Nuke found off B.C. coast is tip of the iceberg, says expert in rotting underwater munitions

Scuba diver Sean Smyrichinsky was only looking for some sea cucumbers, but in his search, he found something that gave him a little more bang for his buck.

Smyrichinsky found a decaying nuclear weapon when he went diving earlier this year off the coast of Pitt Island, a small island near Haida Gwaii, B.C. Officials suspect the device was from an American air bomber that crashed during the Cold War in 1950.

Though the weapon doesn’t appear to contain any active nuclear material, according to the BBC, it could still be a threat.

Terrence Long, founder and chair of the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions (IDUM) says this finding is more dangerous than we might think.

Long has 14 years of non-profit work under his belt fighting for the cleanup of residual underwater weapons.  These decaying leftover munitions, he says, are emitting carcinogenic chemicals into international coastal shores.

“Nobody, and not one country, is adequately addressing this issue,” Long said in a phone interview from his hometown of Sydney, N.S.

The retired military engineer worked extensively on the landmine eradication treaty that Canada signed in 1997.  After returning to Nova Scotia to start managing offshore waste in the oil industry, he heard about the danger of underwater munitions while working with local First Nations communities who were campaigning for awareness around underwater munition dumpsites.

“In my own research, I started to find more connections with reproductive health and regional cancers in the areas where you can find these sites,” he said.

Studies that Long completed around Nova Scotia’s munition sites focused primarily on cod fish, the most locally-farmed and consumed fish in the maritime regions. Long says he found significant biological stress on their kidneys and livers, and that juvenile fish are failing to successfully spawn.

Off Nova Scotia’s coast, the dumping site known as the 4VN fishing zone has more than 80,000 tonnes of rotting, carcinogenic munitions.

“This is a site where local people rely on the fish not just as food, but subsidy,” Long said.

Munition dumping site of the coast of Nova Scotia / Photo courtesy of Terry Long.

Decaying underwater munitions not just a Canadian issue, Long added.

“There are sites all over the world that are releasing harmful chemicals,” he said. “They are leftover from airplane wrecks, shipwrecks and post-war dumping projects.”

This biggest task for Long is getting his work on the international scale. With the IDUM, he is planning to establish an international treaty that will ensure the global eradication of underwater munitions.

Countries have to start taking ownership of the problem, Long said.

“These munitions will remain on the seafloor for thousands of years if we don’t do anything about them.”

Long is developing a presentation for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ upcoming annual conference in the Hague, Netherlands. The conference will host the organization’s 193 countries to discuss the future around chemical weapon prevention and cleanup.