Antarctic Polar Regions | Protecting Antarctica

Some of the cases of pollution

Before making an assessment of the current situation on the continent of Antarctica, looking at it from a political, scientific and environmental point of view, there is some value to be gained from taking a look at the events that have shaken - and even sometimes seriously damaged - its environment over a quarter of a century.

First of all, we should remind ourselves of the story of the nuclear reactor at the Americans' McMurdo base. On 21 December 1961, an experimental 1.8 MVV pressurised water reactor, called the "Nukey Poo", was taken in dismantled form to the McMurdo base; it was intended to produce heat and electricity at the lowest price. In July 1962, Nukey Poo, which had been installed not far from the volcano Mount Erebus, was brought on stream. The experimental reactor operated for ten years; the only serious incident, according to the official version, was the fire caused by a quantity of hydrogen given off by the reactor in 1962. Certainly, there was no nuclear accident at; nevertheless, the life of the reactor was studded by small breakdowns of every type, a series of shutdowns, damage caused by the fire and radioactive leaks. In 1972, the unit was shut down after some liquid coolant was introduced into the tank for the steam generator. The Americans then carried out an enquiry which demonstrated that at the end of the day, Nukey Poo was not cost-effective; after this, they decided to dismantle the installation and take it home again. A hundred or so barrels of radioactive soil and 11,000 cu.m. of rock that had to be excavated from Antarctica were loaded on to the same ship for analysis in the United States. 7 years later, after much cleaning up and decontamination work, the site was finally restored to what it had been before Nukey Poo had been set up.

Another case of harm being caused to the environment concerns the construction of a French landing strip in Adélie Land. This strip had to be capable of taking heavy payloads and was to be built on a string of islands stretching in a straight line for a distance of about 1000 metres close to Petrel Island where the Dumont d'Urville base is located. As far as the French people in charge and scientists, led by Paul-Emile Victor, were concerned, the aim was no longer to run the risk of being blocked in by the ice, to be able to conduct short-term research, to extend their summer campaigns from October through to March and to be able to conduct geophysical surveys on the continent from the plateau on which a base, Dome C, was to be installed; for them, the impact on the fauna, considered to be low, was not sufficient for the project to be stopped.
For a number of years, the business created a major stink. The reason for putting everyone's back up was simple: Petrel Island where the French base is located is a site of exceptional ecological value - in fact it was on account of the natural riches provided by this site that the first French base at Port Martin was established (destroyed by fire in the 1950s and replaced by Dumont d'Urville)... Once in a while doesn't hurt, so they say, so the scientists were directly involved and consulted. A Committee of Wise Men was set up by the French government which ruled in favour of the work being stopped; but the report remained curiously confined to a deep draw for many months. SCAR then took a turn at examining the problem by accepting to analyse a report produced by Greenpeace which had gone on site and pointed a finger at the insufficiency of the previous environmental impact studies. Unable to find a solution, SCAR contented itself with stating that the principles of this type of assessment had not been provided for in the Treaty at the time when the initial excavation work had begun.
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) also joined in the chorus of protests and asked the French government to think of another solution. From the side of the ecologists, the protests were doubtless less restrained. Some of us may remember Greenpeace militants in 1984 boarding a ship in Brest and ensconcing themselves at the top of a 50-metre mast in order to protest against the fact that the holds of the ship contained equipment destined for the landing strip in Adélie Land. Or six protesters disguised as sailors climbing the façade of the Paris building where the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises organisation was located, demanding that the report be published. It was all a waste of time: in November 1987, the minister for overseas dominion announced the immediate restarting of work. But a few years later, as the wave of criticism mounted, an enormous storm drove icebergs up against the unfinished landing strip and damaged it to such as extent that the French permanently abandoned the idea of continuing with the project as the cost of the repair work was deemed to be too expensive.

Other damage caused to the Antarctic environment: the accident in January 1989 involving the Argentinian supply (and cruise) ship Bahia Paraiso, which sank 1.6 kilometres from the American Palmer base, discharging nearly 700 tons of fuel into the surrounding waters. It was a serious incident, because in a matter of days, no less than 100 of sea was covered with hydrocarbons, causing the death of many invertebrates and sea birds. However, the accident was able to demonstrate the speed with which the National Science Foundation intervened. In under 36 hours, it managed to have ships sent to the area of the shipwreck to assess the damage done. Four years later, a joint operation was carried out by Argentina and the Netherlands in the area of the shipwreck in an attempt to recover the fuel remaining in the ship's hold. In addition to this, an impact study issued the opinion that there was less risk to the environment by leaving the wreck where it was and in the condition it was in, rather than take it elsewhere. No doubt the accident had caused irreparable damage to the Antarctic environment; but, seven years after the accident, the holds of the Bahia Paraiso are still leaking amid general indifference... According to a report from the Reuters press agency, which sent observers to the location in January 1997, the wreck is still giving off a smell of fuel oil and an oil slick is still visible. As far as the long-term damage caused to the local fauna is concerned, while penguins and shellfish populations do not appear to have suffered too much, it still has to be said that the great cormorant has entirely disappeared from the area around the wreck.

A final picture of the damage caused to the environment needs to be ranked outside all other categories so stunning is its content. This involves the lines written in the New York Times of 21 April 1992 by Stansfield Turner, boss of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) between 1977 and 1981, and a teacher at the School of Public Affairs in Maryland. In an article headed "Nuclear Weapons could be Stashed in Antarctica", this honourable American citizen suggested a solution to the problem of removing the nuclear warheads belonging to the former Soviet Union; this involved the process of rounding up the 30,000 nuclear warheads belonging to Russia, Kazakhstan Byelorussia and the Ukraine in Russia for obligatory destruction. But as a result of the lack of trust between the three latter republics, fearing that the warheads would not be destroyed, but merely sent to boost the armoury of an ambitious neighbour, they did not accept Russian soil for collecting the weapons. So they needed to find somewhere they could all agree on for storage. Hence Turner's idea of transporting the 30,000 nuclear warheads to Antarctica so that a special agency (probably American, but the article did not state that) could make an annual convoy to Russia, taking with it the warheads to be destroyed in that year. The most astonishing thing in this deadly vision of the 6th continent comes from the fact that the author suggested using the Dry Valleys around McMurdo as the storage location, which are the only areas of the Antarctic that are not covered year-round by ice and which are considered by the international scientific community as being of inestimable value. "The question boils down to knowing," wrote the author, "what risk the world is willing to run; the unforeseen use of nuclear weapons, or the possible contamination during transport, of a small area..." This is an attitude that illustrates in any event that for some countries and some lobbies, the Antarctic is not of much interest as such, although it is sufficiently integrated into world affairs that one day it could become the ideal back-up solution capable of resolving problems that would bring relief to the rest of the planet!