Wednesday, 5 February 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. E. Ryan: The proposed dump by Nirex at Sellafield is a cause of great concern in Ireland and England. Various leaked reports prove the site is unsuitable for a variety of reasons, some of which were raised by the Government at the public inquiry in England. It is important waste management companies demonstrate that the worst case scenario will never happen, but they fall far short of proving that. There are rumours that £50 million worth of contracts were signed for the next stage of this development, even before planning permission has been granted. That is alarming for many people. We are being drip fed information on this issue. Those involved are determined to build the dump at Sellafield, although it may take many years to get people to agree to it. It is obvious from scientific reports that this is probably the worst site for such a dump — it is definitely not the most suitable one. Site 6 has been shown to be a much more suitable site and should be investigated further.
I am concerned there is no coherent statement from the Government regarding our position on this matter. The Minister of State has raised it, but unfortunately the Minister for the Environment said in the House he will not raise it with his counterpart in the British Government, Mr. Gummer. The matter must be raised at the highest level, if not by the Taoiseach, by the Minister. We are asked to have confidence in an industry in which there have been three accidents in recent days, two at the site at Sellafield and one on a train travelling from France to Sellafield.
The accident happened to a BNFL train in France. We are being asked to have confidence in an industry that is accident-prone, that has avoided telling the full truth and that has consistently had accidents over the years. We are to have confidence in a dump they will build that will be left there for thousands of years. Nobody on this side of the Irish Sea has any confidence in this and the Minister of State should get his senior colleagues in Government to raise this at the highest level with their British counterparts.
Mr. D. Ahern: I thank my colleague for allowing me to share his time and I reiterate what he said. I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours and hope he is more successful in convincing his Government colleagues than he was on the radon gas issue, when he indicated he might be successful in gaining a grant scheme in the budget that did not materialise.
Mr. D. Ahern: I travelled to Sellafield and THORP some years ago with other Deputies to see what was involved although it had not been  commissioned at that time. After being shown around we were given coffee. The BNFL people told us they did not expect us to be in favour of Sellafield but asked if we were happier as a result of what we had seen. I was even more frightened than I was before I had seen it. They wondered if they would get commissioning and authorisation from their Government to proceed but £3 billion was not going to be spent on a facility that was already built. Furthermore, 350 people worked there even before the authorisation, practising what they would do when the authorisation came through. They tried to tell us it was not a foregone conclusion but I felt it was and within months they got their authorisation as we and they knew would happen.
Deputy Eoin Ryan made the point that they are softening us up on this Nirex issue. There is no doubt that we do not want this nuclear waste disposal on our doorstep and the majority of the British people would not either if they knew what was going on.
The lesser of the two evils is that it at least be overground; if this is underground we and future generations will never know what is happening. However, it would be better if it was not there. Amazingly, any time there is an incident in the nuclear industry there is never a risk. The only time a risk was acknowledged was when something like Chernobyl happened; God help us if that happens in Sellafield. In relation to the smaller incidents, there is never any risk. When the train was derailed in France this week, there was no risk to the public. Will the Sellafield authorities ever acknowledge there has been a risk? There has been a cloud of secrecy over this.
We are not strong enough as a Government. We should bring in the British Ambassador and insist our protest be listened to rather than receive cavalier treatment. The British Government gave authorisation for THORP on the day of the Joint Declaration. We do not want this to happen with Nirex and it is up to the Minister of State and the Government to ensure it does not, which we will support.
Mr. Stagg: I wish to summarise the Irish Government's objections to an underground laboratory at Sellafield. Nirex's plans for the development of a rock characterisation facility is the first inevitable step towards an eventual underground waste dump which would represent an unnecessary and unacceptable addition to the extensive and complex operations already in the general Sellafield area. We have grave concerns about the possibility of a waste disposal facility virtually at the edge of the Irish Sea. The potential transboundary effects of such a development so near to the Irish coast represent an unacceptable risk to the health, environment and economic wellbeing of the Irish people. No degree of radioactive contamination of the Irish Sea is acceptable. I consider that the building of a nuclear waste dump near the marine environment is not compatible  with the UK's commitments under EU and international law.
My objections to this dump were outlined at the public inquiry which I attended in January 1996. I will set out briefly the major points made during the Government's submission to the inquiry. We contended there has been an absence of a fully open and transparent site selection process with independent review. The refusal by Nirex to release full information on alternative site options and processes militated against an effective assessment of the potential environmental impact, which would make it impossible to understand the environmental basis on which the choice of location or project was made. We considered that the environmental statement submitted by Nirex should have addressed all repository options and alternative disposal processes. We believed the case being made by Nirex for Sellafield as the site for a dump was advanced, not primarily on safety considerations, but on cost and transport advantages and on the assumption that the local community in Cumbria might be more receptive to such a facility. These core arguments made at the inquiry still stand.
There has been a spate of media publicity relating to information which has emerged concerning the scientific and economic arguments about this project. I welcome the debate which this has engendered and regard it as playing a positive role in furthering opposition to the proposal. First, there was the leaked memorandum by Nirex's director of science, which exposed Nirex's considerable doubts about the project's scientific basis. Second, two reports concerning problems facing a radioactive waste disposal facility at Sellafield — one edited by R S Haszeldine and D K Smythe and the other by Gordon MacKerron and Mike Sadmicki of Sussex University — suggest that there is insufficient convincing evidence that a safety case could be made which would justify development of a rock characterisation facility at Sellafield.
Over the weekend there was the further media story identified by Deputy Eoin Ryan. As I understand it, this media coverage refers to two in a series of more than 40 reports provided by Nirex to the UK Environment Agency — formerly the HMIP. The Environment Agency is the UK authority to which Nirex would eventually submit an application for an authorisation to build the dump which would hold the intermediate and low level radioactive waste. The reports have been submitted to the UK Environment Agency to allow it to prepare for a formal application by Nirex to dispose of radioactive waste eventually. It is a way of speeding up the decision-making process.
The reports mentioned deal with hydro-geological matters and probabilistic risk assessment. I understand that the Environment Agency persuaded Nirex to make the reports available to the public and that these reports were disclosed to all interested parties at the planning inquiry which I attended in Cumbria. However, the recent publicity  surrounding the reports has heightened the perception of serious scientific and economic pitfalls associated with pressing ahead with this rock laboratory.
Taking all the above into account and given the prospect of a decision by the Secretary of State, Mr. Gummer, I wrote to him yesterday reiterating Ireland's strenuous objections to the Nirex proposals and highlighting the fact that there has been an absence of a fully open and transparent site selection process with independent review. I indicated that this made it impossible to understand the environmental basis on which the choice of location for the project, so near to the Irish Sea, was made. I called for the plan to be abandoned and maintained that more research should be undertaken into alternative sites and disposal options which would avoid an environmental threat to the Irish Sea. I urged him to refuse Nirex's appeal or, at the very least, to reopen the inquiry so that the many scientific and geological factors which have come to light could be properly assessed.
I am pleased to tell the House that I have been informed today that the UK Government has decided to engage in a public consultation process about a whole series of additional information which has come to light in the recent past about the Nirex proposal, in effect reopening the inquiry. My Department will be included in this consultation process. As I understand it, the results of this new consultation will eventually be considered by the UK Secretary of State for the Environment when he adjudicates on the Nirex appeal. Accordingly, my Department will now examine this new area of consultation and elaborate as necessary on our strenuous opposition to the Nirex proposal because of the significant risks which it represents.
I have previously made firm commitments about the Government's determination to prevent this dump being located at the Sellafield site. Any objective observer would agree that the Government has done all in its power to vigorously press its case and to influence decision making by the UK authorities. My own appearance at the public inquiry and the forceful arguments put to the inquiry on Ireland's behalf are a measure of that steadfast approach. We will not shrink from pursuing the case further if the rock characterisation facility is approved and we will draw on the best scientific and legal advice to advance that case. I have sought an early meeting with the UK ambassador to discuss all aspects of the UK nuclear industry, including recent developments relating to Nirex.
The Deputy opposite may feel that he is not up to the task of dealing with this issue. If he wants to hand over his brief to his party leader, that is a matter for him. If he is confused, it is under-standable given his party's senior spokesperson, Deputy Dempsey, is cosying up to BNFL in private meetings in Dublin and accusing the Government of megaphone diplomacy while  Deputy Eoin Ryan accuses us of not shouting loud enough.
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