How can we warn humans about nuclear waste in a million years’ time?

Burying radioactive waste is widely seen as the safest way to dispose of it. But, Helen Gordon writes, the real question is how we make future generations understand the decisions we made today

Monday 30 September 2019 14:57
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The lift shaft to the underground research lab Andra in France
The lift shaft to the underground research lab Andra in France

In January 1997, the crew of a fishing vessel in the Baltic Sea found something unusual in their nets: a greasy yellowish-brown lump of clay-like material. They pulled it out, placed it on deck and returned to processing their catch. The next day, the crew fell ill with serious skin burns. Four were hospitalised. The greasy lump was a substance called yperite, better known as sulphur mustard or mustard gas, solidified by the temperature on the sea bed.

At the end of the Second World War, the US, British, French and Soviet authorities faced a big problem – how to get rid of some 300,000 tonnes of chemical munitions recovered from occupied Germany. Often, they opted for what seemed the safest, cheapest and easiest method: dumping the stuff out at sea.

Estimates are that at least 40,000 tonnes of chemical munitions were disposed of in the Baltic Sea, not all of it in designated dumping areas. Some of these locations are marked on shipping charts but comprehensive records of exactly what was dumped and where do not exist. This increases the likelihood of trawler crews, and others, coming into contact with this dangerous waste.

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