Cleaning up abandoned military sites

Military activities have caused such formidable damage to the environment and to human health that their consequences will be felt for decades and, in instances of forms of radioactive contamination, for much longer. Unfortunately, hardly any of the world's nations are devoid of contaminated military sites, devastated landscapes, polluted groundwater and injured biota; furthermore, damage has been spread throughout the oceans and atmosphere. In those developing countries which have emerged from long periods of war or other conflicts, landmines contaminate fields and roads.

The catastrophic nature of environmental contamination becomes more apparent as additional sites of contamination are discovered and as the effects of the damage at known sites manifests itself fully. The seepage of chemical or radioactive contamination into water systems and the corrosion of containers dumped at sea, containing chemical weapons or radioactive material are but two examples of problems that grow more serious with the passage of time.

The scope of the problem and the technological needs can only be hinted at. Thus, pollution from radioactive waste stored on land and at sea is a subject of great concern. In some regions, nuclear waste has been stored in disregard of internationally accepted standards established to prevent environmental damage. Locating and assessing such sites is particularly urgent. In the first place, efforts must focus on pollution from radioactive materials, primarily those affecting oceans and waterways and, secondly, on chemical pollution resulting from the dumping of chemical weapons. In this context, problems of radioactive contamination arising from the accidental loss and decommissioning of nuclear submarines have received considerable public attention in the recent past. It is necessary to assess the effects on the marine and human environment of present levels of radioactivity, including the risks of increased levels of contamination owing to corrosion.

Similar problems exist regarding the storage and dumping of chemical weapons. The first step needed is to assess the contamination status and to identify the different chemical agents that are involved. The next step would be a risk analysis that takes into consideration the evaluation of corrosion, leakage and dispersion processes and the possibility of local migration and bio-accumulation. Priorities must be established and accurate estimates must be made of the remediation costs.

Another most pressing issue involves the introduction of remedial technologies for the treatment of contaminated land and groundwater. Such remedial technologies have to encompass biological, chemical, physical and thermal waste treatment technologies. The conversion and disposal, of explosives and propellants are important tasks for future activities in this area. However, the applicability of recycling technologies as well as chemical disposal technologies for conversion purposes is still limited. Further investigations are currently underway in order to develop new processes and to improve the product quality. For example, experimental studies have demonstrated the biotechnological degradability of a series of explosives. Microbiological treatments make use of natural purification effects working with water streams under high pressure and using chemical additives. Such new technologies open up completely new horizons to the elimination of dangerous materials.

The effort needed to correct these problems is truly massive. A comprehensive and fast solution is beyond the economic means of today's societies. Even spread over generations, satisfactory clean-up can only be managed by prioritizing the problems, tackling or containing those that are the most urgent and developing more cost-effective technologies. International efforts are imperative, not only because of the magnitude of the problem, but also because of their transboundary character. This requires a coordinated effort relying heavily on existing institutions, including military ones, to share experiences and resources. Such cooperation would be a first vital step towards eliminating the most noxious and long-lasting consequences of the Cold War.

Some initiatives are already under way. Thus, for example, work plans as well as pilot studies proposed by the Science Committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS), have started to enable cross-national cooperation and consultation in political, military, economic, scientific and environmental domains and have greatly intensified NATO's involvement in environmentally-related issues. Those initiatives have involved non-NATO member states such as the economies in transition.
Type Classification:
G: Very Specific strategies