Why is there radioactive waste in the English Channel?

It looks like the English Channel is more than just polluted — in a sense, it’s also radioactive. On Friday, Der Speigel reported that a team of German journalists has discovered barrels of radioactive waste at the bottom of the waterway, just a few miles off the French coast. Apparently, the British and the Belgians ...

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

It looks like the English Channel is more than just polluted -- in a sense, it's also radioactive.

On Friday, Der Speigel reported that a team of German journalists has discovered barrels of radioactive waste at the bottom of the waterway, just a few miles off the French coast. Apparently, the British and the Belgians threw 28,500 such barrels into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963 -- the year that the British Radioactive Substances Act of 1960 came into effect.

The existence of the barrels isn't a secret, but experts had assumed that the containers rusted open years ago, allowing the nuclear material to dissipate to harmless concentrations. Instead, photos from an unmanned submarine showed that at least some of the tens of thousands of barrels are very much intact -- prompting German environmentalists to call for their removal.

It looks like the English Channel is more than just polluted — in a sense, it’s also radioactive.

On Friday, Der Speigel reported that a team of German journalists has discovered barrels of radioactive waste at the bottom of the waterway, just a few miles off the French coast. Apparently, the British and the Belgians threw 28,500 such barrels into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963 — the year that the British Radioactive Substances Act of 1960 came into effect.

The existence of the barrels isn’t a secret, but experts had assumed that the containers rusted open years ago, allowing the nuclear material to dissipate to harmless concentrations. Instead, photos from an unmanned submarine showed that at least some of the tens of thousands of barrels are very much intact — prompting German environmentalists to call for their removal.

We’ve come a long way since barrels of radioactive waste could be dumped by the thousands in the English Channel. International law has prevented the disposal of nuclear waste in the ocean since 1993 (before that, from 1946 to 1993, more than 10 countries used ocean dumping to dispose of radioactive waste). And today, there are two commonly accepted methods for disposing of the material. The first is near-surface disposal, where radioactive waste is stored in containers either at ground level or in caverns a few meters below. The second is deep geological disposal — the preferred method for radioactive isotopes with long half-lives — where waste containers are placed in mined tunnels as much as 1,000 meters underground and then sealed in with cement and clay.

Does all this mean we’ve finally found safe solutions? Check back in with us in a few decades.

Elizabeth Ralph is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

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