A SIGNIFICANT step to prevent ocean pollution was taken last week in London.
Members of an international convention agreed to a permanent ban on the dumping of radioactive wastes at sea, something that should have been done decades ago. But there were several important holdouts at the meeting who withheld their approval of the ban, and it will take continued political pressure to see that the agreement doesn't fall apart.
The London Dumping Convention, formed in 1972, has 71 members. Of those, 42 attended last week's meeting and 37 approved the ban. Those nations not in attendance will be bound by the ban unless they register their opposition within 100 days. The five holdouts were Russia, Britain, France, China, and Belgium. Until recently, two other major countries resisted a ban: the United States and Japan.
The past several American administrations, under pressure from the United States Navy, wanted to leave open the option of dumping low-level nuclear wastes at sea. Japan, heavily reliant on nuclear power and with few places where it can store nuclear wastes on land, wanted that option as well.
But a month ago, a Russian navy ship was spotted by the environmental group Greenpeace dumping 237,000 gallons (900 tons) of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan. Only the glare of publicity and sharp protests from Japan, the US, and South Korea prevented another shipload from being dumped.
Japan reversed its earlier opposition to a dumping ban. And the Clinton administration, noting that ``the nuclear powers have a special responsibility to display leadership on sensitive ocean environmental issues,'' changed the US position as well.
British television reported earlier this month that Britain is considering dumping the reactors from seven decommissioned nuclear submarines into the Atlantic. ``It would be a triumph of hope over experience if radioactivity did not work its way back into the food chain,'' Paul Johnston, a Greenpeace marine biologist, was quoted as saying. ``There is very definitely a risk.''
Some of the past experience Dr. Johnston refers to is the US dumping of low-level radioactive waste near the Farallon Islands just west of San Francisco back in the 1950s. By the 1970s, the barrels holding that waste were shown to have corroded and leaked.
The end of the cold war has not lessened the need to be concerned about radioactivity in the environment. Britain and France still have nuclear arsenals, as do several other nonsuperpowers. Some countries increasingly rely on nuclear power for electricity. China has two operating nuclear-power plants and four more planned, but no secure method of waste disposal. It has been reported that nuclear wastes there are being dumped down wells and mines. The Dalai Lama accuses China of burying its nuclear waste in Tibet.
But the most immediate threat remains Russia. Last month's dumping episode involved a leaky tanker full of liquid radioactive waste. Another full (and seaworthy) ship was hustled out to dump its load so it could take on the waste from the first tanker, which was close to sinking in port.
From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, the Soviet Union dumped 18 nuclear reactors into the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic and the Sea of Japan, six of which were highly radioactive, according to a recent Inter Press Service report. Meanwhile, according to a study ordered by Boris Yeltsin and issued last March, Russia has 225 nuclear-powered submarines, three nuclear battleships, and seven icebreakers with a total of 407 reactors producing 26,000 cubic meters of liquid and solid reactor waste each year.
Russia says it needs financial help from other countries to build waste-treatment plants. If such aid is not forthcoming within 18 months, says Russian environment minister Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, ``Russia will almost certainly have to continue dumping.'' One participant at last week's London meeting called this ``nuclear blackmail,'' but it's hard to see what else more affluent countries can do besides help Russia out of this environmental dilemma.
In any case, nations need to pay much stricter attention to what they dump into the world's oceans. It doesn't just disappear there.