Wednesday, 22 October 1980
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Blaney: asked the Minister for Energy if, in order to clarify the public mind regarding uranium mining and exploration, he will arrange for such exploration to cease until such time as he, on behalf of the Government, can authoritatively state that such mining and exploration are not unsafe.
Mr. Colley: : As I informed Deputies White and Harte in replies to questions earlier this year, the Nuclear Energy Board have advised me that there is no evidence that prospecting operations associated with exploration for uranium lead to any radiation hazard. Nevertheless, so as to provide further reassurance at local level, the board initiated a programme of radioactivity measurements on water samples from certain areas in which uranium prospecting operations are in progress; they have also carried out some studies on air and rock samples. Final results of analysis of samples taken  from the scene of uranium exploration, in County Donegal, confirm the board's advice.
A uranium deposit of economic size and grade yet remains to be discovered in Ireland, so the question of mining uranium does not arise, at the present time. However, if at some future date such an economic deposit were to be located, it would be necessary for a prospective mine operator to secure planning permission from the local planning authority, to obtain a mining lease or licence from my Department and to secure a separate licence from the Nuclear Energy Board, before a mine development could take place. The most stringent conditions would be applied to such an operation, and the appropriate authorities would have to be fully satisfied in regard to the impact of a proposed mining operation on health, safety and the environment.
Mr. Blaney: : Is it true that in other parts of the world a moratorium has been placed upon exploration for uranium because it is not yet known that it is safe to continue? Further, is the Minister satisfied that despite the contradictory statements of the most eminent people, pro and anti, in regard to uranium mining, his board is capable and authoritative enough to make a decision in this offhand manner on something that is absolutely deadly, and one does not take a chance in not waiting to find out if it is dangerous before starting. I would not want the Minister to think that I am not in favour of the idea of trying these things. On the other hand, to do something that is not yet proven safe seems to be utter folly.
Mr. Colley: : I am aware that it has been alleged that in one part of Canada there has been some moratorium placed on  uranium exploration. That is what we are talking about, not uranium mining which does not exist here. I have also been informed that the reasons for it are not those which have been suggested to Deputy Blaney. I am also aware that the evidence available from the most eminent scientists from numerous countries around the world, including a number of our partners in the EEC, is that there is no evidence whatever of any risk from uranium exploration. I am satisfied of the competence of the Nuclear Energy Board. I am satisfied that they have made the most exhaustive enquiries and that the advice given to me is the only advice on which I can rely and that it would be quite unreasonable of me, in the face of all the evidence available, to refuse to allow uranium exploration to take place.
Mr. Kelly: : I sympathise with the Minister's situation. But would he not agree that, at the very least as a matter of prudence from his own point of view and leaving everything else out of the question, it would be best to meet the misgivings which Deputy Blaney has expressed head on, to go more than half way to meet them and to organise if he can either an inquiry or a public enlightenment programme in which it would be possible for objectors and people who dissent to state their views in order to set these at rest if that can be done? The Minister ought not to let himself be put in the situation of his predecessor where only after a year-and-a-half of saying “no” did he finally concede an inquiry into the nuclear proposal at Carnsore and then with very bad grace. The Minister would be wise to avoid such a situation developing in regard to the subject matter of this question.
Mr. Colley: : I appreciate the advice of Deputy Kelly but I have gone very far to try to meet these concerns. Although I was advised as I have indicated to the House, first I have set up a working group of all Departments which might be affected by any of these arrangements such as Agriculture, Environment and so on. They have visited Donegal; they have met people who are particularly concerned  and who are making a lot of complaints; they have discussed the situation with them, listened to their complaints and outlined the situation as they knew it. In addition the Nuclear Energy Board has, at my prompting, organised tests of water, rocks and soil in the areas where this exploration is taking place and these tests have shown conclusively in the case of Donegal that there is no evidence to support the allegation that there is a risk here and that confirms the information we have got all over the world. We are also having tests conducted in other parts of the country where uranium exploration is going on and the preliminary results confirm that situation, although we are awaiting the final results. We have gone very far to meet legitimate concerns.
An Ceann Comhairle: : The Deputies might not be too happy if I asked the Minister to curtail his answers but I would ask Deputies to curtail the length of their supplementaries because we have only nine questions answered in thirty-five minutes.
Mr. Blaney: : Is there a known anti-nuclear member on the Nuclear Energy Board? Is the Minister aware that in Australia there is a moratorium on exploration? I appeal again to the Minister to try to do as Deputy Kelly put more explicitly than I did, to show to the public who are  worried about this that the Minister's view is correct, if it is so. Finally, is the Minister not aware that there is a list of the most eminent people with the highest qualifications who say there is danger and they equal in number the people who say there is not? We cannot be expected to take the chance until it has been shown that it is not unsafe and I do not think that is being unreasonable.
Mr. Colley: : There were a number of supplementaries in that and I hope the Deputy will forgive me if I overlook one of them. First on the question of Australia, to the best of my knowledge—and I am subject to correction on this—the only area in which there is a moratorium there is for totally different reasons which have to do with the sacred ground of the Aborigines and has nothing to do with nuclear exploration. On the question of membership of the Nuclear Energy Board I am not aware whether any member is pro- or anti-nuclear. I would hope they are objective and independent in their approach. In regard to the question of the approach that I should take on this matter to allay concern in the area affected I have, I think, replied to that question in response to Deputy Kelly at some length and I do not think I can add anything to that.
Mr. White: : Can the Minister now give the House a commitment that before a licence is granted for mining an independent inquiry of experts will be held in this country to alleviate fears—and there are a lot of fears, particularly in Donegal—regarding the mining of uranium. It is only fair that the fears of the people living in the vicinity should be allayed. Would the Minister commit himself at this juncture to an independent inquiry of experts even before a licence is granted?
Mr. Colley: : If the Deputy would allow me finish. If such a situation should arise the position would be as I have indicated, that in order to operate a mine of that kind the operators would need to have permission from the local authority under the Planning Acts, a licence from the Department of Energy and a licence from the Nuclear Energy Board, which is independent of the Department of Energy. They are the statutory requirements. Whether or not a public inquiry would be necessary would depend on the particular circumstances at the time. I cannot make a commitment to have one but I am certainly not ruling out the possibility of one.
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