Thursday, 1 February 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
Dr. Upton: I welcome the Bill which reinforces Ireland's position on nuclear safety and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Concerns about nuclear safety are not confined to countries in which nuclear plants are located nor to countries which have deployed nuclear weapons for security purposes. Ireland's nuclear policy objectives place a heavy emphasis on nuclear safety and radiological protection. While some countries have retained nuclear power as an option for power generation, Ireland has opposed any net expansion of this industry while problems exist with nuclear safety, radioactive waste disposal, plant decommissioning, nuclear proliferation and the ever present risk of a nuclear catastrophe.
Non-proliferation should be at the heart of any international security programme. No one set of activities can sufficiently address proliferation threats since they may encroach on national, international and global interests. It is the view of the International Atomic Energy Agency director that for over five decades strategies of national and international security have been intertwined with the concept of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent. The achievement of a nuclear weapons free world will crucially depend on a fundamental change in that concept of security.
Instead of an outright ban on the use or acquisition of nuclear weapons, a gradual approach was adopted under the 1970 treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Different commitments were given at the time by two distinct groups of states – for the five nuclear weapons states, that is, the states which had manufactured and detonated a nuclear weapon before January 1967, a commitment to divest themselves of those weapons through good faith negotiations, and for all other states a commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept the International Atomic Energy Agency verification of all their peaceful nuclear activities in return for assured  access to peaceful nuclear technology through the technology holders.
For the past three decades a variety of diplomatic and political strategies have been pursued to advance the twin goals of non-proliferation and disarmament. Progress towards a nuclear weapons free world will continue to be difficult as long as certain political and security realities and perspectives persist. Nuclear weapons have been progressively losing their value as a currency of power due to the political, legal and moral constraints on their use. This is very much to be welcomed.
A non-proliferation regime for nuclear weaponry is primary. This has been almost universally agreed with some exceptions, as mentioned by other speakers. The commitment by the nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a sign of hope. Security through economic, social development, good governance, respect for human rights and an agreed process for the peaceful settlement of disputes is, ultimately, the best disincentive to acquiring nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The traditional view of nuclear weapons as an effective deterrent is a mindset with which we have lived for decades. This mindset must be dissolved and replaced by alternative peaceful modes of assuring global security.
While I fully support and welcome the Bill, there are a number of other issues, perhaps local to us in Ireland, which we should consider within its context. They have a bearing on the management of radioactive sources and are also in need of urgent consideration. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland is the regulatory body with statutory responsibility for radiological protection in Ireland. The RPII has among its responsibilities that of representing the State on international bodies and being the competent authority under international conventions on nuclear matters. It has responsibility for monitoring developments abroad and radiological safety generally. For the purposes of the Bill, it is the national authority for the implementation of the protocol, as described.
Some of the more immediate concerns to us in Ireland in regard to nuclear matters are worthy of consideration. I refer particularly to the risks posed by Sellafield. For a considerable number of years there has been serious concern in Ireland, particularly on the east coast, about the risk to health from the nuclear installation operated by BNFL at Sellafield. This concern has increased in recent years by the introduction at the site of a major new plant, now known as THORP. It is worth remembering that the original purpose of Sellafield or Windscale, as it was then known, was the production of plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. It is now in the business of reprocessing spent fuel from worldwide sources.
Concerns have been expressed on an ongoing basis about Sellafield operations. Only relatively recently has it become clear that the standards in operation at Sellafield are anything but satisfac tory. The RPII has continuously expressed concern about discharges from Sellafield into the Irish Sea. It has always considered that the greatest risk to Ireland is through a major accident to the tanks holding radioactive waste on the Sellafield site. These tanks have been identified as representing possibly the greatest risk of an accident at Sellafield which could have serious consequences for Ireland.
There is another matter still outstanding in relation to radiological protection. The Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, 1998, is still awaiting completion. It has been at the Committee Stage for over 18 months. If we are to concern ourselves with the activities of the RPII, it would be timely to address the Bill in the House and ensure the amendment is introduced as soon as possible. The amendment is being made for a very specific purpose, that is, to protect the public by ensuring the practice of chiropractors in the use of X-ray equipment is clearly defined. I urge that this be done immediately. The medical exposures directive is also awaiting completion and has yet to be implemented. These are two substantial matters which should have been addressed long before now and it is not good enough that the legislation has not been implemented while hospital patients in particular are potentially at risk.
Another problem which needs to be addressed with some urgency is the need for a storage facility for radioactive sources. This matter has been referred to many times by the RPII and many others with an interest in radioactive materials. It is very unsatisfactory that sources are stored at a number of locations throughout the country because of the lack of a central storage facility. Within the last year two sources were mislaid. Part of the reason for this is that there is no single identifiable storage facility at which such materials can be stored safely. I urge that this matter be addressed. While it is not directly related to the Bill, it impacts seriously on radioactive materials and should be looked at with some concern and urgency.
The Bill has little relevance for Ireland, in a practical sense, other than through a reporting mechanism and the very limited responsibilities and actions which need to be taken, to which the Minister and other Deputies have referred. For the purpose of the Bill, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland is the responsible authority. The explanatory memorandum states that the Bill, when enacted, will have no significant implications for the Exchequer or staffing levels. With the passage of time, however, many agreements take on a life of their own and do generate staff requirements and require specific resources to be provided. I would like to be assured that should this arise, the necessary resources will be made available to ensure the protocol is applied adequately and effectively. The threat of nuclear weapons has not disappeared. It is important, therefore, that international agreements are designed and operated to ensure nuclear wea ponry can be detected, audited and that appropriate reporting mechanisms are in place, as outlined in the legislation. However, as my colleague, Senator Costello, pointed out in the Seanad, the tardiness in moving the Bill is reprehensible and we should ensure it is passed with due haste.
Mr. Gormley: The Green Party warmly welcomes any legislation that halts the proliferation of nuclear weapons or eliminates all nuclear weapons. Ireland, as the initiator of the non-proliferation treaty, has a highly reputable role in this area. Ireland was also one of the first states to champion the concept of nuclear free zones in the 1950s and we have also over the years supported and authored various disarmament initiatives, including the Government's new agenda disarmament proposals put forward by the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, and I pay tribute to him for his initiative.
However, I would like to address a few issues relating to containment of nuclear weapons and materials. I wonder whether this legislation will be of any assistance in protecting Ireland and other countries from these nuclear threats. In a country such as this which has neither nuclear weapons nor power plants we must be vigilant that this new protocol between the IAEA and EU member states does not in any way give a broader licence to the transport of certain nuclear materials through the State or water down Ireland's nuclear free status.
The Green Party and many others would like legislation to be passed which would declare Ireland a nuclear free zone, not allowing any military ships or aircraft to enter Irish territory or seize our airspace unless the Government has firm information that nuclear weapons are not on board. This must contain an element of inspection by the Government. Therefore, in addition to passing legislation such as this, the Government should pass long overdue nuclear free zone legislation. Most of our local authorities have done so and I believe it is time the Government did likewise.
When introducing the legislation the Government emphasised that, in addition to reflecting Ireland's long-standing position on nuclear proliferation and disarmament, it also reflects “our position on nuclear safety”. I wish to highlight an issue of nuclear safety on which I will try to get clear answers over the coming weeks, that is, depleted uranium, not just as it is used in DU weapons but also as it used in aircraft as a counterweight.
It is the height of hypocrisy for the Government to promote a Bill such as this on the one hand while, on the other, signing up to co-operate with a military alliance based on nuclear weapons. The Green Party strongly opposed Ireland  signing up to NATO's so-called Partnership for Peace, a military partnership which is serving to prop up NATO and give it a raison d'être after the Cold War. The leader of that alliance – the US – has failed to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty which the Bill is trying to implement. The NATO alliance is still wedded, not just to a nuclear weapons policy but to a first use policy, and has ships and aircraft equipped with such weapons travelling around the world and at military bases where nuclear weapons are stored. So much for the containment of such weapons.
Similar comments can be made concerning the ongoing militarisation of the EU hastened by the Amsterdam Treaty, which the Green Party also strongly opposed. Ireland has signed up to a NATO linked European rapid reaction force and two of our partners in that force are nuclear weapons states – the UK and France. As the EU develops its common defence policy the House can be assured it will have a nuclear weapons element. I have not heard a Minister insist that the UK and France get rid of their nuclear weapons before Ireland participates in any military activities with them or with other NATO members.
The recent NATO bombing campaign in the Balkans involved the use of DU weapons. We have heard of members of peacekeeping forces deployed there developing cancers. I received first hand reports of the after effects of DU weapons use in the Gulf War when I recently visited Iraq as part of a parliamentary delegation. DU weapons use has resulted in major contamination affecting civilians and military personnel and poisoning the environment. Many of us regard DU weapons as a form of nuclear weapon. What does the Bill say about such weapons?
On Tuesday in the House the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, refused to call for a ban on DU weapons. He said Ireland would not use its position on the Security Council to call for such a ban. This is outrageous. Is this because the NATO Secretary-General, George Robinson has said DU is “crucial to NATO operational effectiveness” and Ireland does not want to hamper the operation of its newest partner in the PfP or its partners in the EU rapid reaction force?
This raises fundamental questions. Will DU weapons be deployed as part of the standard armoury of the rapid reaction force? Will Irish soldiers train with such weapons? Will there be military manoeuvres at the Curragh which will enable our soldiers to train with such weapons? Can the Government give an assurance that our soldiers will not be exposed to DU weapons by “friendly fire” during a Petersberg Tasks enforcement operation? I have not yet heard whether the Taoiseach still believes that the NATO bombing during the Balkans War was unavoidable and warranted, as he agreed in a joint EU statement at the time. Knowing that DU weapons were used, does the Government still believe the bombing was warranted?
 Depleted uranium is already visiting our shores in another form, not as tank busting weapons but in airplanes. For many years depleted uranium has been used as a counterweight, a form of ballast in the tail sections of aircraft. The Green Party is deeply concerned that aircraft with such counterweights on board may be flying through Irish air space and using both Dublin and Shannon Airports. The 1992 El-Al air crash in Amsterdam, in which 50 people died and as a result of which toxic smoke caused ill-health among survivors, highlighted the presence of 390 kilogrammes of depleted uranium as wing ballast in the airplane. More than a year after the crash of a Korean Airlines aeroplane in December 1991 in Essex, England, one of the 20 DU counterweights from its tail section has still not been recovered and is lost at the bottom of a lake. The old Boeing 747 models and some DC-10s, as well as other aircraft, were built with DU ballast. Some of the old Boeings, particularly the 747-200 models, still operate out of Dublin and Shannon Airports; they operate out of Shannon once a day. The main carrier at Shannon Airport is Pakistan Airways.
A worst case scenario examination of a Boeing 747 crash was carried out more than a decade ago by American physicist, Robert L. Parker. It was found that up to 250,000 people would run health risks as a result of inhalation or swallowing of uranium oxide particles produced by the rapid oxidation of DU in an air crash fire. Similar risks to health from airborne uranium from a burning wreck were also highlighted by Paul Lowenstein, technical director and vice-president of the US company which supplied the DU to Boeing.
Are any checks undertaken to ensure that DU equipped planes are not flying into our airports? The Green Party has received reports from staff at Dublin and Shannon that DU counterweights are still being used in some planes using those airports. I am posing questions to the Minister about this matter and I hope that he will be able to give me some answers. If he cannot answer me today, perhaps at some future point he will investigate this. We can talk about this matter when discussing such legislation but we must have action as well.
Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): I would like to thank all Deputies for their constructive contributions, in particular Deputies Jim Higgins, Upton and Gormley. Government policy is to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is essential that countries such as Ireland, which have been to the forefront of the nuclear disarmament debate, should demonstrate their total commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the mechanisms for nuclear safeguards agreements which have evolved from the treaty.
The Bill is simple and straightforward. Its purpose is to make provision in law for the implementation in Ireland of a protocol to the existing safeguards agreement between the EU, the non- nuclear weapons states of the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The protocol which was signed up to by the parties in 1998 is aimed at strengthening the existing nuclear safeguards regime. The protocol will help to improve the effectiveness of the IAEA's safeguards system and will serve as a powerful tool for detecting clandestine nuclear programmes.
Colleagues have raised some very pertinent points which I will endeavour to address. In his fine contribution, Deputy Gormley raised matters that were rather extraneous to the Bill, but that is not a criticism. I have often done that myself if I received a degree of latitude from the Chair, and will do so again, please God.
Mr. Jacob: That is the kind of co-operation one needs. Deputy Higgins talked about the delay in ratifying this important protocol. I agree with him and also regret that delay. Indeed, the Bill was to have had its Second Stage debate last October but despite our best efforts it was deferred because other legislation was given priority. As a former Government Chief Whip, Deputy Higgins will know more than I do about getting into the queue for that. I share his concern, as we all do, but the Bill is before the House now and we will process it hopefully to conclusion.
Deputy Higgins inquired how often Irish facilities, such as those at UCD and UCC, are inspected under the IAEA safeguard system and if these inspections are unannounced. I think that was the gist of his question on that important matter. The Irish facilities are inspected roughly every three years and prior notification of such inspections is given. The most recent inspection was in May 1999. Deputy Higgins also inquired whether states of the former Soviet Union are subject to the IAEA nuclear safeguards regime. It is our understanding that States which are parties to the NPT, including states of the former Soviet Union, are subject to the full IAEA nuclear safeguards control regime.
Deputy Upton raised questions about the national radioactive storage facility. I agree totally with her that this is a necessary facility to have in place and it would make no sense not to have it. Only this morning I discussed that particular issue with the chief executive and new chairman of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. As the House will know, Deputy Upton is a former chairperson of that fine institute and I compliment her on the superlative way in which she carried out her role. I was very pleased to work with her in that capacity when she was chairperson of the RPII and I thank her for the excellence of her work there. She is particularly au fait with all aspects of the institute's work and is, therefore, well equipped to raise such pertinent questions. We have received outline proposals from the RPII for the establishment of such a facility as soon as a suitable site can be identified. As we speak, options are being  explored and we will progress the matter as speedily as possible. I share the Deputy's concern and it would be irresponsible of us not to pursue that matter vigorously.
Deputy Upton also raised the matter of the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill. The Department of Health and Children is drafting legislation to give effect to the EU medical exposure directive. This legislation will also include provision that only registered medical practitioners can carry out X-rays. We are in close touch with the Department of Health and Children to ensure a speedy completion of its work in order to facilitate an equally speedy completion of that bill.
Deputy Gormley raised the matter of depleted uranium. I will have that matter checked and will consult with colleagues in other Departments, particularly the Department to which the Deputy referred. As the Deputy has requested, I will inform him as soon as I have something of substance to report.
The ratification and implementation of this protocol which the Bill seeks to achieve is fully in keeping with Ireland's track record on nuclear non-proliferation issues. I thank colleagues for their contributions and co-operation.
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