Invisible litter

Plastic, cans or paper are one thing when it comes to marine litter, and for the most we can see this stuff and even deal with it, but what about the stuff we can’t deal? First time I surfed in Scotland Sandside was pumping, but the warning sign was chilling. Since then I’ve surfed breaks all around this contaminated area, but it makes you think. Is litter? Sure is, industrial litter on a massive scale which has found its self into the sea due to mans disrespect and carelessness.  Check out below for the full story.

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Dounreay Nuclear Power Station stands like a sentinel on the coastline of  Caithness. The plant was situated up here due to the remoteness of the area, the very same reason that attracted us. It is currently in advanced stages of decommissioning, but its legacy has left the whole area with a lethal problem. Like many facilities of its type, disposal of waste in the early days was treated with a certain amount of contempt and there was little or no monitoring. Some low and mid-level waste was disposed of on site, most notably for water users, in a shaft which extended out under the sea. This shaft has seeped contaminated liquid and particles into the groundwater and will become prone to coastal erosion in the future.  If that wasn’t enough this makeshift nuclear dump has been the source of a minor explosion created by the build up of hydrogen, adding more contaminated material into the environment. It is also well reported that workers used to fire off shot guns to help sink bags of low level waste: underlining the sort of safety measures that were in place. Other radioactive material entered the environment from the releasing of water into the sea accidentally from coolant ponds.

The particles in question are considered very dangerous, lethal in some cases. They all contain Caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, but it is thought some contain Plutonium 239 as well, with a longer half-life of 24,000 years. These started turning up on the nearby Sandside beach, prompting its closure and warning signs being erected as well as fishing being banned within two miles of the facility. The whole area hid a barely visible toxicity, these nuclear particles are just the size of grains of sand. Since then a clean up operation has been underway on the beach and the sea bed off Dounreay. Nevertheless, the estimated thousands of irradiated particles have slowly spread over a large area, some being detected as far away as the coast of Norway. In fact so great is the task here, that during the two billion pound decommissioning they have used an underwater robot to recover over 2300 particles since the cleanup began.

But the legacy from mistakes in the 1970s is not likely to go away. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, in its 2011 report, stated that further recovery of nuclear particles is likely to damage the surrounding ecosystem so much that it would be counter-productive to continue. So the nuclear industry once again looks like it will get away with its disregard for everything except making money.

We contacted Charles Salisbury, a nuclear industry by-product and pollution expert, to see what he thought the chances of surfers and any water users had of ingesting one of these particles: “The problem with marine pollution from nuclear sources is its visibility and its legacy. You can see oil, you can deal with it to a certain extent and whilst devastating it can be cleaned up. Likewise with sewage, you can see it and it has a short pollution lifespan if the source is removed. The problem with nuclear particles is they are invisible, they blend with the natural sediment. In the case of the Plutonium, isotopes last for millennia. Are they harmful? Absolutely, ingested one could kill you with a radiation related illness. Is it likely you are going to ingest one being in the sea near Dounreay? I’d have thought the chances are incredibly small, but just the fact that there is a chance is a disgrace.”

Three waves including this one lie within just miles of the nuclear power station. This slab is a tricky place to surf at the best of times. It almost sucks dry, breaks directly in front of a cliff and now has the added problem of potential radioactive material in the lineup. However unlikely it is you will ingest one of these particles the fact that there is even a 1 in 10 million chance is unacceptable and could have been avoided.

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