UK holds out on dumping: Britain facing isolation as negotiators move towards international deal on sea-bed disposal of radioactive waste Britain reluctant to agree permanent ban as negotiators move towards deal on sea-bed disposal of radioactive waste

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN was facing international isolation last night over nuclear dumping at sea as nations meeting in London moved towards agreement on a permanent international ban.

A large majority of the 45 nations taking part in the London Dumping Convention Negotiations this week have come out strongly in favour of a ban to replace the moratorium in force since 1983.

Supporters of a ban include Japan and the USA, which switched its position recently, but Britain and France have argued strongly to retain the long-term option of dropping nuclear waste to the sea-bed, although they say they have no immediate plans to do so.

Russia, however, says dumping is the only way it can deal safely with nuclear waste from its large submarine fleet in the short term. It favours a permanent ban, but not for at least six months.

Last night, it seemed likely the three would abstain in the final vote today and file reservations which would enable them to dump without breaching the convention.

Before the 1980s, most nations with nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons looked to the oceans as a prime disposal site for radioactive waste. Ships dropped off low and intermediate-level waste, while government scientists worked on ambitious proposals for disposing of high-level waste on or below the sea bed.

Even landlocked Switzerland hired ships to take material from its nuclear power stations into the North-east Atlantic. It was the second biggest maritime dumper in that region after Britain.

By 1983 Britain had dumped 74,000 tonnes of low and intermediate-level waste over 34 years at 15 sites. Last year it agreed to observe a 15-year dumping moratorium under another maritime treaty covering the North-east Atlantic.

The practice was regulated by international treaty, with participating nations obliged to report details of how much they were dumping and where.

At the start of the 1980s, however, the pressure group Greenpeace mounted a concerted high-profile campaign against the practice. Trade unions representing dockers and seamen also opposed it and in 1983 the London Convention nations responded to public opinion by imposing a 10-year moratorium.

As that expires, Britain insists that it has no immediate plans to dump anything radioactive at sea. But it believes the most environmentally safe and sound way of permanently disposing of some particularly bulky items which are not highly radioactive is to leave them on the deep sea-bed.

Britain's argument is that, provided the correct sites are chosen, the mixing between the deep and near surface waters is so slow and the dilution by the sea so enormous that no significant concentrations of radioactive material could enter the food chain.

The bulky items that Britain mainly has in mind are its decommissioned nuclear- powered submarines. There are six hunter-killer submarines whose seafaring days are over, including HMS Conqueror which sank the Belgrano.

By the end of the century, it is expected that another 11 vessels will join them; more hunter-killers and the Polaris boats which carry Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent and are being replaced by the Trident system.

The Navy's present strategy is to remove the highly radioactive fuel rods from the reactors of decommissioned submarines and leave them floating in dockyards. The remaining radioactivity is well contained and the hulls will not corrode for many years. Cutting up the boats and taking the 'hot' radioactive fragments to a permanent disposal site would tend to spread radioactivity and put personnel at risk.

But the Government believes the submarines cannot be left floating forever - hence its dogged campaign against a permanent ban during this week's negotiations.

Russia presented a report to the convention meeting outlining its enormous nuclear- dumping operations which have placed radioactivity in the sea roughly equivalent to half the Chernobyl power station explosion in 1985.

Seven reactors from submarines with their highly radio- active fuel rods still in place have been dumped in shallow waters in the Kara and Barents seas, north of the Arctic Circle.

Source for map: Greenpeace

(Graphic omitted)