Brussels — The first skirmishes of an environmental battle that eventually could erupt into full-scale war now are being fought in Europe. In the past few years environmentalists increasingly but unaggressively have contested the practice of dumping radioactive wastes at sea. They argue that the long-range effects of such action on the ecosystem are far from known.
Now -- as public protest mounts against what experts consider the "best solution" for long-term atomic waste disposal, namely, burying it in geological formations deep underground -- the industrialized world is looking more and more to the sea as the answer to its waste-disposal woes. And environmentalists are worried.
The US, for example, is eyeing the sea as a possible repository for some of the 80 million gallons of high-level waste stored in temporary facilities and awaiting a permanent home. Last year, the Department of Energy spent $5.9 million studying seabed disposal possibilities.
The 10-nation European Economic Community, for its part, last year approved a multimillion-dollar R&D program that -- for the first time -- included funds for examining ways to dispose of Europe's growing pile of atomic waste on the ocean floor. Bowing to public pressure, several European countries, including West Germany and the Netherlands, have disallowed further exploratory drillings at experimental underground disposal sites. No one, it seems, wants the waste in his own backyard.
The latest country to join the rush to the sea is Japan. Earlier this year Japan announced that -- in the first operation of this kind by Japan -- it would dump 5,000 to 10,000 barrels of low-level waste in international waters 900 kilometers southeast of the country beginning next November. Fishermen on nearby islands have protested the decision vigorously.
Dumping atomic wastes at sea was institutionalized less than four years ago. The Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) --tries plus Japan -- set up the Multilateral Consultation and Surveillance Mechanism (MCSM). Prior to 1977 countries disposed of radioactive wastes in the ocean virtually at will, without prior approval from the international community.
"How many drums filled with atomic waste are lying on the bottom of, for example, the North Sea, nobody knows," says Kees Kramer, of the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. "There is no guarantee that radioactive wastes dumped in the sea years ago will never reach our ecosystem."
By creating the MCSM, the NEA essentially did away with haphazard dumping. Setting strict packaging standards and establishing a system of multilateral sanctioning and supervision, the NEA also enlisted scientists to pick the safest place to dump the wastes. They picked a site 900 kilometers southwest of Land's End, England. Virtually all dumping of European wastes since 1977 has been done there. However, small quantities of low-level wastes are allowed to run into the sea from the French reprocessing plant at La Hague and have been released into the Irish Sea over many years from Britain's Windscale facilities.
According to a NEA official, the MCSM provides "a framework for cooperation between contracting parties"; i.e., countries directly or indirectly concerned about proposed ocean dumping operations, which, for the most part, have been carried out in Europe by Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland -- "through the establishment of standards, guidelines, and recommendations for radioactive waste sea dumping operations and assessments of dumping sites and related environmental aspects."
But while the NEA line sounds tidy enough, most European environmentalists remain skeptical, if not downright angry. In what appears to have signaled a sharp change in mood over the sea-dumping issue, several militants last summer boarded a ship in Zeebrugge, Belgium, which was bound for the NEA's North Atlantic dumping site. They destroyed $700,000 worth of navigational equipment, delaying -- but not preventing -- the departure of the craft, which was carrying 3,000 barrels of low-level waste from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium. The trial of the militants, which began in Belgium this month, has already seen several violent demonstrations.
The crunch in the evolving war over atomic sea-dumping could come as early as 1990 when the NEA will release the conclusions of a study now under way that is to determine the feasibility of what would be the organization's most adventurous project to date -- burying high-level wastes at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Dumping high-level wastes anywhere in the world's waters now is prohibited by the London Convention.
The Seabed Working Group, set up by the NEA in 1975, is examining the possible environmental effects of drilling holes in the ocean floor 4,000 to 5, 000 meters below the surface and dropping containers filled with the high-level wastes into them. The holes would be 50 to 100 meters deep. According to an NEA official, several "potentially interesting areas" with thick accumulations of fine sediments have already been "identified" in the Atlantic Ocean.
"I always tell people, if you hit the hole, I have nothing against it," Prof. Hans Kautsky of the German Hydrographical Institute in Hamburg told the Washington publication International Environment Reporter recently. "But who can guarantee that the thing will not land next to the hole?"
An alternative method of depositing high-level wastes on the ocean floor is being studied by the US Department of Energy. Missile-shaped steel and concrete canisters 12 feet long and a foot wide would be dropped overboard, according to the plan. Hitting the sea bottom at 120 miles an hour, they should bury themselves 50 to 100 meters in sediments. Outlays for the project are expected to reach $15 million by 1984, with test drops coming no earlier than the year 2, 000.
What will all this mean in 10 to 20 years is still unclear. But forces are being mobilized.
Countries with looming disposal problems --many, and Japan -- are marshaling diplomats and lawyers with a view to changing the rules of the London Convention to allow the dumping of high-level wastes.
Altering the rules will not be easy. Environmentalists worldwide -- and particularly in Western Europe -- are exercised about the problem. Even some governments, including those of the Scandinavian countries, have come out against dumping anything toxic in the sea.
"Whatever happens," said one environmentalist, "leaving the future of the seas to lawyers would be very unfortunate. We expect to have our say."