Radioactive Waste in the Ocean
Radioactive waste provides one example of growing acceptance and application of a precautionary approach in the context of ocean dumping. While the London Convention initially banned dumping high-level radioactive waste and allowed dumping low-level waste, a 1993 liberalization prohibited dumping of all nuclear waste.
The United States was the first country to dispose of radioactive waste in the ocean in 1946, with the advent of nuclear power, but halted the practice in 1970. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 55,000 containers of radioactive wastes were dumped at three sites in the Pacific Ocean between 1946 and 1970. Other nuclear powers, however, continued dumping millions of liters of radioactive waste until 1993, when Greenpeace documented a Russian navy ship dumping 900 tons of nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan.
Expanding the scope of regulations to include social and political concerns, in addition to scientific and technical matters, combined with growing acceptance of the precautionary approach, allowed the parties to the Convention to respond to Russia’s actions (McCullagh, 1996). As a result of international pressure, Russian President Boris Yeltsin halted the dumping.
Governments continue to grapple with large amounts of nuclear waste and contaminated water. For example, the Government of Japan is planning to dump 1.25 million tons of contaminated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean as storage space at the plant runs out—enough to fill 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools (BBC, 2021). While protests and debate delayed plans, dumping could now begin in the spring of 2023 and take decades to complete. In April 2021, Japan approved a plan to begin releasing the contaminated water and in August, the Japanese utility company, TEPCO, said it would build an undersea tunnel to release the water.
However, opposition has been and remains fierce. Local fishers say dumping the wastewater will devastate their livelihoods and industry. Environmental groups are also vehemently opposed, as is argued by the Republic of Korea, which still bans seafood imports from the Fukushima region ands dumping the contaminated would threaten its marine environment. The Republic of Korea, Chile, and China raised their concerns at the 2019 meeting of the Contracting Parties to the London Convention (Greenpeace, 2019). Following the recents, the Republic of Korea announced its “strong regret” over Japan’s actions and said Japan should “immediately halt” its plan to release radioactive water into the sea and “consult and communicate sufficiently beforehand” with countries (Yonhap, 2021 ). While China has urged Japan to revoke its “highly irresponsible unilateral decision,” the US believes the planned release is in line with global standards (Clark & Masumi, 2021). These protestations are expected to continue.