UK rejects ban on sea dumping of nuclear waste

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED KINGDOM is refusing to drop the option of dumping radioactive waste at sea as ministers from 12 European countries try to agree curbs on pollution in the north-east Atlantic.

The Government takes this view because dumping at sea may one day prove the best means of disposing of 'large bulky items', such as decommissioned nuclear- powered submarines and parts of old nuclear power stations.

The UK insists that it is not dumping radioactive waste at the moment, and has no intention of doing so, but argues that disposal on land could pose a greater risk of exposure than dumping at sea.

David Maclean, Minister for the Environment and Countryside, will push for a compromise with European counterparts when they meet next week in Paris. The meeting aims to update and merge two existing agreements - the Oslo and Paris conventions - on cutting pollution in the oceans that the 12 nations border.

Of the 12, the UK and France are alone in resisting an outright ban on marine dumping of radioactive waste. They are also the only two signatories that own nuclear-powered submarines.

The most likely compromise would allow the UK to opt out of a ban, but not before an agreed period of time. This would let the Government review its position in the light of the most recent scientific evidence. But environmental groups say any such concession would weaken the legal status of the new convention.

The aim of this convention is to commit those who sign to cut all sources of pollutants entering the sea. This includes discharges from rivers and oil platforms, dumping from ships and aircraft, airborne contaminants and waste incineration on ships.

Environmentalists have criticised the draft agreement because it contains no specific targets for cutting pollutants, although an annexe makes it possible to set such targets in the future.

The Government is also under attack from environmental groups for its recent record in cutting pollution. The UK is the only country in Europe that is still dumping industrial waste at sea, even though the Government agreed to stop the practice by the end of 1989.

The Government says it is now 'within a few months' of stopping such dumping. It has also agreed to stop dumping sewage sludge at sea by 1998.

Levels of heavy metals in the waters around the UK have come down since the Oslo Convention came into force. In 1990, cadmium was down to 23 per cent of its 1975 level, mercury stood at 38 per cent, copper at 70 per cent, lead at 37 per cent and zinc at 29 per cent. But Greenpeace complains that progress in eliminating such harmful metals and other pollutants has been far too slow.

In a report published today, the environmental pressure group says legal licences to pollute allow up to 1,723 billion tons of pollution to enter UK rivers and estuaries every year. The organisation claims that the current system of 'deemed consents' lets industrial companies discharge agreed amounts of certain chemicals into Britain's rivers but ignores many others being discharged that could be just as harmful.

Greenpeace is urging the countries attending next week's meeting to agree to reduce chemicals on a 'black list' to levels that are 'not harmful to man or nature' by 2000.

The UK is said to be unreceptive to targets of this kind, although other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Iceland and Denmark have expressed an interest in such restrictions.

The Government rejects calls for what it sees as 'arbitrary' timetables for ending potentially polluting discharges. It would need to be convinced that such targets were technically feasible and could be justified in terms of benefit to the environment.

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