice ceased after this date following a recommendation by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the minimum dumping depth should be 2,000 metres. The Times letter suggested that if the theoretical model had been applied to this Channel disposal, an assessment could be made against the effects now being observed on marine life in the area. This could have given the figures quoted greater credibility (or alternatively discredited them). It would be interesting to know whether contemporary calculations showed the Channel dumping to be “safe”, whether they showed the opposite and were suppressed or ignored. or whether the operation went ahead without any such considerations at all.


In view of this it is difficult to accept assurances that deep ocean dumping carries very little danger. Comparisons with naturally induced radiation are made but these are misleading since natural radiation will change little whereas the man-made contribution is increasing. Having argued thus we might have expected the committee to opt firmly for a resumption of dumping in the Atlantic, which was halted in 1982. However, three relevant international reviews are due to be published this year and the committee have taken advantage of this to hedge their bets and recommend that this suspension remain until these reviews are available. This scarcely suggests confidence in the published figures.


The following quote is typical of an approach to decision making so common under modern capitalism:


  8.12 We have found that an important aspect of people’s perception of the risks and benefits of waste disposal relates to the origin of the wastes. Wastes that arise from industrial and medical uses of radioactive materials which are seen as benefiting mankind raise fewer issues of concern than those arising from, for example, weapons production. We have been unable to obtain the information necessary to quantify how much of the waste dumped at the Northeast Atlantic dump site falls into these separate categories.


This appears to mean that the committee would approve of a policy involving relatively large levels of radioactive waste, but believe public support will be higher if the non-military (or not obviously military) portion of the waste is higher. They would like to put the case in these terms but don’t have the necessary data. It would be surprising if this desire to inform us were maintained should the forthcoming figures point in the opposite direction. There are more than suggestions of elitism in the attitude expressed both here and in other parts of this booklet.


Such a situation is a travesty of democracy, and will arise again and again as long as the capitalist class has control of the information media. Had this committee passed on all the evidence given to them, their report might well have been classified and suppressed by the government.


In a socialist society there will be no military sources of radioactive waste, and a rapid phasing out of nuclear fission is very probable Some continued medical applications can however be anticipated. with possibly some use of nuclear fusion as an energy source. This latter process produces some radioactive waste but considerably less than the fission alternative. The most obvious difference however will be that the information media, along with all the means of life, will be controlled by society as a whole. When environmental issues arise, as they can still be expected to do from time to time, the benefits and penalties will be debated openly. All the relevant information will be freely available, in stark contrast to the selective release and biased presentation we have today.


E. C. Edge