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The Navy Responds
If you're joining the saga of the nuclear submarine waste protocol late, here's a quick summary: We got a call on our Navy exercises show from a former submariner who said that when he was in the Navy, they would dump radioactive waste into the ocean. This surprised us, so we dug around a bit, and eventually talked to someone who operated the nuclear systems aboard a nuclear sub in the 1990s. You can read about his experiences here. We ran all of this by the Navy and asked what they do with nuclear waste on nuclear subs.
It took a week and a half ("we place a very high premium on accuracy, which as you know, can be the enemy of timeliness"), but we finally have an answer.
The key section:
With respect to radioactivity, all solid low level radioactive waste is transferred from the nuclear powered warships (NPWs) to land facilities. Once there it is packaged in strong, tight containers, shielded as necessary, and shipped to burial sites licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or by a State under agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This radioactive waste is not disposed of at sea.
Low-level radioactive liquids incidental to the operation of NPWs are released at sea under strict controls. These liquids are extremely pure water with trace amounts of corrosion and wear products that are slightly radioactive. U.S. Navy policy prohibits discharge of these liquids from NPWs within 12 miles of shore. As a measure of how stringently the Navy’s policy is applied even on the high seas outside of 12 miles from shore, the entire fleet of U.S. NPWs collectively released less than 0.4 curie of long-lived gamma radioactivity in each year since 1973. Releases occur at different times of the year in the open sea at long distances from land in small amounts, and under rapid dispersal conditions due to wave action. This small amount of radioactivity is less than the naturally occurring radioactivity in a cube of seawater 100 yards on a side. For additional perspective, U.S. naval nuclear fuel is solid metal, designed to withstand battle shock, and completely retains fission products inside the fuel so that they are never released to the environment.
The policy of the U.S. Navy is to reduce to the minimum practicable the amounts of radioactivity released to the environment.
You can download the Navy's full response here.