Tuesday, 22 February 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Stagg: asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if she will make a statement on the implications for the health and safety of the Irish public following the disclosure in the report of the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate on 18 February 2000 that safety data in the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant had been deliberately falsified; the representations the Government has made to the British authorities on this matter; if the Government has sought the right to have its own independent inspection of the plant carried out; if, in light of the new disclosure, the Government will now consider international legal action to try to secure the closure of the plant and if she will make a statement on the matter.
Mr. Currie: asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if, in view of the finding of Britain's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate that for five years there has been falsification of safety records at Sellafield, she will seek the closure of the plant while its long-term future is being considered.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if, in view of the report of the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate that safety records were falsified, she will call for the closure of the Sellafield plant in view of its continuing discharges polluting the Irish Sea and the danger of a potentially catastrophic nuclear accident at the plant.
Mr. Sargent: asked the Minister for Public Enterprise if, in view of the revelations of dangerous mismanagement at the Sellafield plant, the  Government finally intends to take legal action against British Nuclear Fuels.
Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): I welcome these questions which emphasise the concern of members of the Irish public about these issues and reinforce the Government's campaign against Sellafield over the past two and a half years.
The report prepared by the UK's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, NII, on MOX fuel falsification published last Friday by the NII followed the discovery by BNFL in September last that some quality control checks on the fuel manufactured for a Japanese customer had been falsified at the MOX fuel demonstration plant. The NII immediately launched an investigation to establish the extent of the falsification and the causes of the event. The MOX demonstration facility has been closed since these revelations first came to light.
The NII report requires that the demonstration plant will remain shut down until key recommendations are implemented. The recommendations relate to rectification of quality checking processes and improvement of plant management and operations to bring about the required safety culture at the plant. The fact that the plant is no longer operating at least gives us some reassurance that there is no current risk to Ireland from any of these operations.
This report is but one of three reports published last Friday by the NII. The other reports concerned reprocessing and associated facilities at Sellafield and the safety of the high level liquid waste stored at the Sellafield plant. The overall impression given by the MOX report and the second report on reprocessing facilities etc. is very damaging to BNFL's reputation. Among the conclusions of the second report is the inspectorate's belief that the site lacks a high quality safety management system. The report goes on to state that the site does not have sufficient resources to implement the existing safety management system and that an effective and competent inspection, auditing and review system within the company is necessary. The inspectorate requires BNFL to produce a programme for responding to the report's recommendations within two months. The inspectorate has also emphasised that if progress is inadequate it will not hesitate to use its enforcement powers.
NII is satisfied that the current site operations are safe. However, control and supervision of operations is of paramount importance and we will use our regulatory powers to ensure that the company implements the report's recommendations to reverse the decline in safety performance at the site.
It is clear that the reports published last Friday have dealt a severe blow to Sellafield. When I received these three reports I took the immediate step of asking the RPII to arrange a meeting with the Nuclear Installation Inspectorate to discuss them. The RPII will report back to me later this evening on its conclusions. This will enable me to determine what further action, if any, I should take on the regulatory follow up measures and enforcement measures being pursued over the two months period by the UK's nuclear inspectorate.
The report on the storage of high level waste reinforces the Nll's requirement that the waste be vitrified by 2015 at the latest and that BNFL should produce a schedule showing progress. Ireland's concerns about the long-term storage of high level waste in storage tanks at Sellafield have been made known to the UK on numerous occasions through direct ministerial contact and at regular meetings of the Ireland-UK contact group which comprises this Department, the RPII and their UK counterparts.
In addition to requesting the RPII to meet the NII, I also wrote to the UK Ministers, Helen Liddell and Michael Meacher, expressing the Government's strong concerns about the findings of these reports, particularly the reports on MOX and the general control and supervision of Sellafield. I requested that they give careful consideration to the suspension of operations at the plant at least until the shortcomings at Sellafield had been addressed. I also indicated that I believe there is an onus on the UK Government to demonstrate its regulatory systems are adequate to overcome these problems and sought assurances that the risk to Ireland would be minimised. I am awaiting the response of the UK Government to my correspondence.
However, the most urgent matter I wish to establish is the RPII's own assessment of the inspectorate's conclusions and its understanding of this approach. The UK inspectorate has a strong independent mandate and in its recent actions it has shown itself to be determined in the fulfilment of that mandate. However, I must defer final judgment on the NII's conclusions until I get a full report from the RPII of its meeting with the NII and I hear from UK Ministers in the coming days.
The recent revelations about falsified quality control checks on MOX fuel shipped to Japan from the MOX demonstration plant have raised serious question marks about the viability of the MOX plant. The Japanese market represents a significant share of the projected market for the MOX fuel project and any loss of this market arising from that incident must undermine any economic justification for the plant. I have recently taken up this issue with the UK Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and I will continue to exert maximum  pressure on the UK to ensure the full commissioning of this plant does not proceed.
As to radioactive discharges, most notably we have also achieved a new OSPAR strategy which will enable us between now and 2020 to achieve the virtual elimination of discharges into the Irish Sea. It is important to recognise that the UK is preparing a national strategy for discharges of radioactive substances covering the period 2001 to 2020 to meet the objectives of the OSPAR strategy. It expects its national strategy to be published before the end of this year after a full public consultation process. Allied to this, the UK is also undertaking a full scale review of all radioactive discharges from Sellafield.
The House can be assured I will not hesitate to undertake appropriate litigation if I believe the UK Government is not complying with the provisions of international law. Unfortunately, the law at present and in particular the EURATOM Treaty, does not provide for the establishment of an international inspectorate which could verify the safety and management of the Sellafield site to the degree that we would wish. EU nuclear countries continue to cherish the sovereignty of their independent nuclear inspectorates. The Government will take whatever steps are feasible to amend the treaty to facilitate the establishment of such an inspectorate though the unanimity provisions of the EURATOM Treaty are a major obstacle.
I have arranged, however, to ask the Attorney General's office to re-open the issue of scientific evidence of a case against Sellafield and I will also ensure the latest reports are examined closely to see if there are any grounds for legal action.
Mr. Stagg: Does the Minister of State agree that, given all we have been told about Sellafield in the past few days, it is amazing that he should claim this plant is not a risk to the Irish people? There are 22 tanks of highly active liquid waste stored at Sellafield and a number of out-of-date magnox reactors – this is within 100 miles of Dublin. The NII said there is no proper safety culture at the plant and Dr. Tom O'Flaherty of the RPII stated that Irish people's fears concerning the plant are well-founded. Given all of this and the litany of lies, deceit and cover-ups by the nuclear authorities and the British Government, does the Minister of State agree his response, requesting a temporary closure of the plant, is inadequate? Does he agree that what is required is a demand for the permanent closure of the plant, backed up by legal action and international diplomatic and publicity offensives? I ask the Minister of State to stop pussyfooting around with British Nuclear Fuels and tell it what this Parliament thinks of what it is doing. Will he take the issue off the back burner where he firmly placed it when he entered office and attend to the clearly well-founded fears of Irish people?
Mr. Jacob: I quoted from the independent body which reported on this matter, as I thought  it prudent to put it on the record. Deputy Stagg knows what is involved – the fears regarding the storage of high level waste at Sellafield. We have repeatedly raised this matter with the UK authorities. Storage of high level waste was established by the RPII as a major concern during Deputy Stagg's tenure as Minister. We are concerned about it as a potential risk to Ireland.
Mr. Jacob: We have demanded, and will continue to demand, that the vitrification process which the Sellafield authorities aspire to complete by 2015 be expedited because of the recognised potential danger to Ireland. I cannot afford to indulge in theatrics.
Mr. Jacob: I have to approach the matter realistically. I am in continuous contact with the Attorney General's office to see how scientific evidence can be obtained. If the Attorney General tells me a case is possible, I will be pleased to go to Cabinet to seek approval to proceed with such a case.
Mr. Currie: Will the Minister of State agree that the existence of this plant within 100 miles of Dublin has not been the best example of a good neighbour policy over the years and that the deliberate falsification of records calls into question other commitments that have been given? Will he agree also that the Irish people, particularly those who live along the east coast north and south of the Border, are correct in being very concerned about the threat to their health and that the strongest possible representations ought to be made as a matter of urgency to have this plant closed down? The Minister of State said he was taking—
Mr. Currie: I was not quoting, I was just reminding myself. The Minister of State said that appropriate litigation would be considered. Is he aware that he was quoted in a weekend news paper as having said he had approached the Attorney General some time ago for an up-date on his advice in relation to Sellafield? Has that advice been made available and is the Attorney General treating the matter with the urgency it requires? Will the Minister of State further agree that what we have already heard from the two Radiological Institute of Ireland officials who are in Sellafield is another good reason for this House to be extremely concerned about this development? Instead of writing to the British Minister responsible, the Minister of State should have been on the “blower” as soon as this report appeared in order to have immediate consultations with that Minister on what the British Government intends to do about the issue.
Mr. Jacob: I agree with the Deputy in relation to people's concerns. I share his concern. I have articulated this at every opportunity at international fora, at ministerial level and official level and I will continue to do so. I have told British Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, in the company of ministers from 24 other states, that this Government and the people of Ireland want a total cessation of nuclear activities at Sellafield. This continues to be our demand.
On my request to the Attorney General to review his advice on this State's taking a case against British Nuclear Fuels, I asked the new incumbent in that office to do this some months ago and I have again asked that he review the situation and his advice to me in the context of the revelations of last Friday.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I welcome the Minister of State's affirmation of Government policy to demand the closure of the Sellafield plant. However, with all due respect to the Minister and Minister of State, would they accept that the time for polite letters to junior British Ministers is long past? Will the Minister of State ask the Taoiseach to call a special Anglo-Irish summit meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to present the demand of the Irish people for the closure of this potential Chernobyl? Will he consider also the proposal that the Irish Government, recognising the universality of this demand, should call a national and international day of action to enable ordinary Irish people and their friends and supporters in other countries to come on the streets and demonstrate their support for the closure of Sellafield? I assure the Minister of State of my full support and the support of my party for such an initiative. Does he accept that we need to see an international diplomatic offensive since this plant threatens not just Ireland and Britain but people throughout the globe as material from it is transported by sea to distant lands? We in the immediate area run the risk of fall-out from any accident that might happen. This would not be confined to our shores in terms of its real effect.
Mr. Jacob: I believe I am dealing with the  appropriate UK Ministers and will continue to do so. As I said earlier, I have taken up the matter of MOX, which I vigorously oppose, directly with the appropriate level of Government, that is, the Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. I wrote him a lengthy and detailed letter on the matter on 23 December 1999.
The Taoiseach publicly enunciated his position on the matter earlier today. He has already raised this issue with the British Prime Minister and he has repeatedly emphasised the serious concern of the Government, Parliament and the people on the ground in relation to the entire range of activities at Sellafield. I am sure he will continue to bring this issue to the attention of the Prime Minister. In the meantime, I will continue to vigorously maintain and drive the Government's policy on the issue.
Mr. Sargent: This issue is starkly lacking in vigorous action compared to other important issues such as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which the Taoiseach took on hand. According to reports under the Freedom of Information Act, it appears the Taoiseach last raised the issue in November 1998. Does the Minister of State believe this is sufficiently frequent?
In light of the contamination of the Irish Sea and sea water with high levels of technetium 99 lapping against the shores of my constituency, will the Minister of State accept that the new MOX plant constitutes a significant new modification of the Sellafield site and will he use his own regulatory powers, which he referred to in his reply, to require at least suspension of operations until an environmental impact statement on Sellafield is undertaken? In relation to legal action, is it true that the last time the Minister of State or his officials met with STAD, the Dundalk residents, was six months ago, in spite of frequent requests for meetings? Will a meeting be facilitated immediately in light of the escalation of concerns regarding Sellafield? Is it true that not a penny has been given to cover legal costs in the case, in spite of commitments to do so before the last election?
Has Dr. Gordon Thompson from the USA been in correspondence with the Minister's Department? Has he said he will make himself available, as an international expert in decommissioning of nuclear plants, in turning Sellafield from a threat and a producer of toxic nuclear waste into a workforce that can help the decommissioning of that and other dangerous and aging nuclear installations in Britain and around the world? Would he be prepared to meet with Dr. Thompson immediately to review what the Government can do, but has not done to date, to take definitive legal action to close the Sellafield plant?
Mr. Jacob: The Deputy will be aware that I have met Dr. Gordon Thompson. I was very impressed with his nuclear grand bargain, as he  termed it. I put the nuclear grand bargain theory to the UK authorities last May when I met the then Energy Minister, John Battle. It was an item on the lengthy formal agenda and during our discussions I asked him to consider taking up the proposals put to us by Dr. Thompson in his nuclear grand bargain theory.
The Deputy will be aware that technetium is part of the successful outcome of the OSPAR Convention talks. We have commitments from British Ministers regarding substantial reductions in discharges of technetium 99. I considered this important because of the escalation in the level of that element in our waters between 1994 and 1999. I have received serious commitments on that matter and I will endeavour to ensure through the OSPAR Convention that those are honoured.
The Deputy is wrong with regard to STAD. The amount paid to STAD by the Government to date is £145,000. The Deputy is aware that I have authorisation to disburse a total of £400,000. If more money is needed, I will go back to the Cabinet and get it.
Mr. Jacob: That is not true, Deputy. A representative of STAD has requested a meeting. As I stated previously, I have great respect and admiration for the four people. Their legal agent has asked me to meet them and I have asked the gentleman to come back to me with certain information. I am advised by the Attorney General that this is required. As soon as I get that information, a meeting can be arranged. I am ready and willing to meet them; I have met them many times previously.
Mr. Bell: Prior to the last general election, the then Mayor of Drogheda convened a meeting and invited representatives from Sellafield. I refused to share the platform with those gentlemen on the basis that they had consistently told us lies and half truths. I was criticised at that time but, unfortunately, I have been proved right. Does the Minister of State agree that, as a result of recent  developments, they are liars and telling us half truths? They are telling us the wrong story all the time. Following the most recent developments, how could we possibly trust anything they tell us in the future? The Minister of State should say this to Mr. John Prescott and give them a crash course in telling the truth. Perhaps the Irish people might believe them if that happened. If the four Dundalk people are convinced that they have a case and their legal advice is to that effect, how can the House, with all its legal expertise from the Attorney General down, not find a way to take on the Sellafield matter in the Irish or UK courts or at EU level?
Mr. Jacob: My trust is tested at this point. I have lived and breathed this matter for the past two and a half years. All the interaction I have had at UK ministerial level and my trust in the issue is severely tested at this time. I assure the Deputy I will articulate this point. I am concerned about the gap between the falsification issue and the revelations now. I will also tell the appropriate authorities in the UK at ministerial level about this concern. My trust is severely tested at this time.
I have addressed the position with regard to STAD. The Government undertook to assist financially with the case and it is doing so. I also addressed the Deputy's point about the State taking a legal case. It is there to be done as soon as I get some encouragement by way of advice from the Attorney General that there is scientific and other evidence which would make a case viable.
Mr. Currie: Given that the Minister's efforts so far have been singularly unsuccessful, would he consider moving this matter up the political ladder and emphasising to the British Prime Minister the importance the House attaches to it by getting the Taoiseach to make direct representations? I always like to be constructive and in circumstances where the British are concerned that the closure of this plant could result in the loss of considerable employment – I believe up to 20,000 jobs – will the Minister of State bring to the attention of the British authorities what he, I and other Deputies have said in the House about the grand bargain theory and the role Sellafield might play in cleaning up nuclear waste throughout Europe? This would be a positive suggestion to put at this stage in addition to putting in the boot as hard as possible over the way they have misled the Government and people of this country.
Mr. Jacob: This matter has been ongoing for 40 years. I have had responsibility for it for two and a half years and I have had some considerable success, although not as much as I would have liked. I already mentioned the Taoiseach's involvement. He remains involved and I have no doubt he will up the ante in his way at prime ministerial level in light of last Friday's revelations.
Immediately after the reports came to me on Friday, I made arrangements for the scientific experts, the RPII, which advises me and the Government, to meet their counterparts at the most senior level of the NII. They will return later and I will meet them tonight. I will discuss their findings and I will then pursue the matter further on the basis of what I am told and the discoveries the RPII made during the meetings today. I will pursue the matter with the appropriate British Ministers.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Minister of State indicated that he will give the matter further consideration. Will this include the point a number of Deputies made, and I also stressed, about the need for an urgent summit between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister on this very vexed subject? It requires special address—
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Will the Minister of State confirm that he will include in his considerations the option of the Taoiseach addressing the British Prime Minister on this pressing matter? A delay of 15 months since the last time the matter was addressed at that level is unacceptable.
Mr. Jacob: That is the second time that point was made. I may have neglected to answer it on the first occasion. The delay has not been of that duration. The matter has been raised by the Taoiseach with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on a number of occasions. I will report to and discuss this matter with the Taoiseach after my meeting with the RPII tonight. I will incorporate all l have considered in my conversation and in my report to the Taoiseach.
Mr. Sargent: Will the Minister of State ask the Taoiseach prior to his meeting to take up the matter of Sellafield with the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as seriously as he is taking the Dublin-Monaghan bombings? That level of involvement would yield some results.  For fear of anybody being accused of misleading the House, will he confirm that the money paid to STAD was for research and that not a penny has been paid in legal costs? Will he spell out as succinctly as possible the success he claims he has had so far?
Mr. Sargent: The Minister mentioned his regulatory powers. If these powers mean anything, can he have the operation at Sellafield suspended at least until an EIS is carried out on the MOX plant as that is a new and significant development?
Mr. Jacob: Perhaps the Deputy was not listening to me. In my letter to Ministers Meacher and Liddell on Friday, immediately this matter came to my notice, I called for the suspension of these activities at Sellafield at least until the house is put in order. I will be upping the ante on that demand. The Deputy is correct in his assumption about STAD.
Mr. Stagg: Given that the RPII has identified the storage of highly radioactive liquid waste in 22 tanks at Sellafield as about the equivalent of ten Chernobyl accidents, has progress been made in getting rid of this most dangerous aspect of the Sellafield complex so far as Ireland is concerned? Has the interdepartmental sub-committee, established by the previous Government, met recently and, if so, when? Has the Government issued new instructions to our ambassadors to Japan, Switzerland and Germany – the main customers of Sellafield – asking them not to buy the product from there? Will the Minister agree, given that we have to bear all the risk associated with nuclear power, without any benefit – all profits go to the British Government and its agencies – that action by Ireland can be and has been effective and that we prevented, through direct ministerial action, the building of the underground nuclear dump at Sellafield?
Mr. Stagg: Will he agree that the matter of Sellafield will remain a permanent bone of contention and that it will continue to damage relations between Britain and Ireland until it is removed? Given the amount of waffle we got today, will the Minister say if he has taken any new initiative on this matter since he came to power?
Mr. Jacob: I do not indulge in waffle. I endeavoured to give the factual position but if the Deputy does not wish to accept it, that is his affair. It was a factual account of the ongoing efforts on this issue. I have already addressed the matter of high level waste which is one of four concerns of the RPII scientific advisers and the  Government. We have been endeavouring to ensure that the vitrification process, which is deemed to be a safer storage method than storage in tanks and liquid form, is expedited. At our request some efforts are being made to speed it up.
Mr. Jacob: We will continue to demand that the process is expedited. I have continually said to the British authorities that 2015 is too far down the line and that we want the matter dealt with much sooner. The ministerial committee on nuclear safety is working and has met eight or nine times thus far. The most recent meeting was just before we broke up for Christmas. It has a full programme of work and is getting on with its job.
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