Greenpeace activists try to prevent the dumping of nuclear waste in the Atlantic Ocean – and meet with resistance and scorn. Only years later does the campaign succeed.

With dozens of barrels of nuclear waste on board, the freighter Gem, chartered by the British Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA), left for the Atlantic in the summer of 1979. As every year, the highly toxic radioactive cargo is to be disposed of about one thousand kilometres south-west of the English coast. However, the crew of the freighter will not remain undisturbed for long. Activists from the environmental organisation Greenpeace are at the wheel of their new flagship Rainbow Warrior. To prevent further barrels from being dropped, they try to position themselves with rubber dinghies under the Gem’s loading ramp.

The crew of the cargo ship mounts a counter-attack. They use water cannons to drive the Greenpeace members away, while continuing with the dumping. Again and again, the black barrels roll down the freighter’s ramp and miss the rubber dinghies by a hair’s breadth. The activists and the crew exchange words: ‘Last night we saw thirty fishing boats’, a woman shouts excitedly. ‘You’re meant to be dumping outside the fishing area, aren’t you?’ – ‘Not a problem!’, the crew counters, ‘No big deal!’ Filmed at the time on behalf of Greenpeace, a compilation of the scenes was published in 2015 on the YouTube channel ‘AP Archive’, a video archive of the Associated Press news agency.

The background: From the late 1940s onwards, the energy authorities of various industrialised countries ordered that nuclear waste – generated, for example, by the production of nuclear weapons or the operation of nuclear power plants – was to be deposited on the sea bed. At that time, it was considered certain that radioactive substances and other industrial waste would be diluted to harmless levels by ocean currents, so almost every country that produced such waste followed a similar approach. At the beginning of 1972, an agreement against marine pollution was signed for the first time with the Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo Convention). It went into force two years later and applied to the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic Sea. However, the major nuclear industrialised countries did not sign the agreement.

Also in 1972, as part of the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (short: London Convention), it was agreed that waste that poses a concrete threat to the ecosystem must not be dumped in the ocean. Two years after the London Convention came into force in 1975, a total of 40 states had signed it – including the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain, some of the largest producers of nuclear waste. The catch: the nuclear lobby had managed to ensure that so-called ‘low-level waste’ was not affected by the agreements. The categorisation into ‘low’, ‘medium’, and ‘high-level radioactive waste’ was carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN organisation that critics call the arm of the ‘nuclear lobby’. Elements with high radiotoxicity and long half-lives – such as plutonium and strontium – were later found in waste declared as ‘harmless’.

Greenpeace quickly became aware of the environmental danger of dumping. As early as 1978, the crew of the Rainbow Warrior, accompanied by a camera team from London, uncovered the activities of the British freighter Gem. The environmental activists initially played the role of observers: they documented without intervening and showed the footage at a specially convened press conference. Since the Gem set course for the Atlantic at the same time every year, the activists around David McTaggart – the first chairman of the umbrella organisation Greenpeace International based in Amsterdam – were able to plan their action for the following summer in detail.

Greenpeace repeatedly organised protests with rubber dinghies, while at the same time the organisation’s area of operations expanded to the Pacific and the North Sea. From the very beginning, the environmentalists have been keen to have a camera team on hand to document every protest, both for media coverage and as evidence in the event of subsequent legal action. In addition, since the late 1970s Greenpeace has regularly compiled a ‘clipreel’ from the raw material, which is made available to media organisations and news agencies.

It is unclear whether the video is an original Greenpeace clipreel or a version edited by the Associated Press. The quality of the footage suffers to a large extent from the adverse conditions of the open sea: almost all of the shots are filmed from an inflatable boat that is thrown up and down by the swell and the freighter’s wake; in addition, the activists’ shouts are drowned out by the noise of the ship’s engines and water cannons. To ensure the most efficient distribution possible, Greenpeace used the Beta-SP format for the recording. Since the cameras, which were still in use until the 1990s, weighed between 10 and 15 kilograms, making filming a physically demanding task, a cameraman from the news agency United Press International Television News (UPITN) was hired. Today the picture rights are held by AP after UPITN was bought up in 1998.

The individual components of the video seem almost arbitrarily put together. There is no traceable chronological sequence of events. Background information is not provided; instead, the video is intended to serve as an eyewitness document and relies on the highest possible degree of authenticity. Nevertheless, a certain arc of suspense can be identified, with a dramatic escalation towards the end. At the beginning the Rainbow Warrior is staged as an equal opponent of the Gem, she dashes through the waves and declares war on the freighter. Then, however, while the activists are fended off by the water cannons, the camera films from below looking up at the freighter – it is supposed to create the impression of a classic fight of ‘David against Goliath’. When asked why they would dump nuclear waste in fishing waters, the crew of the Gem reacts with mockery and derision. Here at the latest, they appear to be an overpowering opponent.

In the concluding interview, Greenpeace chairman David McTaggart, who is also on site, legitimises the action as morally imperative: ‘These are international waters. We have the right to be here by common heritage,’ he says, interpreting the protest as a just rebellion. ‘International waters belong to everyone, to all of us. The question is, what right do they have to be here?’ Behind him a banner with the inscription ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!’ – the motto of the then burgeoning anti-nuclear power movement.

The wave of protests against the dumping of nuclear waste, started by Greenpeace in 1979, raised awareness of marine pollution worldwide. Greenpeace did not only rely on moving images: Right next to the cameraman from UPITN, Dutch photographer Floris Bergkamp sat in a rubber dinghy, documenting the events from the same perspective in black and white photos. In this way, the material could be distributed equally to TV and print media. Bergkamp’s commitment was recognised by World Press Photo in 1980 with the first Oskar Barnack Award – an award for photographers who portray the relationship between humans and the environment in a special way with a short, self-contained series of images. The clever media staging of Greenpeace’s actions probably contributed to the decision to tighten up the London Convention in 1993 – a complete ban on the disposal of nuclear waste at sea was the result.

Today, the main question is what has happened to the discarded barrels since then. Dumping has been stopped, but information on the dumping sites, the type of nuclear waste, and its radiation level is still patchy. There was no requirement for documentation until the 1970s. A few years ago, as part of a research project Greenpeace members hoisted a number of dilapidated barrels with leaking radioactive material on board their ship. In the end, however, they too had to throw the barrels, some of which were severely damaged, back into the ocean, as they did not have any adequate possibility for disposal. A comprehensive salvage operation is still not planned to date.

Alexander Campos da Ponte