Plutonium Investigation - Others News - 17/04/2003 - Fishermen vent anger at nuclear waste
April 2003

Fishermen vent anger at nuclear waste

BBC News, Lofoten, Norway, 15 April, 2003
By Jorn Madslien, BBC News Online business reporter

Original address:

[Posted 17/04/2003]

A group of Norwegian fishermen are meeting British Nuclear Fuels at a conference near Sellafield this week to discuss discharging radioactive waste into the sea.
The fishermen are angry because they believe the waste is contaminating marine life after it is carried with ocean currents north from the Irish Sea to the North Sea.
BBC News Online finds out whether they have a point.

Wedged between alpine mountains and choppy seas, far North of the Polar circle, a small fishing community is facing a new threat which they fear could put their entire existence at risk.

The 25,000 people who live on the remote Lofoten islands, just off the Northern Norwegian coast, are totally reliant on the sea that surrounds them.

And it is here, at sea, that the threat has made its presence felt.

Invisible danger

During the last half of the 1990s, scientists have identified a sharp rise in the concentration of radioactive waste in marine life off the Norwegian coast.

For now at least, everyone seem to agree that the fish and seafood remains safe to eat.

But Norway's fishermen are concerned that the rise could spark a major food scare.

"Norwegian fish is the cleanest in the world," fisherman Hans Nybakk told BBC News Online.

"But if the world markets think the fish and seafood is contaminated with dangerous materials, then they won't want to buy it from us," added fellow fisherman Haakon Solheim.

"It's quite simple; if we don't have the sea and what it brings then we can't live here."

Culprit identified

The fishermen know who to blame for their woes.

For although the nuclear pollution of the North Sea is not visible to the naked eye, it can easily be traced back to its source, namely Sellafield, the nuclear waste reprocessing plant in Cumbria in the North West of England.

The radioactive waste is carried north by the Gulf Stream to the Norwegian coast where it is accumulated in fish, shell fish and seaweed.

Such deliberate pollution of Norway's waters has sparked a stern reaction from the Norwegian government.

"We are finding rising radioactive levels in many marine species all the way to the North Pole," Norway's environment minister Boerge Brende told BBC News Online.

"It is simply a matter of a neighbour who, quite unnecessarily, pollutes a food resource in a neighbouring country.

"There is no need to treat radioactive waste in this way. Instead, it should simply be stored and cleaned on land."

Crucial industry

Fish and seafood are Norway's second largest exports, earning the country more than 31bn Norwegian kroner (2.7bn; $4.3bn) every year, so this is a problem for all the country's coastal people.

We see it as a problem that our neighbours object, but we fail to see the rationale behind it
BNFL spokesman Nigel Monckton

Japanese fish importers have already raised concerns with the Norwegians.

And the Norwegian seaweed industry - which produces by products that are used by health food and cosmetics firms or in animal feed - has been contacted by worried consumers.

Contaminated seas also pose a threat to Norway's image as a clean tourist destination, and this has angered Petter Stordalen, chief executive officer of Choice Hotels Scandinavia, who was recently involved as an environmental activist outside the Sellafield plant.

"The crabs I fish with my son, the lobster I eat already contain radioactive pollution from Sellafield," Mr Stordalen told BBC News Online.

"I am firmly anchored in the Norwegian tourism industry, with many hotels along the coast, and I have children who are going to grow up here."

No danger

BNFL, the owners of the Sellafield plant, admits that it has been discharging a low level nuclear waste called technetium-99 directly into the Irish Sea for years.

The problem with technetium-99, BNFL spokesman Nigel Monckton told BBC News Online, is that "we do not have a disposal technique on land for this."

And storing it until such techniques have been developed is not an option since the UK's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has put pressure on BNFL to get rid of it.

"You shouldn't store this on land in a liquid form any longer than you have to because it is not a failsafe strategy," explained Mr Monckton.

Hence, the least damaging option left for BNFL is to release the waste into water where the discharges "put nobody at risk," he said.

"What we're doing is not contravening any national or international law," said Mr Monckton, adding that the discharges are made in line with recommendations made by the UK's Environment Agency.

Besides, BNFL's technetium-99 discharges are gradually and quickly being reduced, Mr Monckton stressed.

The processing plant which is the source of the releases will be closed by 2012 and by 2020 new laws will pretty much put a halt to the discharges altogether.

Potential risks

BNFL is loath to make any apologies about its behaviour.

"We see it as a problem that our neighbours object, but we fail to see the rationale behind it," insisted Mr Monckton.

Indeed, BNFL's argument that its technetium-99 discharges are pretty much harmless has received backing from an unlikely source, namely The Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA).

"Currently, it is not dangerous to eat Norwegian seafood," Anne Liv Rudjord, a senior scientist with NRPA, told BBC News Online.

Consequently, there are no reasons why consumers should stop buying the seafood or take their holidays in Norway, Mr Monckton insisted.

"What people's perceptions are is a matter for people and we can't answer for that," he said.

Potential risks

But Norway's coastal population remains unconvinced.

"If it is as safe as the English are saying, why can't they bury it, why can't they store it onland? If this waste isn't dangerous, they can eat it themselves," Steinar Bastesen, leader of the Norwegian Coastal People's Party and a member of parliament, told BBC News Online.

Indeed, even the NRPA is concerned about the potential long term effects technetium-99 may have on either human health or aquamarine life - not least since it takes 213,000 years before the radiation emitted from the waste is halved.

Ms Rudjord insists that if it is too dangerous to store technetium-99 on land then it is also too dangerous to pour it into the sea.

"The consequences from releasing this into the sea are worse than the consequences of carrying out available treatment processes on land," she said, dismissing BNFL's claim that there is no available technology to remove technetium-99 from liquid waste on this scale.


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