By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Will Norway contaminate its fjords with mining waste?

by in Environment.

Sunset over the Oslo Fjord, Norway. Getty Images

Sunset over the Oslo Fjord, Norway. Getty Images

Norway urgently needs to find a place to dispose of its radioactive mining waste — and it has its sights set on Langøya, an island an hour south of Oslo. NOAH, the firm that owns the waste dump on the island, has conducted two technical evaluations and both times concluded that storing the proposed radioactive waste would not work. However, as Norway’s VG newspaper reported on Friday, the country’s Ministry of Industry is undeterred and has hired the Swedish Defense Research Agency to evaluate the project’s feasibility despite NOAH’s repeated objections.

“Placing radioactive waste in the middle of the Oslo Fjord, which is the fjord for two million Norwegians, is about as far from being smart as it’s possible to go. At worst, an earthquake give [sic] radioactive leakage,” said NOAH’s CEO Stein Lier Hansen. Even without the addition of the 1,200 tons of radioactive waste in question, the operational landfill in Langøya is likely to become full within the next few years. In fact, NOAH is planning to move to a new site before 2022.

There are other potential solutions, such as the one adopted by Finland, which has already developed facilities where radioactive waste is disposed of deep in bedrock. (Furthermore, that radioactive waste is placed in thick steel crates with molded bottoms, ensuring their integrity against even the worst earthquakes.)

The Swedish agency is due to deliver its report on the Langøya proposal this fall. But even if it gets a favorable verdict and subsequent governmental approval, the Langøya project would face tremendous opposition from the public. The grassroots protest movement that was formed to oppose Norwegian firm Nordic Mining’s plans to mine Engebø mountain and dump the waste into the nearby Førde Fjord is an illuminating example. Regardless of the controversy, in April the government approved Nordic Mining’s plans, including the dumping of 6 million tons of waste per year over the mine’s envisioned 50-year lifespan. “The waste will be safely deposited in the best environmental way and will be free of harmful chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive elements”, the firm states.

But many aren’t convinced by the firm’s assurances or the government’s evaluation criteria that promises high standards and continuous monitoring. “It’s almost unbelievable that we have to fight the government to keep our fjords clean and waste-free,” said Arnstein Vestre, leader of Natur og Ungdom, the youth group of the Norwegian chapter of Friends of the Earth. Local salmon farmers and a substantial portion of other residents also fear the mining operation and its waste will pollute the fjord and cause irreparable environmental damage. Indeed, an objection to the plan from the Directorate of Fisheries of Norway’s western region was overruled. Views and News from Norway reports that fish farmers, who make up the country’s second-largest export industry after oil, fear they’ll find themselves uprooted by new mining operations that win permission to use the sea as their dumping grounds.

As the price of oil remains low, Norway’s ruling Conservative Party is constantly looking for new sources of income to diversify the country’s oil-fueled economy. Boosting domestic mining, to generate more economic activity and employment in outlying areas, is a high priority, so authorized disposal sites are needed.

However, some 250 young environmental activists (and some opposition politicians) gathered along the Førde Fjord earlier this month, and according to Vestre, in just his organization 1,700 are willing to resort to civil disobedience to block Nordic Mining’s plan. If the radioactive Langøya proposal advances, the number of protesters will be vastly higher.