Some 28,500 containers of radioactive waste were dropped into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963. Experts have assumed that the containers had long since rusted open, spreading the radioactivity throughout the ocean and thus rendering it innocuous. But a new investigative report from the joint French-German public broadcaster ARTE has concluded that the waste is still intact at the bottom of the sea.
As part of an investigative report set to air on April 23, affiliated German public broadcaster SWR sent an unmanned, remote-controlled submarine into the canal's depths, where they discovered two nuclear waste barrels at a depth of 124 meters (406 feet) just kilometers from the French coast.
Jettisoned by both the British and the Belgians, the containers hold some of the estimated 17,224 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste dumped in the English Channel's underwater valley known as Hurd's Deep, just north of the isle of Alderney, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The British barrels are estimated to have contained 58 trillion becquerels (units of radioactivity), while the Belgian barrels held some 2.4 trillion bequerels. By way of comparison, the European Union's limit for drinking water is 10 becquerels per liter.
"We think that there are still many more undamaged barrels below," SWR journalist Thomas Reutter told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that it was very unlikely that the broadcaster's expedition uncovered the only intact containers in existence.
'High Potential for Danger'
In response to the discovery, members of Germany's environmentalist Green Party have called for the barrels to be removed from the channel, SWR reports. "I believe that at such shallow depths these barrels pose a high potential for danger," Green Party parliamentarian and nuclear policy spokesperson Sylvia Kotting-Uhl told the broadcaster. "And it's not for nothing that dumping in the ocean has been forbidden for 20 years."
Hartmut Nies, a German oceanic expert for the IAEA, is also in favor of removing the waste. "If it's not too complex, then of course they should be removed," he told SWR.
In response to a parliamentary inquiry from the Green Party in August 2012, entitled "Final Disposal Site Ocean Floor," the German federal government stated: "The Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH), as part of its radioactivity monitoring in the North Sea, regularly carries out monitoring runs, which went into the British Channel Most recently in August 2009. The monitoring data contained no indication of emissions from dumping areas."