Sea dumping of radioactive waste banned: Britain abstains in vote by 42 nations

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DUMPING of radioactive waste at sea was permanently banned yesterday, after desperate diplomacy failed to secure an exemption which would have allowed Britain the option of dumping in the future.

Although 37 of the nations taking part in the London Dumping Convention negotiations voted for the international ban, five abstained - the UK, France, Belgium, Russia and China. According to the convention, these countries now have the right to declare within 100 days that they will not accept the decision and opt out of the ban.

But the British government will have to consider carefully the effect of adopting a 'pick 'n' mix' attitude to international agreements. Britain would find it hard to argue at the International Whaling Commission, as it has done, that Japan should stop hunting whales, if it refuses to be bound by international agreements that do not suit its national interests.

In any case, Britain, France and Belgium are legally bound under the terms of a different agreement - the Paris and Oslo Conventions - not to resume sea dumping for 15 years, so withdrawing from the London Dumping Convention's radioactive-waste agreement would bring international unpopularity for no immediate gain. The legally binding agreement replaces a voluntary moratorium in force since 1983.

A spokeswoman for the British delegation said that no decision had been taken on whether the UK would opt out. The Ministry of Defence, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture would be discussing what response the Government should make to the vote.

Remi Parmentier, Greenpeace International's political adviser, warned of 'world outrage' if Britain withdrew from the agreement. The ban was 'a rare example of reaching the highest common denominator for environmental protection', he said. 'We call on the UK, France, Belgium, China, and Russia to rise to the standards of the rest of the world and keep the ban.'

Russia had proposed to abide by the ban, but only from 1995, arguing that it needed to retain the sea-disposal route for the next year to handle the legacy of the former Soviet Union's nuclear programme. The conference rejected the idea.

Britain had tried to persuade the meeting that it should be able to opt out after 15 years. British studies had indicated that, for some categories of low-level and intermediate-level radioactive wastes, dumping in the deep ocean might be the best practicable environmental option. 'It would be irresponsible to foreclose that option now when alternatives could be more damaging,' one official said.

Britain maintains it has no intention of dumping wastes now, but wishes to keep the option for some decommissioning wastes in the future. There is no suggestion of the UK seeking to dump highly radioactive waste at sea.

Items looming large in the British calculations are the large steam generators (boilers) from the first-generation Magnox reactors in the civil nuclear power industry, to be taken out of service within the next 15 years. As most are on coastal sites, it would be far cheaper to load the steam generators on to barges and tow them off to the deep ocean than to cut them up into small pieces for disposal deep underground.