Arctic Life Not Damaged By Nuclear Waste Dumping (400)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Decades of radioactive waste dumping has not seriously polluted the Arctic Ocean, a University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory study shows.

Dr. Lee Cooper, an oceanographer for UT-Knoxville and ORNL, said the former Soviet Union dumped waste from nuclear plants and weapons into the Arctic Ocean for 30 years before the practice was halted in the early 1990s.

However, the study by Cooper and his wife, Dr. Jackie Grebmeier, a UT-Knoxville ecologist, found few signs of radioactive contamination in the water or animals used as a food source by humans in the disposal area.

Cooper said sealing radioactive waste in containers and dumping it in deep ocean trenches may have helped contain contamination. While earthquakes could break the containers or stir up settled radioactive waste, containers dropped into deep trenches will sink deeper into cracks and sediment over time, posing even less of a threat, he said.

Cooper said Arctic Eskimos who hunt beluga, walrus, bowhead whale, polar bears and seals need not worry about radioactive contamination of food from these and other animals.

“The radioisotope levels we found are lower than what you might expect from food purchased at the local supermarket,” Cooper said. “People who have been harvesting these animals for thousands of years need not change their culture because of any problems from radioactive dumping.”

“Even though the Arctic Ocean has had more radioactive waste dumped into it than any other sea, it does not appear to have had any sort of impact that would cause harm to people who depend on Arctic marine sources for food,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he does not advocate deep ocean dumping of nuclear waste, but the study provides evidence that it might be a feasible disposal method.

“Nuclear waste disposal is not my area of expertise,” Cooper said. “But there are some good arguments that if you must dispose of radioactive materials, then water is a good shielding material. There is certainly evidence that you could pick worse places to dispose of it.”

Cooper is reporting on his study at a session on “Arctic Contamination: Levels, Transport, and Human and Ecological Impacts” at the annual meeting of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and the Ecological Society of America June 7-12 in St. Louis.

The study is part of a $30 million Arctic Nuclear Waste Assessment Research Program by the Office of Naval Research.

Contact: Dr. Lee Cooper (423-974-5397)