A new report, commissioned by campaign group Radiation Free Lakeland, provides a damning verdict on a proposed seismic blast in the Irish Sea.
The UK government’s Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) are due to conduct seismic surveys off the Cumbrian coast between July and August this year. They are looking for a place to dispose of the waste produced by Britain’s nuclear reactors.
The report calls for these plans to be postponed, claiming that the NWS impact assessment is ‘deeply inadequate’ and ‘lacking appropriate scientific and academic rigor’.
What is seismic explosion?
The seismic blast is a process that allows scientists to discover more about the geography of the seafloor. Loud, repetitive bursts of sound are produced by an underwater air gun – like a powerful horn – and their echoes are measured to map underwater rocks.
The air gun will fire every 10 to 15 seconds throughout the research period of about a month.
The surveys, commissioned by the NWS, will analyze the possibility of locating a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). Deep under the sea floor, this facility will be used to eliminate the toxic legacy of the high-profile UK nuclear waste – the highly radioactive by-products of nuclear reactors.
Shearwater GeoServices, the company that last year saw the high court end its work in South Africa’s ecologically sensitive wild coastis carrying out investigations.
According to a freedom of information request, an exemption license to carry out such research has been granted to the NWS for ‘scientific research’. But Radiation Free Lakeland says the research is not for ‘scientific research’, but a plan to dispose of nuclear waste.
“We commission an independent report because we need to combat the public relations rotation of the nuclear waste industry, which is calling seismic testing ‘non-invasive scientific research,'” says Marianne Birkby, founder of the campaign group.
She argues that rather than seismic explosions for scientific purposes, the plans facilitate a commercial venture for a “deep nuclear dump for heat-generating nuclear waste”.
A limited company that wants to allow more and more nuclear waste from new nuclear construction, Radioactive Waste Management, is behind this, says Birkby.
“Despite the marine protections this part of the Irish Sea has, it is outrage that independent environmental impact assessments have not been carried out. Safeguards clearly mean nothing when the nuclear waste industry wants to pave the way for a deep nuclear dump.”
In response to the allegations, the NWS says that “there is no need to conduct a public consultation for these surveys”.
“We have carried out marine environment assessments requested by Natural England and shipping authorities to assess any impacts and they are convinced that our activities are exempt,” adds Chris Eldred, senior project manager for geosphere characterization at Nuclear Waste Services.
Seismic surveys could devastate marine life
Low-frequency sounds generated by a single seismic air gun can extend over great distances, particularly in deeper water.
They have been recorded at locations up to 4,000 kilometers from the source and can cover areas of up to 300,000 square kilometers with noise. Studies have shown that because seismic surveys can disturb, injure or kill a wide variety of marine life, they can impact entire ecosystems.
Zooplankton are the base of the marine food chain and are extremely important to the health of our oceans. They are also very vulnerable to these loud noises, according to scientists.
The researchers found that seismic surveys significantly increase zooplankton mortality rates in the 1.2 km range they tested, killing all krill larvae in the range.
The Radiation Free Lakeland report says the surveys will take place when zooplankton populations are high. These creatures provide a food source for a wide variety of organisms, including whales, basking sharks and fish which, in turn, feed many other species.
Many others Marine animals rely on sound for survival too. Seismic tests can interfere with basic functions such as communication, navigation, feeding and mating.
“Noise exposure can be a problem for a wide range of cetaceans – dolphins, porpoises and whales,” according to the Zoological Society of London. Cetacean Strandings Research Program.
“Noise-related impacts have also been causally linked to many cetacean stranding events and mass strandings globally.”
The NWS investigation will focus on a survey area of five to 20 kilometers off the Cumbrian coast in North West England, over an area of approximately 250 square kilometers. The proposed GDF could span an area of 25 square kilometers, deep under the sea.
This region is one of several regions designated Marine Conservation Areas in the Irish Sea. It has protected habitats and is home to several European protected species such as sea turtles, minke whales, common and bottlenose dolphins and porpoises.
“The Irish Sea is rich in marine life, from soft corals and reefs that are home to crabs and anemones to seals, whales and around 30 species of Shark” says Joan Edwards, policy director at Wildlife Trusts.
“Sandbanks and shingle habitats are vital nurseries for flatfish, bass and sea eels, as well as serving as feeding grounds for thousands of breeding seabirds.”
Marine habitats are already under enormous pressure from pollution, irresponsible development and bottom trawling – as well as the consequences of climate change, she explains.
“We are concerned about the implications of seismic testing in the Irish Sea, which evidence shows could be devastating to marine life.”
The report states that many of the extremely important marine species found in the area have not been studied because of their sensitivity to seismic surveys.
A ‘marked lack of transparency’ of the Nuclear Waste Services
Marine radioactivity researcher and consultant Tim Deere-Jones is the author of the Radiation Free Lakeland report. He says the NWS license application for the seismic survey is characterized by “a marked lack of transparency”.
It also shows a refusal to engage in consultations with the public and marine stakeholders, such as fishermen. Deere-Jones claims to have carried out what is essentially a private in-house environmental impact assessment – without independent oversight.
“The NWS also ignored the comment by Professor Popper, a leading authority on fish bioacoustics.”
Popper warns of a clear “information gap” that makes it impossible to draw a clear conclusion about the effect these outbursts may have on the animals’ behavior or health.
As a result, warns Deere-Jones, the NWS has produced an “inadequate and inaccurate impact assessment” of the effects of air cannon surveys on marine species present in these regional Marine Conservation Zones.
“My recommendation is that consideration of the proposed research, and all such research in UK waters, be deferred until the information gaps mentioned by Professor Popper are filled and properly informed impact assessment decisions can be made,” he adds.
The report concludes by recommending that suitable alternatives to airgun seismic surveys, which pose a lesser threat to marine life, should be considered.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson put nuclear energy at heart of the country’s new energy strategy. There are now plans to build up to eight new nuclear reactors in the country.
However, no permanent and safe storage method for high-level nuclear waste has yet been found. It remains dangerous for many thousands of years, threatening human health and the environment. 250,000 tonnes of this waste is currently in temporary storage worldwide.
The UK government, like many others, favors deep geological disposal to deal with the most radioactive waste – whether deep underground or under the sea.
However, there are still many concerns about this £53bn (€62bn) facility in the Irish Sea, which has not been tested or tested and offers no guarantees of safety.