Outlawing Ocean Dumping of Nuclear Waste

BURROWING THROUGH card catalogues (remember those?) in a government repository of old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) reports, one day we came across a reference to a radioactive waste dumpsite off the Southern California coast. The problem was that the report was on micro-card, a technology that predates microfiche and microfilm, and there was only one micro-card reading device in LA, and it was broken. We eventually found a shop owned by an old man who could fix it, and when he did, we discovered that thousands of barrels of radioactive wastes from AEC and other nuclear operations had for years been transported to Long Beach, placed on an ocean-going tug, hauled up the coast to the Channel Islands, and dumped overboard. If the weather were poor, they engaged in “short dumping,” throwing the radioactive waste into the sea before they got to the ocean dumpsite.

It turned out that no effort had been made beforehand to determine if the practice or chosen location would be safe. Years later a submersible was sent to scout around and found that many of the barrels had imploded because of the water pressure and were leaking. Michael Rose did further research and Freedom of Information Act requests and discovered that there were approximately 50 such U.S. ocean dumpsites off the East and West Coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico. He prepared tables showing the latitude and longitude of the dumpsites and what the records indicated as to how many barrels and how much radioactivity had been dumped at each. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contacted us and asked for help because they had lost track of the great majority of the dumpsites! We testified at a Congressional hearing about the matter, did a news conference with a San Francisco legislator concerned about the similar dumpsite at the nearby Farallon Islands, and pushed for a federal ban.

One day we got a telegram from officials of a Pacific Island nation asking us to help them over their concerns related to plans by Japan to dump much of its radioactive waste in the ocean nearby. A colleague of ours from UC Santa Cruz, Professor Jackson Davis, went, and when he returned we came up with a strategy to ban the practice of ocean dumping of radioactive waste internationally. It turns out that there is an international entity, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, generally known as the London Dumping Convention, that could take such an action. To propose it, one needed to be a member. Only nation states could be members. So we urged the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Naura, with whom we were working, to join. They were tiny (Naura has the world’s second smallest national population, after Vatican City) but they were nations and had the right to join LDC and propose a ban.

We co-authored a lengthy report, “Evaluation of Oceanic Radioactive Dumping Program.”  

 We helped expose studies that showed radioactivity leaking from such sites was getting into lower parts of the oceanic food chain, then concentrating as it moved up the food chain, into edible portions of edible fish. What we were dumping into the ocean was coming back to us in the fish we ate. We served on a state legislative advisory panel on the subject. We worked with national TV news reporters to get new parts of the story out. All of these efforts, with much of the credit going to Jackson Davis, along with substantial work by Greenpeace International, contributed to the London Dumping Convention first adopting a moratorium, and then finally, a permanent ban on dumping radioactive waste in the ocean. For more than twenty-five years now the seas have been protected, worldwide, from this environmental injury.