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Industrialized nations have been producing nuclear waste from both civilian and military power generation and from weapons production since the 1940's. The United States was the first country to start dumping nuclear waste at sea in 1946, and until the advent of the environmental movement in the 1970's, many nuclear powers dumped radioactive waste into the oceans. [1] The Cold War also left a nuclear legacy on the seafloor in the form of reactors and warheads, many of them from lost or scuttled submarines. Currently, dumping of nuclear waste is forbidden by international law. However, the difficulty in finding a place to dispose of nuclear waste has kept some discussion alive of the possibility of someday using the deep ocean seabed as a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

The Legality of Dumping of Nuclear Waste

The London Dumping Convention (LDC) first met in 1972 and prohibited dumping of high level radioactive waste, and then adopted a voluntary moratorium on dumping of low and intermediate level nuclear waste in 1983 at the LDC's seventh meeting. [2] A decade later in 1993, the delegates to the sixteenth meeting of the LDC made the ban on the dumping of nuclear material at sea formal, permanent, and binding. [3] The United States opposed the ban until a widely-publicized event in which Russia dumped 237,000 gallons of low level waste (LLW) into the Sea of Japan. [4] It was an “open secret” that Russia had been dumping LLW into the ocean for thirty years, but it was only after Greenpeace publicized the event in the United States that the Clinton administration overruled the objections of the Navy and supported the LDC's permanent ban. [5] As was allowed by the LDC, Russia filed an objection to the resolution, legally permitting it to continue dumping LLW into the oceans. [6] Russia has since stopped deliberately dumping waste into the Sea of Japan, although this appears to be because Japan has been funding land-based disposal of Russian nuclear waste rather than because the action is forbidden under the LDC. [7]

The Third United Nations Law of the Sea Conference (UNCLOSIII), which met between 1973 and 1982, adopted the dumping definition of the LDC almost verbatim. [8] The language of the treaty exhorts signatories to “minimize to the fullest possible extent… the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent.” [9] Although 145 nations have ratified UNCLOSIII, The United States is not among them; however, as of April 2004, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously recommended ratification and the Bush administration was supporting full Senate ratification, which makes it seem likely to occur soon. [10]

Subseabed Disposal


Subseabed disposal (SSD) is the most promising alternative to the politically difficult process of disposing of nuclear waste on land. [11] There are large parts of the seafloor in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that have several characteristics that make them attractive for the disposal of nuclear waste: they are in the center of tectonic plates and hence very seismically stable; their top layer is comprised of several hundred meters of clays that “resemble dark chocolate and have the consistency of peanut butter” which would bond with radionucleotides and allow them to spread at a very slow rate; and they are far from any human activity, and it is likely they have no biological activity beyond a meter deep. [12] Further studies would be necessary, [13] but several authors think that it is likely that the United States will resort to SSD in the not too distant future. [14]

Despite what seems to be cautious optimism by most commentators about the feasibility of SSD, it is forbidden by international law. Under the original 1972 LDC text, it was not clear as to whether SSD was permitted or not. [15] At the Thirteenth Consultative Meeting of the LDC, in November of 1990, the contracting parties approved a proposal by Spain (the “Spanish Resolution”) that clearly defined SSD as “dumping,” and hence forbidden. [16] The United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union voted against the proposal and have indicated that while they consider the Spanish Resolution non-binding, they will comply voluntarily for the time being. [17] UNCLOSIII also has some provisions that can be interpreted as applying to subseabed disposal. However, they are less specific than the LDC, are more targeted at the mining of the seabed than at disposal, and are more precatory statements of stewardship than binding resolutions. [18]

Loss of Military Material

Throughout the Cold War, both the Soviet and American militaries lost or intentionally sank nuclear weapons and reactors at sea. Most often these were on sunken submarines, but at least the United States lost a few planes with nuclear weapons, and a few planes dropped weapons into the sea. [19] By some estimates there are at least 50 nuclear weapons on the seafloor; [20] certainly there are at least 32 in the Atlantic from when a Russian submarine, the K-219, sank in the Atlantic Ocean. [21]

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Cold War's nuclear legacy is the nuclear waste of the Russian Navy. In May of 1993, Russia surprised the world with its openness in issuing the “ Yablokov Report,” which gave detailed information on the history and status of Russia's nuclear waste problem. The report indicated that the Soviet Union had dumped over 2.5 million curies of radioactive waste into the Arctic Ocean and other marine environments, including 18 nuclear reactors, and that there were more than 10 million curies stored aboard vessels in Murmansk Harbor. [22] Another estimate puts the number as high as 107 million curies for the Russian nuclear submarine complex. [23] The future of this waste is unclear, and there is concern that some of the waste is on ships that may rust and sink before the waste can be properly processed, such as the Russian submarine K-159 that sank with 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel while being towed with pontoons attached to parts of the hull that were “in some places was as weak as foil.” [24]

Questions for the Future

Margaret Thatcher once said, “ No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.” [25] Thatcher's sentiment, and the moratorium on dumping from the London Convention, are derived from the precautionary principle: for actions that may have negative consequences in the long term, it is best to be conservative. There is perhaps no area where this applies more than with nuclear waste. In some cases, like sunken nuclear submarines, the time for precaution is past and the question is of balancing the cost and risk of bringing them to the surface as compared to leaving them where they lie, possibly slowly leaking radionucleides into their environment. For the spent nuclear fuel accumulated – and still accumulating – worldwide, the question is one of weighing the current risks of (possibly inadequate) temporary disposal on land against the risks of a more permanent solution under the seafloor.

[1] James R. McCullagh , Comment, Russian Dumping of Radioactive Wastes In The Sea of Japan: An Opportunity to Evaluate the Effectiveness of The London Convention 1972 , 5 Pac. Rim L. & Pol'y 399, 401-402 (1996).

[2] Steven D. Lavine , Russian Dumping in the Sea of Japan , 24 Denv . J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 417, 426 (1996).

[3] James Waczewski , Legal, Political, and Scientific Response to Ocean Dumping and Sub-Seabed Disposal of Nuclear Waste , 7 J. Transnat'l L. & Pol'y 97, 106 (1997).

[4] Lavine , supra note 2 at 418.

[5] Id. at 418, 438.

[6] McCullagh supra note 1 at 399.

[7] Id. at 419.

[8] Robert A. Kaplan, Comment, Into The Abyss: International Regulation of Subseabed Nuclear Waste Disposal , 139 U. Pa. L. Rev. 769, 788(1991).

[9] Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, opened for signature Dec. 10, 1982, U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 62/122 , art. 194(3)(a).

[10] Richard G. Lugar , Law of the Sea Treaty Balances U.S. and World Interests , Global Issues, April 2004, at

[11] Id. at 773.

[12] Charles D. Hollister & Steven Nadis , Burial of Radioactive Waste under the Seabed , Sci . Am., Jan. 1998, at 60, 64; see Charles D. Hollister, D. Richard Anderson, and G. Ross Heath, Subseabed Disposal of Nuclear Wastes , 213 Science 1321.

[13] Hollister & Nadis , supra note 12 at 64.

[14] Kaplan, supra note 8 , at 773; Christopher Meisenkothen , Note, Subseabed Disposal of Nuclear Waste: An International Policy Perspective , 14 Conn. J. Int'l L. 631, 657 (1999).

[15] Kaplan, supra note 8 , at 778-79.

[16] Id. at 781; Meisenkothen supra note 14 at 121.

[17] Kaplan, supra note 5, at 782.

[18] Id. at 788-90.

[19] See Nuclear Weapons and Reactors on the Sea Floor, Law of the Sea Institute, at

[20] Harper's Index, Harper's , March 2004. The source is attributed to the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, who have not responded to an inquiry to provide the complete list.

[21] Keay Davidson, Sunken Soviet Sub Leaked Plutonium , SF Chron ., Nov. 24, 1996.

[22] 140 Cong. Rec. H3847 (daily ed. Monday, May 23, 1994) (statement of Rep. Weldon).

[23] Lakshman D. Guruswamy & Jason B. Aamodt , Nuclear Arms Control: The Environmental Dimension , 10 Colo.. J. Int'l Envtl . L. & Pol'y 267, 284 (1999)

[24] Igor Krudik , K-159 doomed by expectations of Western funding , Bellona , at

[25] Kaplan, supra note 8 , cites this as coming from: The Politics of Posterity, in Costing the Earth: A Survey of the Environment , ECONOMIST, Sept. 2, 1989, at Survey 3,


Click to open larger clickable map in a new window.

Click Below for Acrobat .pdf files:

1971 Treaty on the prohibition of the emplacement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on the seabed and the ocean floor and in the subsoil thereof) (.pdf)

1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (.pdf)

1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (.pdf)

1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter - 1996 Protocol (.pdf)

Richard J. Ansson, Jr., The North American Agreement on Environmental Protection and the Arctic Council Agreement: Will These Multinational Agreements Adequately Protect the Environment? 29 Cal. W. Int'l L.J. 101 (1998)

Andrew Blowers et al., The International Politics of Nuclear Waste 173 (1991)

Jeffrey Canfield, Soviet and Russian Nuclear Waste Dumping in the Arctic Marine Environment: Legal, Historical, and Political Implications, 6 Geo. Int'l Envtl. L. Rev. 353 (1994)

Curtis, Legality of Seabed Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes Under the London Dumping Convention , 14 Ocean Dev. & Int'l L. 383 (1985)

W. Jackson Davis and Jon M. Van Dyke, Dumping of Decommissioned Nuclear Submarines at Sea, 14 Marine Pol'y 467, 475 (1990)

Jason H. Eaton, Kicking the Habit: Russia 's Addiction to Nuclear Waste Dumping at Sea, 23 Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 287 (1995)

Lakshman D. Guruswamy & Jason B. Aamodt,Nuclear Arms Control: The Environmental Dimension, 10 Colo. . J. Int'l Envtl. L. & POL'Y 267 (1999)

Charles D. Hollister & Steven Nadis, Burial of Radioactive Waste under the Seabed, Sci. Am., Jan. 1998, at 60

Robert A. Kaplan, Comment: Into The Abyss: International Regulation of Subseabed Nuclear Waste Disposal, 139 U. Pa. L. Rev. 769 (1991)

P. Kilho Park ,, Radioactive Wastes and the Oceans: An Overview, in 3 Radioactive Wastes and the Ocean 3, 22 (P. Kilho Park, ed. 1983)

Krieger, The United Nations Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Ocean Floor, 3 J. MAR. L. & COMM. 107, 118 (1971)

Steven D. Lavine, Russian Dumping in the Sea of Japan , 24 Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 417 (19 96)

James R. McCullagh, Comment: Russian Dumping of Radioactive Wastes In The Sea of Japan: An Opportunity to Evaluate the Effectiveness of The London Convention 1972, 5 Pac. Rim L. & Pol'y 399 (1996)

Christopher Meisenkothen, Note: Subseabed Disposal of Nuclear Waste: An International Policy Perspective, 14 Conn. J. Int'l L. 631 (1999)

Justin Mellor, Radioactive Waste and Russia 's Northern Fleet: Sinking the Principles of International Environmental Law, 28 Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 51 (1999)

E. Miles, K. Lee, & E. Carlin, Nuclear Waste Disposal Under the Seabed: Assessing the Policy Issues 23 (1985)

Elena Molodstova, Nuclear Energy and Environmental Protection: Responses of International Law, 12 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 185 (1994)

Kristin Moody-O'Grady, Nuclear Waste Dumping in the Oceans: Has the Cold War Taught Us Anything?, 35 Nat. Resources J. 695 (1995)

Steven Nadis, The Sub-seabed Solution, 278 Atlantic Monthly 28 (1996)

Nuclear Energy Agency, Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Seabed Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste: A Status Report on The NEA Coordinated Research Programme (1984)

D. Reese, Nuclear Power and Radioactive Waste: A Sub-Seabed Disposal Option? (1978)

Lasse Ringius, Radioactive Waste Disposal at Sea : Public Ideas, Transnational Policy Entrepreneurs, and Environmental Regimes (2001)

Donald R. Rothwell, International Law and the Protection of the Arctic Environment, 44 Int'l & Comp. L.Q. 280, 280 (1995)

David Schneider, Not In My Backyard: Could Ocean Mud Trap Nuclear Waste from Old Russian Subs, Scientific American, Mar. 1997 at 20, 21.

David G. Spak, The Need for a Ban on All Radioactive Waste Disposal in the Ocean, 7 NW. J. INT'L L. & BUS. 803 (1986)

Judith Spiller & Cynthia Hayden, Radwaste at Sea: A New Era of Polarization or a New Basis for Consensus?, 19 Ocean Dev. & Int'l L. 345, 351 (1988).

Olav Schram Stokke, Nuclear Dumping in Arctic Seas : Russian Implementation of the London Convention. in David G. Victor, Kal Raustiala, and Eugene B. Skolnikoff (eds.), The Implementation and Effectiveness of International Environmental Commitments : Theory and Practice (1998)

Melissa A. Verhaag, NOTE: It Is Not Too Late: The Need for a Comprehensive International Treaty to Protect the Arctic Environment, 15 Geo. Int'l Envtl. L. Rev. 555 (2003)

James Waczewski, Legal, Political, and Scientific Response to Ocean Dumping and Sub-Seabed Disposal of Nuclear Waste, 7 J. Transnat'l L. & Pol'y 97 ( 1997)

Hubertus Welsch, The London Dumping Convention and Sub-Seabed Disposal of Radioactive Waste , 28 German Y.B. of Int'l L. 322 (1985)

Cristina Chuen, Russian Submarine Dismantlement Issues, Center for Nonproliferation Studies Research Story of the Week, December 3, 2003 ,


Analysis of the issues related to sea dumping of radioactive wastes / J.M. Bewers and C.J.R. Garrett

Marine policy. - 11(2) Apr. 1987 : 105-124

An end to radioactive waste disposal 'at sea'? / Sonja A. Boehmer-Christiansen.

Marine policy. - 10(2) Apr. 1986 : 119-131

Dumping nuclear waste into the sea : international control and the role of science and law / S.A. Boehmer-Christiansen

Marine policy. - 7(1) Jan. 1983 : 25-36

Radioactive waste and ocean dumping : the role of the IAEA / D.P. Calmet and J.M. Bewers

Marine policy. - 15(6) Nov. 1991 : 413-430

Soviet and Russian nuclear waste dumping in the Arctic marine environment : legal, historical, and political implications / Jeffrey L. Canfield.

Nuclear waste management activities in the Pacific basin and regional cooperation on the nuclear fuel cycle / Daniel P. Finn

Ocean development and international law. - 13(2) 1983 : 213-246

The sub-seabed disposal of high level nuclear waste : an alternative viewpoint / Geoff P. Glasby

New Zealand international review. - 8(3) May/June 1983 : 21-23

International liability for damage resulting from dumping radioactive wastes at sea / José Juste Ruiz

Yearbook maritime law. - Vol. 4 1987/1988 : 155-182

State responsibility and assessment of liability for damage resulting from dumping operations / George C. Kasoulides

San Diego law review. No. 3, Law of the sea. - 26(3) Aug./Sept. 1989 : 497-523

Ocean dumping of radioactive wastes : law and politics / V.S. Mani

Indian journal of international law. - 24(2) Apr./June 1984 : 224-244

Considering an international subseabed waste repository : rational choice and community interest / John Norton Moore

Washington quarterly. - 9(3) Summer 1986 : 115-134

Review of the continued suitability of the dumping site for radioactive waste in the North-East Atlantic

Paris : Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, 1985.

Regional protests against nuclear waste dumping in the Pacific / Yoko S. Ogashiwa

Journal of Pacific studies. - Vol. 15 1990 : 51-66

Ringuis, Lasse

Environmental NGOs and regime change : the case of ocean dumping of radioactive waste

European journal of international relations. 3(1) Mar. 1996 : 61-104

The need for a ban on all radioactive waste disposal in the ocean / David G. Spak

Northwestern journal of international law and business. - 7(4) Fall/Winter 1986 : 803-832

The hazards of dumping nuclear waste at sea : can they be estimated? / Harry Sutton

New Zealand international review. - 9(2) Mar./Apr. 1984 : 11-13


U. S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents, by Jaya Tiwari and Cleve J. Gray. A good listing by two graduate students, separated into indicents confirmed by two (or one governmental) source and those that are unconfirmed.

The CNN report on "Broken Arrows" shows the weapons lost as reported by the DoD in 1981. It also has some information unavailable elsewhere, such as the amount of uranium scattered over the St. Lawrence seaway in 1950.