Underwater nuclear waste dump off Cumbria would endanger marine life, experts warn | Nuclear waste

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Plans to dispose of radioactive nuclear waste under the seabed off the northwest coast of England risk serious harm to marine life, including mammals such as dolphins and whales, experts have warned .

Seismic surveys in the Irish Sea near Cumbria begin on Saturday to determine if the area is suitable for a proposed facility. The UK government is seeking a location for a deep underground repository to store the world’s largest stockpile of untreated nuclear waste.

Officials have said a decades-old accumulation of material, including more than 100 tonnes of plutonium – which could create thousands of nuclear bombs – cannot be stored sustainably above ground forever and so they are looking for a site. to “keep it safe and secure”. it will take hundreds of thousands of years for the radioactivity to decay naturally”.

In 2019, radioactivity seeped into the ground beneath Sellafield, Cumbria, which suffered a serious leak in the 1970s and was not built with decommissioning in mind. There are 20 surface facilities which store highly radioactive waste across the UK. Around 750,000 cubic metres, or 70% of Wembley Stadium’s volume, is designated for “geological storage”.

But impacts from exposure to noise from seismic gun blasts have been linked to significantly reduced sightings of whales, the primary sense of which is acoustics. There are also concerns about the storage of nuclear waste underwater, with only a handful of such sites in the world.

Zoological Society of London cetacean stranding survey program manager Rob Deaville said seismic blasts can lead to habitat avoidance, risk excluding mammals from an area and increase the risk of decompression sickness. “Potential impacts can also include direct physical effects ranging from temporary or permanent threshold changes in hearing to direct blast trauma,” he told the Guardian.

There are also fears that the explosions could drown out mating calls and even cause deaths, after more than 800 dolphins were stranded in Peru in 2012 after seismic tests. On the Cumbria survey, Deaville added that the area is a known habitat for porpoises, dolphins and other species. “Our teams are on high standby, in case we receive increased reports of live/dead strandings during this period.”

In a letter to activists shared with the Guardian, an official from the state-run Marine Management Organisation, acknowledged “the potential disruption to some cetacean species”, but noted that the plans were largely exempt from regulation.

Critics also suggest that it may be impossible to predict the consequences of storing heat-generating nuclear waste in perpetuity under the sea.

Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) chairman David Blackburn, also leader of the Green Party group on Leeds City Council, told the Guardian: ‘The waste would be left in place for millennia and no matter how efficient barriers, some of the radioactivity will eventually reach the surface. The rate at which radioactivity would escape from a [geological disposal facility (GDF)] can be poorly predicted and is likely to remain so for an indefinite period.

“Rather than solving a problem for future generations, it could leave them with a legacy of a nuclear waste dump gradually releasing radioactivity into the environment and cutting off their options for deciding how to deal with that waste.”

The NFLA prefers the idea of ​​“near-surface, near-site waste storage” to enable monitoring and management, and action in the event of a leak. “Further scientific research could yield advances that could mean that radioactive waste can be treated in a way that makes it less toxic in a shorter time,” Blackburn added. “Throwing it into a hole in the ground or under the seabed rules out that possibility.”

However, experts said there is international agreement on the benefits of disposing of radioactive waste in deep geological repositories and that it is the most appropriate long-term solution. “This consensus is based on scientific and technical work that has been carried out over several decades, including extensive research, development and demonstration programs,” said a 2013 article.

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Chris Eldred, senior project manager for geosphere characterization at government organization Nuclear Waste Services, launched this year to help oversee decommissioning, said: “A deep SFM will protect future generations from the risks of conserving hazardous radioactive waste in surface stores for thousands of years. It is one of the largest environmental protection projects in the UK.

“To help us with this vital work, we will undertake surveys in English territorial waters to better understand the deep geology beyond the coast, while doing everything we can to minimize any environmental impact.

“These surveys will use sound waves, the same technology that is regularly deployed around the world in industries such as offshore wind, carbon capture and storage and major infrastructure projects, and in line with that used in ultrasound medical imaging. The information we get from these surveys will help us better understand if a place could host a GDF and help inform discussions with communities.”

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