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Paradise At Risk: Issues Bedeviling The Caribbean

Paradise at Risk: Environmental and Nuclear Issues Bedevil the Caribbean

  • The Caribbean Coral Reef is slowly disappearing, a sign that nature is losing its war against development
  • A nuclear powered smelter is being planned in Suriname, as vessels carrying nuclear waste ply the Caribbean
  • A "minor" spill in December 2007 in a Jamaican resort--did the guests notice the black gunk in the water?
  • The Hemisphere reaffirms its intention to remain a nuclear weapons free-zone, but what about civilian nuclear power?
  • What does the OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin, who hails from Suriname, think of his country's proposed nuclear energy source?

Tourists from across the globe seek out the Caribbean islands, attracted by sunlit beaches and deluxe hotels. At the same time, recent developments brought about by civilian nuclear use has put the Caribbean's fragile natural environment at significant risk. Suriname's decision to build a nuclear powered bauxite refining plant is just the latest in a string of possible environmental threats now in the making in the region. In addition, proposals to widen the Panama Canal will have no small impact on the size and type of the next generation of vessels which will be transiting the Caribbean en route to the Central American isthmus, along with ships carrying nuclear waste and other hazardous materials. If allowed to occur, at some point, one-in-a-million nuclear "episodes" could bring about an environmental catastrophe. The ongoing loss of Caribbean coral reefs serves as example that, in spite of a few isolated initiatives and the odd alarm, safeguarding the environment is far from being a high-priority matter for major Caribbean area decision makers.

Local politics and self-serving economic-based decisions hostile to the Caribbean region's fragile ecosystem must be guarded against, while a high degree of careful planning and responsible and effective oversight will be needed to determine that the emergence of a "nuclear Caribbean" era not inevitably end in tragedy.

Suriname's Nuclear Plant

Last year, the Surinamese government made the fateful decision to build a facility that would serve as a nuclear-powered aluminum smelter. Supporters of the plant argue that it would come up with 1,500 jobs once it becomes fully operational. Other industries connected to the project would generate upwards of 3,000 additional jobs. The creation of such a comparatively large job pool would represent a very important development aspect for this impoverished nation. International investors are willing to come up with an additional $30 million for Panamaribo to construct this nuclear facility. It is envisaged that the nuclear fuel for the installation would be provided by a consortium comprised of Italy, Japan, South Africa, France and China. The factory would be located in Groot Chatillon, opposite Paranam, some 20 miles south of Paramaribo, where the Suriname Alumina Company (Suralco) already has a refinery.

Regarding the nuclear waste that the plant will produce, the president of the Suriname Industrial Engineering and Vehicle Services, Bisram Chanderbosh, has argued that the "supplier will collect the waste at three year intervals; in the interim , there would be an advanced monitoring system in place to track the delivery of the fuel and collection of the waste." Government officials hope to have the plant ready to come on-line within three years, thanks to a sophisticated infrastructure being provided from abroad.

The regional Caribbean Community organization (CARICOM) has been at odds over what position to take regarding the proposed investment in the Suriname facility. The Guyanese newspaper Starbroek News observed, in a May 2007 article, that "Caricom has, over the years, consistently called on governments guilty of shipping nuclear waste across the Caribbean Sea to desist from doing this." Hence, Suriname's decision to build the reactor puts the regional body in an awkward position.

Furthermore, environmental groups like Greenpeace consistently have criticized Panamaribo's decision to go nuclear, putting forth arguments that remind the citizenry that the country has no history or expertise with nuclear devices. In addition, the question of the disposal of nuclear waste is both expensive and contentious. According to the environmentalists, it would make more sense for Suriname to turn to some kind of renewable energy source which the country has in abundance, like, for example solar power. Greenpeace argues that "the planned Simplified Gas Cooled Reactor (SGR) was not widely used yet and there was therefore very little international experience with this type of reactor." This lack of experience could very well increase the prospects for industrial and transportation accidents.

Should Suriname be able to go ahead and construct the facility, there could be a groundswell of concern that this initiative could be the beginning of the proliferation of nuclear powered projects in the region.

Panama and the Caribbean - Shipment of Hazardous Materials

Since the construction of the Panama Canal a century ago, the Caribbean has been a prime commercial corridor through which vessels travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In recent decades, some of the vessels that cross the Canal are ships carrying hazardous materials. Nuclear waste, among other hazardous materials, is shipped from European nuclear plants, through the Caribbean, to the Panama Canal and from there to Japan, for its ultimate disposal.

For a number of years CARICOM and individual area nations have complained about this activity, saying that, should an accident occur, there could be a major spillover, which cannot help but adversely affect one of the tankers loaded with dangerous pollutants. An accident would also bring on a devastating impact on the atolls and bird life of the Caribbean, particularly on nesting and migratory flocks. In January 2000, the Washington D.C.-based Nuclear Control Institute published a report entitled "The Dangers of Shipping Vitrified Radioactive Waste." The report explains the effects on the maritime environment of this radiological contamination. In February 2007, Panamanian environmentalists protested the passage of the ship Sandpiper (owned by the British Nuclear Group, Areva NC and the Overseas Reprocessing Committee) through the Canal en route to Japan. These protests, however, still pale in comparison with the turmoil generated by the Pacific Swan, which, in its December 2000 voyage, was carrying eight shipping casks holding 192 half-ton logs of glassified nuclear waste, a byproduct of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, to remove weapons-grade plutonium. The vessel departed from Cherbourg, France after having decided to head for Japan via the southern route around Cape Horn, South America. This was due to fierce protests by Caribbean basin governments. This routing represented a considerable field success for Caribbean mini-states and environmental groups, as they managed to force this vessel and its dangerous cargo from sailing through their waters. In addition, the detour to South America brought a heightened awareness of the dangers of such shipments to southern cone nations like Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, who also began to voice their concern over the Swan's proposed route that would bring it to their waters.

Private companies and a number of governments which favor the commercial exploitation of the Caribbean, argue that other possible transshipment passages through the much more dangerous corridors, adjoining Canada and the Patagonia also should be investigated for their risk level. Nevertheless, Panama Canal Authority officials insist that there has never been any accident involving ships transporting hazardous nuclear-related materials.

The future of the Caribbean environment will to a large extent be determined by the introduction of an enlarged Panama Canal into service. A June 2007 article in the influential British shipping daily, Lloyd's List, explains that "with the Panama Canal due for massive expansion, the likelihood of much greater volumes of transshipment traffic pouring into the Caribbean in the years ahead is very high." The article goes on to quote Luis Carpio, Director of Transportation and Natural Disasters for the Port of Spain-based Association of Caribbean States, as saying "once the canal is widened, every country in the Caribbean is going to be affected in one way or another, in the sense that you're going to have much larger ships going through, bringing increased trade to the Caribbean."

More, and bigger ships crossing the Caribbean, docking in places like Jamaica en route to the Canal, arguably increase prospects for some type of accident to occur (security analysts will also argue that maritime terrorism is always a possibility) which could have disastrous consequences on the environment. A November 2007 report by the Caribbean Media Corporation quotes St. Vincent's director of Maritime Administration, David Robin, as saying "the Eastern Caribbean is where there is more than 30 percent of the traffic of oil in the world." Hence, the small island is establishing plans for how to deal with menacing spills of either oil or other hazardous materials in Caribbean waters.

The Dying Caribbean Coral Reef

A recent report by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission presents a grim picture of the contemporary status of the Caribbean Coral Reef. As many as 120 million people live on or near Caribbean coastal areas, including the Caribbean islands as well as the Florida Keys, and the Mexican peninsula, etc. The loss of coral reefs not only represents a disaster for biodiversity, but for local economies as well. The World Resources Institute estimates that the Caribbean region -- host to 10 percent of the world's remaining coral -- stands to lose 95 to 285 million euros ($140 to $420 million) annually if current trends continue. In a May 2007 filing by Reuters' correspondent Shurnan Robbins, she pointed to the example of the coral reefs in the Cayman Islands. Robbins explained that, "ranked among the Top 10 scuba-diving destinations in the world, the reef system of the western Caribbean territory has lost 50 percent of its hard corals in the past 10 years in spite of strong environmental laws." The Caymans tourism industry represents about 50 per cent of the island's gross domestic product. Therefore, a total loss of the basin's reef system would have severe effects on island tourism, most likely delivering a devastating blow to its economy.

In the past 50 years, the Caribbean reef has lost as much as 80 percent of its coastal cover. This is particularly worrisome as the reefs provide the population with a number of vital, free-of-charge services, like fishing, tourism sites and protection of the coastline from storms. This is not to mention that the loss of the reefs is exposing a number of species that inhabit them to great risk, including varieties of sharks. The rise of sea temperatures, pollution and over-fishing usually are part of the pattern of ecological deterioration. Scientists explain that chemical runoffs and sewage-contaminated waters kill reefs; from this perspective, one can only imagine the terrible consequences that would occur should a vessel carrying nuclear waste through the Caribbean from either Europe or departing from some local point as Suriname, is involved in some type of accident (or falls victim to a terrorist attack).

A frightening scenario of what could happen should a spill of hazardous materials occur in the Caribbean could be reflected in the current increase in fish poisoning worldwide. In a November 2007 article carried by the Associated Press, environmental writer Michael Casey explains that "scientists say the risks [of fish poisoning] are getting worse, because of damage that pollution and global warming are inflicting on the coral reefs where many fish species feed. Dozens of popular fish types, including grouper and barracuda, live near reefs. They accumulate the toxic chemical in their bodies from eating smaller fish that graze on the poisonous algae." The increase of pollutants in the water results in fish catching ciguatera. Humans who eat fish with the disease suffer from gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiovascular disorders. It is daunting to imagine what would happen should a spill from a vessel carrying toxic waste occurred in the Caribbean. The effects most likely would be disastrous to maritime life as well as to humans who happen to eat the poisoned fish. In addition, this could quite readily cripple fishing and tourism activities across the region, which are vital to the economy and fragile ecology of Caribbean area nations.

Needs and Limits

The fight to preserve the Caribbean environment brings up a number of other issues. Besides the obvious need to protect the environment, the Caribbean states earn a large amount of revenue through tourism, the bedrock of which is a healthy environment. Most of the nations in the area contain pockets of poverty, with very limited natural resources or alternative scenarios to allow for orderly economic development. Because of their limited wealth and scant prospects, they cannot readily opt for the development costs of an efficient, but significantly more expensive, renewable energy resources model. Caribbean decision makers are essentially trapped by the need to promote their economies and build new environmentally-friendly industries with the limited wealth and choices at their disposal, while at the same time having to protect the environment in order to promote the basis for a thriving tourist industry.

The September 2006 forum that took place in Port-of-Spain, capital of Trinidad & Tobago, was entitled "Energy and the Competitiveness of the Caribbean." The goal of the gathering, attended by 325 participants, was to discuss the energy challenges in the region. Among those in attendance were political leaders and energy ministers from the Caribbean, multilateral development banks, potential investors, as well as Patrick Duddy, the U.S. State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. The goal of the conference was to promote alternative sources of energy for the Caribbean states in order to decrease their dangerous dependency on oil imports. Suriname's turn to nuclear energy exemplifies that the Caribbean countries are indeed looking for other energy sources, even though these may not be as environmentally-friendly and arguably, are sometimes more dangerous, than their usual supplies

An example of the baleful consequences that a lack of respect for the environment can cause and the potential disastrous impact on the Caribbean environment occurred in December 2007 in Jamaica. According to reports at the time, an employee of the "Sandals Royal Caribbean" Hotel discovered a thick viscous substance in the sea about half a mile from the resort. The substance turned out to be oil which had been spilled by individuals along the Northern Coastal Highway. The spill was labeled as "minor," even though considerable harm already had been done to a part of the island's wetland systems as well as the maritime life in the Ironshore coastline region. Hopefully, the owners of tourist resorts not only in Jamaica but in the Caribbean as a whole will take a more aggressive role in protecting the environment from which they directly benefit. Furthermore, government agencies should more aggressively carry out their monitoring responsibilities.

Nuclear Weapons vs. Nuclear Power

In early February, the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) met to declare their commitment to maintain the Western Hemisphere as a zone free of nuclear weapons. Member states have signed and ratified several regional and international treaties to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry, including the Treaty of Tlatelolco (also known as the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the International Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The current discussion revolves around not only stopping nuclear weaponry from becoming part of the arsenal of regional militaries (Brazil has declared its intention to build a nuclear-powered submarine), but also using nuclear energy for peaceful means.

It is unclear what the position will be, if any, that the OAS will decide to take on Suriname's construction of a nuclear power plant. After all, the OAS Assistant Secretary General is Albert Ramdin, a Surinamese citizen.

While it is commendable that the OAS continues to strive for a continent free of nuclear weaponry, more needs to be done to prevent the spread of nuclear technology to governments who may not be fit to correctly handle it. A nuclear power plant which is not properly managed can be almost as dangerous and destructive as a nuclear weapon.

Human vs. the Environment: A Fragile Balance

In March 2006, a report by the Caribbean Media Corporation mentioned that a device carrying 16kg of depleted uranium had washed up on a beach in Mayaro, Trinidad & Tobago. The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) was called and determined that there had been no leak of the device's contents; the EMA said that the discarded device is used by the petroleum industry to establish the integrity of welded joints and that it was "not to be opened or tampered with." Exposure to radiation coming from these materials could be harmful to human health and to the environment. While no danger was posed by this device on this particular occasion, the thought remains that other accidents could occur, either at the Surinamese aluminum nuclear smelting plant that is presently being developed, or by some European vessel carrying nuclear waste off Jamaica's or Trinidad's coastlines which might be involved in a collision.

The lesson to be learned of any threat to the Caribbean coral reefs and population in general appears to be that lofty environmental declarations and well-merited environmental decrees as of yet have had little effect on preserving the region's precious maritime legacy. It is difficult to be optimistic and argue that governments, which have been incapable of safeguarding the area's delicate reef system up to now, can offer any assurance that they could do so in regards to preventing possible environmental disasters that would come from a growing population and expanding commercial activity in the nuclear Caribbean.

This analysis was prepared by Research Fellow Alex Sanchez

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org

ENDS

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