Recent revelations concerning the possible environmental hazards posed by the sunken Soviet nuclear submarine Komsomolets and the disposal of radioactive materials in the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans have generated much controversy and debate. Too often, however, the key scientific and policy issues that the dumping raises are treated as two solitudes. In reality, decisions taken by national governments and international agencies in connection with remediation, regulation, and even research must be based on both science and policy. Indeed, a sound approach to the dumping issue must integrate scientific evidence and policy considerations relating to legal, political, social, and economic matters.
The Policy Makers' Context
Radioactive waste disposal is an exceedingly difficult problem. Information detailing the Soviet Navy's past dumping practices, and increasing awareness of the problems that Russia and other states may encounter in the future disposal of radioactive waste, indicate that the global inventory of radioactive wastes requiring storage and disposal is large and growing.
The London Convention currently provides an indefinite moratorium on all radioactive-waste dumping at sea. Just how long-term this will be, however, is unclear. An Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Radioactive Wastes--established by the London Convention--has produced a report listing seven future policy options. These range from lifting the moratorium to establishing a permanent ban on radioactive-waste disposal at sea. The options will be considered at the London Convention's 16th Consultative Meeting in November 1993.
Meanwhile, public resistance to any ocean disposal of radioactive waste is growing. In fact, the trend indicates a move toward zero tolerance in some areas. While some scientists have provided assurances that there is little danger of any regional scale radioactive contamination in the Arctic or North Atlantic, much of the evidence available to date remains inconclusive. Hence, future threats cannot be entirely discounted.
At the same time, the means for addressing potential problems are lacking. Technical options aimed at the storage and disposal of radioactive waste are under explored. The legal framework for dealing with such issues as national and international responsibility and liability relating to radioactive waste is almost nonexistent, and the financial resources available to governments for tackling these problems are severely limited.
The Policy Makers' Challenge
The challenge for policy makers is to mediate among these often-competing forces to determine priorities for investing scarce resources in response to the dumping problem. A variety of basic questions must inform decision making. For instance: Is society prepared to accept the contamination of certain parts of Earth and the extinction of certain maritime species, even if that contamination is shown to have a negligible direct impact on humankind? Should the burden of proof fall on those asserting that there is no significant impact on the environment and humans, or on those asserting that there is such an impact? Moreover, what time frame should be used to assess data on these issues?
Addressing these and other policy questions requires a precautionary approach. This holds that in light of the incomplete state of knowledge on these issues, and the relatively short period over which data has been collected, caution must govern decision making, and irreversible remedial measures should be avoided.
A precautionary approach in no way implies inaction. It does imply that future policy decisions must not overstep our still-incomplete knowledge of the issues if we are to arrive at an effective approach to radioactive dumping. At present, a number of measures suggest themselves. …