Thursday, 10 December 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): This is the second time within 48 hours that I have been in the House. I fear Senators may be weary of listening to me speak on this subject, albeit a very important one.
Mr. Jacob: I welcome this opportunity to debate British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield operations. As the House knows, public and political opinion in Ireland is firmly opposed to nuclear energy and there is cross-party consensus on this issue.
Ireland's nuclear policy places a heavy emphasis on nuclear safety and on radiological protection. While recognising that certain European countries, including Britain, have retained nuclear energy as an option for nuclear power generation, Ireland has remained vehemently opposed to any expansion of the nuclear industry. A dominant factor in the opposition of the Irish people and Government to nuclear power is the risk, however remote, of a nuclear accident.
As far back as 1976, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Protection recommended that, until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, that a method exists to ensure the safe  containment of long lived radioactive waste for the indefinite future, there should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear power. The Government considers it regrettable that, despite this sound recommendation which was made over 20 years ago, the UK has expanded its nuclear industry without solving the long-term nuclear waste problem.
Successive Governments have consistently opposed any expansion of the UK's nuclear facilities, in particular those located at Sellafield, because it sees such facilities as part of a potential threat to Ireland's public health and environment and vital commercial interests such as fishing, agriculture and tourism.
Ireland, like many other States, has rejected the nuclear power option because we believe that the claimed benefits of nuclear power are outweighed significantly by the risks. In our view, the potential hazard of a major nuclear accident combined with understandable public concerns about the effect of discharges on the environment and about the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste lead to the firm conclusion that the case for nuclear power is unsound. Consistent with this thinking, why should we tolerate nuclear power in a neighbouring country?
Ireland's concern about Sellafield relates particularly to the following: the accumulation of high levels of nuclear spent fuel at the site; the transport to the plant of spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and the transport from the plant of plutonium and radioactive waste products; the continued use of Magnox reactors beyond their life design; the backlog of high level liquid nuclear waste in storage tanks on the site awaiting vitrification and the discharge of radioactive materials into the Irish Sea.
We believe the concentration of a range of nuclear activities on one site is not prudent and poses potential risks of accidents at the site with consequential implications for the health, safety and economic well being of the Irish people and for the Irish environment. The risk of a major accident would be greatly reduced by geographical dispersal of nuclear facilities rather than by concentration of so many nuclear activities on the Sellafield site.
The Government is committed to a campaign against the hazardous operations at Sellafield. It has spared no effort in making known to the UK authorities Ireland's concerns about the Sellafield operations and the potential risk which it poses for the Irish people. These concerns have also been highlighted by Ireland at every available opportunity in international fora such as the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the OECD and at meetings held under the umbrella of the Oslo/Paris (OSPAR) Convention relating to marine pollution.
Since assuming the portfolio for nuclear safety and radiological protection I have been in frequent contact with the relevant UK Ministers to highlight the concerns of the Government with  regard to the UK nuclear industry and particularly Sellafield.
In November 1997, I had a formal meeting with the UK Minister for the Environment, Mr. Michael Meacher, MP, in Dublin. At that meeting, I raised the whole range of nuclear safety issues of concern to Ireland. Since then I have had a number of contacts with Mr. Meacher and I have been in correspondence with him where I consider it appropriate. I have found him to be keenly aware of the sensitivity of these issues in Ireland. As a key Minister of a neighbouring country, I believe he accepts that these views must be weighed up carefully by the UK decision makers.
Clearly, the UK will pursue its own national interest but I believe there is a new maturity in our relations with the UK on nuclear matters. Both sides understand each other's strongly held positions. On the UK side, there has been an explicit acknowledgment of the legitimate interest of the Irish people as regards proposed developments at Sellafield. This was exemplified by the decision of the former Secretary of State, Mr. John Gummer, on Nirex.
In my experience, this recognition of our strong stance on Sellafield and the need to take account of our views, manifested itself in the statements made by the UK at the OSPAR meeting in July last relating to technetium discharges. I will refer to these later.
The issues which I raised with the British Minister, Mr. Meacher, were subsequently followed up by my officials at meetings of the UK-Ireland contact group on radioactivity and nuclear matters. This group comprises officials from the nuclear safety division of my Department, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and officials from the relevant UK Departments and Government agencies. It meets twice a year. Meetings of this group provide further opportunities for pursuing Ireland's concerns about Sellafield and other related matters.
I have also been in contact with the UK Minister of State for Science, Energy and Industry, Mr. John Battle, MP. My contacts with him have been about the high level liquid waste storage arrangements and my desire to see an acceleration of the waste vitrification process to ensure that the backlog of waste is cleared much earlier than the target date of 2015, which was set by the UK.
While the Minister, Mr. Battle, assured me of the safety aspects of the existing waste storage arrangements and of the UK policy to vitrify the waste as soon as practicable, I remain unconvinced about the safety of the storage of such waste in liquid form. I, therefore, asked Mr. Battle to urge BNFL to release technical information, including probability risk assessments, to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland relating to the waste storage tanks to enable the institute to form its own measured judgment as to the risks involved.
 Contacts are ongoing between the institute and BNFL on this issue. I also received assurances from Mr. Battle about the safety of the older Magnox reactors. Again, however, I remain unconvinced. I want to see these reactors closed down and I reiterated this desire in the course of my contacts with the British Minister.
On the question of radiological discharges to the marine environment, the House will be aware of an important decision made in July last at the OSPAR ministerial meeting which was convened under the auspices of the OSPAR Convention.
Before dealing with OSPAR, I should refer to some crucial principles relating to discharges. Radioactive discharges policies and practices should take into account the manner in which they affect human health and the environment beyond national borders. Where there is uncertainty concerning serious risks, then appropriate precautions should be taken, i.e., the precautionary principle should be observed at all times.
The polluter pays principle is widely acknowledged and very relevant in the management of radioactive waste and marine discharges. It is so because exposure to radioactive contaminants arising from sources beyond Ireland's national boundaries is an imposed burden on our society and economy. Protection and defence against such actual and potential exposures are costs which should be paid by the polluter.
I believe some of the advances made at OSPAR are consistent with these principles. At the OSPAR meeting in Lisbon last July, a strategy on radioactive discharges was adopted which committed all OSPAR Ministers, including those of the UK, to the virtual elimination of such discharges into the maritime environment by the year 2020. This was a very positive development for Ireland in its campaign against Sellafield. The adoption of the strategy was a recognition by the OSPAR Ministers of the legitimate concerns raised by Ireland and certain other countries, particularly Denmark and Norway, about the effects of such discharges on public health and on the marine environment.
Indeed, Ireland was very much to the forefront during the drafting of the OSPAR strategy in the run up to the ministerial meeting. During the drafting phase, Ireland was vociferous in calling for a cessation of all such discharges and for the strategy to provide for such a cessation. I personally carried on this fight at the ministerial meeting and the outcome was a vindication of Ireland's efforts throughout the process. Significantly, when the OSPAR statements actually emerged, there was a recognition that they were a significant step forward. I have no apologies to make about my negotiating position at Lisbon. On the contrary, I consider that what was achieved at Lisbon was crucial and ground-breaking. Ireland's role was crucial in securing the adoption of these commitments.
 Agency in respect of an application by British Nuclear Fuels Limited to the agency for a variation in the BNFL radioactive discharges authorisation limit for its Sellafield operation. The agency's proposed decision was referred by the agency to the relevant UK Ministers for consideration and final decision.
My Department had, in fact, earlier submitted a paper to the UK Environment Agency as part of the agency's public consultation process on the BNFL discharge authorisation application. My Department's paper had set out Ireland's concerns about radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea, particularly discharges of technetium-99, which have grown significantly since 1994, and called for an end to such discharges.
On learning of the agency's proposed decision, I immediately wrote to the relevant UK Ministers drawing their attention to the commitments given by the UK at the OSPAR ministerial meeting in regard to radioactive discharges. I pointed out that the agency's proposed decision was not in keeping with the OSPAR commitments. I was also adamant that the proposed decision contrasted with the UK's promise, given at the OSPAR Ministers meeting, to address concerns expressed by Ireland and other countries about technetium-99 discharges in their forthcoming decisions on the BNFL discharges authorisations.
The final decision rests with the UK Ministers and their decision is awaited. While the agency has proposed a reduction in the discharge levels for technetium-99, the reduction is just not enough. I expect the UK Ministers to honour their OSPAR commitments. They can do this by significantly reducing the discharge level for technetium-99 to the pre-1994 levels.
On the same day as it announced its proposed decision on Sellafield's radioactive discharge authorisation, the UK Environment Agency also announced its proposed decision in regard to BNFL's proposed MOX fuel fabrication plant for Sellafield. In summary, the agency's proposed decision, which has likewise been referred to the relevant UK Ministers for final decision, was to the effect that the commissioning and full operation of the plant was “justified”.
The Irish Government had previously lodged two submissions with the UK Environment Agency — one in April 1997 and the other earlier this year — expressing its concerns about, and total opposition to, the proposed MOX plant. MOX fuel is a mixture of plutonium and uranium and is used in conventional reactors. The bulk of the plutonium for the proposed plant is expected to come from the fuel reprocessed from the UK's Magnox reactors at Sellafield and from the THORP reprocessing plant.
The Government's submissions to the UK Environment Agency were in response to the agency's public consultation process into the proposed MOX project. In its submissions, Ireland pointed out that the commissioning of the MOX  plant will serve to perpetuate the nuclear fuel reprocessing industry in Britain; the commissioning and operation of the MOX plant will further add to the multiplicity of operations already located at Sellafield, thereby increasing the risk of an accident occurring there; BNFL's promotion of MOX fuel as a solution to the problem of increasing stockpiles of plutonium does not stand up to scrutiny and the use of MOX fuel in nuclear reactors will lead to more plutonium being produced through the further reprocessing of this fuel when spent.
The worldwide transport of MOX fuel will pose unacceptable security risks. The transport of plutonium materials serve only to increase the risk of plutonium diversion for clandestine purposes. The operation of the MOX plant will result in additional radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea. These discharges, however small they may be, are objectionable and unacceptable to the Irish Government. A waste management and disposal strategy for the plutonium contaminated material generated from the operation of the MOX plant has not been identified.
Ireland's submission also noted that the economic case for the MOX plant assumes both the continuation and justification of reprocessing at THORP which would provide the feedstock for the MOX plant. In other words, the economic justification for MOX depends on the existence of a reprocessing activity, THORP, which in itself is not justified. Ireland's submission, therefore, also called for a cessation of THORP's reprocessing activity.
On learning of the Environment Agency's proposed decision on the MOX plant, I immediately wrote to the relevant UK Ministers reiterating Ireland's opposition to the proposed plant and requesting that they rescind the agency's decision. In addition to voicing its concerns about Sellafield directly with the UK, the Irish Government has also carried its campaign against Sellafield into the international arena at every available opportunity.
Apart from the more recent positive development which emerged from OSPAR in relation to radioactive discharges, which I have already mentioned, there have been other positive developments in relation to nuclear safety generally, such as the coming into force of the Nuclear Safety Convention. In addition, there is a Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Both conventions establish a peer review process. They also include provisions requiring member countries to consult neighbouring countries about installations which have a potential impact.
The House will be aware of the legal case being brought by four County Louth residents against BNFL. Although Ireland and the Attorney General are co-defendants in this case, the Government has earmarked £400,000 towards the cost of  the residents' research activities in connection with their case and a number of payments have been made to the residents on foot of this offer of assistance. The Irish Government continues to be committed to legal action against Sellafield, provided a legal case can be shown to exist. The Government will continue to draw upon the best scientific and legal advice before deciding on litigation.
Over recent years there has been a noticeable shift in public opinion in Europe against nuclear power. The UK Government and regulators are more sharply aware of the sensitivity of public opinion to nuclear power and have opened up their decision making and consultation processes.
In Germany, the new Government has announced a proposed phasing out of nuclear energy. In May of this year all shipments of nuclear waste from Germany to the reprocessing plants at Sellafield and La Hague were suspended at the direction of the then German Government following the discovery of contamination on the surface of the waste containers. This suspension remains in force.
Within recent days the Government in Belgium has announced the suspension of a contract for the reprocessing of Belgian spent fuel entered into with the La Hague reprocessing plant, which was due to come into effect in the year 2000 on the expiry of the existing contract. I understand the objective of the suspension is to provide the Belgian Government with a moratorium period of one year to make up its mind between the advantages of reprocessing on the one hand and conditioning and storage of waste on the other hand.
These positive developments, along with the adoption of the OSPAR strategy on radioactive waste discharges, are significant and represent a change in policy direction. This shift in Europe's thinking on nuclear energy will help Ireland's efforts in highlighting the dangers to public health, safety and the environment from nuclear related activities. This House can be assured that the Government will continue the campaign against Sellafield.
The majority of British nuclear installations, approximately 12, are located on its west coast facing Ireland. The west coast has one of Britain's lowest population concentrations while our east coast has the highest. A significant proportion of the Irish economy is based directly or indirectly on sectors which are dependent on our natural environment, such as agriculture, tourism, food, fishing and forestry. For this reason, I remain opposed to the continued operation of all the nuclear installations in western Britain, particularly to any proposed expansion such as the recently mooted MOX plant at Sellafield, which  the Environment Agency announced last October along with further details of technetium-99 discharges into the Irish Sea.
The further operations proposed at Sellafield will constitute a significant additional violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Ireland by subjecting our citizens and environment to unnecessary risk. The risks associated with the development are avoidable and unnecessary. Accordingly, I contend that because the existing development and any proposed extensions on the Sellafield site violate the principles of international relations between sovereign states and the accepted principles of environmental prudence, they should not be permitted to proceed.
The first principle of the system of protection suggested by the International Committee on Radiological Protection states that no practice involving exposures to radiation should be adopted unless it produces a sufficient benefit to the exposed individuals or to society to offset the radiation detriment it causes. There should be no risk without benefit.
Ireland is exposed to the risk of radiation hazard by the transportation, processing and storage of all radioactive material at nuclear installations on the west coast of Britain. The MOX development will significantly increase this risk. There is no benefit to either the individuals or society exposed to this detrimental risk. Ireland has no nuclear generated power sources. Not only is this continuing exposure to risk without benefit, but it is without the consent or control of our citizens. This is a significant interference in the right to national self-determination and, as such, represents a violation of our national sovereignty.
If nuclear installations are safe, why are they all concentrated along the UK west coast? They should be evenly distributed throughout the UK, in places such as Manchester or London, and closer to centres of population and consumption, thus avoiding a disproportionate share of risk exposure to the people of Ireland and our environment.
Good environmental principles have been constantly flouted by BNFL at Sellafield. The precautionary principle holds that actions with unpredictable outcomes should not be undertaken. The commissioning of THORP in the face of this principle indicates that it is not matter of concern to either BNFL or the UK authorities. The recent announcements on the MOX plant further underline the lack of consideration by BNFL and the UK authorities of Irish sovereignty.
Two decades ago a UK royal commission, the Flowers Commission, considered the implications of a plutonium economy. It concluded that the implications must be examined through a systematic process that engages the public. The UK Government has not responded properly to this recommendation. Many aspects of Sellafield's operations, including its economics, remain shrouded in secrecy. There has not been a systematic  examination of alternative options for the site's operation, including a suspension of reprocessing.
On 4 December last, at the second annual meeting of the Irish and UK local authorities on nuclear hazards in Manchester town hall, Mr. Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, the IRSS, which is based in Massachusetts, made an excellent case on democracy and decision making on nuclear issues. With his permission, I will make liberal use of his paper. He underlined the fact that UK and Irish authorities could play a key role in establishing an international regulatory structure that should govern the reprocessing of nuclear waste. He contends that this regulatory structure should also encompass the use of plutonium as a fuel and the disposition or disposal of plutonium that is surplus to military requirements.
Within such a regulatory structure, a set of criteria would be used to determine if a plutonium activity is permissible. These criteria would be linked to the impacts associated with the activity and to the availability of alternatives. He makes the point in his paper that the Irish Government is playing a leading role in the international disarmament area, that the German Government is taking new positions on reprocessing and nuclear disarmament, and that overall there is great potential for building coalitions that will yield policy changes and new international agreements. The Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, referred to a number of important international conventions that had been adopted over the past two years which will enhance nuclear safety worldwide. I quote from his contribution on the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, 1998, on 8 December in this House:
The convention on nuclear safety to which Ireland was among the first signatories came into force in October 1996 and it will ensure that all land based civil nuclear installations are safe, well regulated and promote a high level of nuclear safety worldwide .. this convention also provides for the reporting to other contracting parties on the measures taken.
This convention will allow Ireland the responsibility to participate in a nuclear safety review process every few years, the first such review to take place under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency — IAEA — in April next. This will provide an opportunity for Ireland to query the country reports of the UK and others regarding their compliance with the convention and apparently these country reports in respect of a number of the contracting parties to the convention have already been circulated by the IAEA.
The Minister of State contends that this convention is a major breakthrough in fostering a global  nuclear safety culture and for providing for extensive information exchange on nuclear safety matters. He has my full support in doing whatever is necessary to ensure that this is so.
In September 1997 Ireland was among the first signatories of a new Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. This convention places new and extensive obligations on contracting parties including the peer review process similar to that applicable to the Convention on Nuclear Safety to which I have just referred. I understand from his contribution that this new joint convention will oblige neighbouring countries to consult countries in close proximity on the siting of proposed facilities. This is a most important point. These consultation obligations, according to him are relevant to Ireland's long standing objections to the siting of any new radioactive waste disposal facilities in Britain. I would like the Minister to indicate when this convention will enter into force because then, and only then, can the convention give backing to consultations by the UK with Ireland on such facilities. I hope he will respond to us. I know he has enough time and I plead with him to reply.
Then I believe we can see progress on our sustained objections for several decades now to the cavalier treatment by the UK authorities of Irish concerns in relation to all their nuclear installations on the west coast of the UK but particularly in relation to Sellafield and ongoing and increasing activities on this site. As Gordon Thompson stated in his paper in Manchester, in theory the western world is democratic when making decisions on nuclear issues; in practice, nuclear decision making in the UK and in some other countries falls short of democratic standards. Questionable decisions are made behind a wall of secrecy with adverse effects on the public interest.
As we all know democracy can be defined as a form of Government in which the supreme power is vested in the people collectively and is administered by them or by officers appointed by them. But who are the people in question? In the case of nuclear technology, decisions can affect future generations and people at great distances. The Sellafield site has impacts on present and future citizens of Ireland. Yet the site confers no benefit, as I have said, on our citizens and they have no direct influence on UK policy. Even if nuclear decision making were to become democratically accountable within the UK, the requisite level of democracy would not yet have been attained as the Irish view would be out of the loop.
If decisions are to be made democratically and if they are to be sound then they must be well informed. The inordinate secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry in the UK must be eliminated and there must be a systematic process for examining the implication of such decisions. For nuclear technology this process will involve the  assessment of impacts on alternative options associated with a proposed course of action.
Nuclear related impacts fall into three categories; first, environmental impacts which include human health effects arising from exposure to radioactive material, second, socio-economic impacts which include changed economic behaviour arising from fear of exposure to radioactive material and, third, security impacts which could affect the security of individuals, states or the world community.
In all three categories impacts could arise from planned or unplanned events. For example, a routine release of radioactivity would be a planned event while an accidental release would be an unplanned event. Both events would generate environmental and socio-economic impacts. A diversion of plutonium to terrorists would be an unplanned event which would generate security impacts and in this regard there are ongoing fears that plutonium or highly enriched uranium will be diverted from facilities in Russia, but I do not have time to go into that today.
Could we not demand a retrospective environmental impact statement from our counterparts in the UK? The cost of preparing an EIS for the Sellafield site might be several million pounds sterling but as the operations on the Sellafield site involve annual expenditure of the order of £1 billion, an EIS could be easily justified. The Flowers Commission recommended in 1976 that environmental impact statements be prepared for nuclear power developments in the UK. This recommendation was never acted upon by the UK Government. Public inquiries have been held in connection with proposed nuclear facilities but none of these inquiries has been supported by a systematic assessment of impacts and alternative options.
There is best practice for assessing impacts on alternative options — there is an internationally accepted code of scientific practice in this area. I do not have time to go into it today but this is the road we should be pursuing and asking our UK colleagues to pursue immediately. The IRSS is currently conducting a research project that will help to show how best practice assessment of impacts and alternatives could be performed for the Sellafield site. The IRSS research is supported by our Government and relates to the case being brought by the Dundalk four against BNFL. Why can our Government not use this case to provide an opportunity to examine the impacts on alternatives associated with Sellafield?
Ministers over the years have talked about the difficult scientific and technical detail necessary to pursuing a legal case with the UK authorities on Sellafield. May I suggest it be done on the basis of a retrospective EIS and the best practice assessment of the impacts and alternatives in relation to Sellafield? Can we pursue that route with the UK authorities because the technical, legal and scientific detail would be readily available for such a course of action? This course of  action would be extremely constructive and it would also be a great antidote to the shroud of secrecy that BNFL insists on wrapping around Sellafield's activities.
We can only guess at the extent which BNFL has assessed impacts and alternative options for Sellafield. It is a fact that BNFL submitted numerous documents to the UK nuclear installations inspectorate as part of the safety case for facilities on the site. At a meeting at the Sellafield site in June 1997, the BNFL official refused to make any of these documents available while conceding that the documents would become publicly available if the Sellafield site were licensed in the United States. There seems to be higher standards available to US citizens than there is for UK or Irish citizens. This is totally unacceptable. When pressed as to the company's reasons for not disclosing these documents the BNFL official stated that the company was not precluded from disclosure by any regulatory provision but chose non-disclosure because that policy served the company's business interests. There is room for the Minister of State to investigate what that is all about on behalf of the Irish people. Does it serve the interests of the UK citizens and the environment in the immediate proximity? It does not serve the interests of Irish citizens and our environment. It is an infringement on our sovereignty and right to self-determination on matters of health and environment for our people.
BNFL's policy of secrecy stands in contrast to some of its public statements. In June 1998 Members of both Houses were briefed about a recently completed IRSS study done again by Gordon Thompson from whom I have been quoting liberally. On that occasion BNFL released a statement which stated “BNFL would be grateful if accurate information was finally put into the public domain so that a more balanced and informed debate can take place on any issues which need to be addressed.” I now say, and I support Gordon Thompson's contention, that the public interest would be greatly served if BNFL were to act on its statement and publish information about Sellafield which, incidentally, would have to be published if the site were licensed in the United States.
In his paper, Gordon Thompson suggests three specific initiatives whereby the UK and Irish authorities could address the impacts associated with the nuclear industry and plutonium and could introduce more democratic and effective decision-making processes. First, there is an urgent need to establish a European legal framework for best practice assessment of impacts and alternatives. Our Government and the German Government would be sympathetic to that initiative. Second, we must challenge BNFL to debate Sellafield's impacts and alternatives. The Irish Government, together with our local authorities and the UK local authorities, could respond to this call by offering BNFL an opportunity to participate  in an open structured debate. My colleague, Senator O'Dowd, stated on Tuesday, in the debate on the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, that the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport had agreed to invite BNFL to come before it. This would be an excellent forum for more accurate information about Sellafield to be put into the public domain and to respond to BNFL's request that this be done. We could then examine the impacts and alternative options associated with Sellafield. I understand the IRSS would be ready to engage in this debate. I suggest representatives from that organisation should also be invited to the meeting of the Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport. I ask the Minister to pursue this as an option and forum to remove the shroud of secrecy from BNFL's activities.
The third initiative would be to promote an international regulatory structure for commercial activities involving all fissile material. The two conventions to which I referred are a very important first step in this area. We should make cause with other sympathetic governments, such as the Germans, to pursue this initiative through European and international channels such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
I wish to refer to one final, but critical matter. I plead with the Minister of State to respond to this point before he leaves the House. If ever my concerns and that of hundreds of other public representatives at local and national level and elsewhere needed validation, last Sunday's papers did just that. An article in The Sunday Business Post stated, “Government agencies should prepare to distribute emergency iodine tablet supplies to Irish children as protection against radioactive pollution according to the World Health Organisation, because of growing fears of a nuclear accident resulting from the Year 2000 Millennium Bug.”. The article goes on to say that the WHO believes there is a serious risk of a nuclear reactor accident associated with computer malfunction, and has issued guidelines to Governments, including the Irish Government, to put an emergency plan in place to provide for a rapid distribution of iodine tablets in case of Y2K computer malfunctions in Sellafield and other British nuclear installations. We are talking about 12 months' time. The Sunday Business Post could not establish what agency, if any, is taking responsibility for the distribution of the emergency supplies of potassium iodine tablets to children in Ireland. The article quotes Dr. Keith Baverstoc who heads the new European Nuclear Emergency Project for the WHO as saying that the level of risk of a nuclear reactor accident in the medium-term future is unacceptable. He attributed the high rate of risk much more to human error and computer failure due to the Y2K millennium bug than to failure of engineering components.
 I do not need to reiterate our concerns about the accident rate at Sellafield down through the years. When the concern about a Y2K computer failure is added to that, there is cause for alarm at the lack of consultation between the Government and UK authorities. I urge the Minister of State to put on record exactly what preparedness there is among State agencies to respond to the WHO recommendations in this area. What State agency has stockpiled emergency provisions of potassium iodine? We need to know. I view with extreme alarm the siting of Sellafield and the other dozen or so UK nuclear installations on their west coast. This is an unacceptable infringement of our sovereignty and right to self-determination as a people and environment. If our proximity to Sellafield, which they conveniently located on their least populated west coast, places the population of the east coast and this country at risk, the very least the UK authorities and BNFL owe us is complete frankness, consultation and openness in terms of their programme and policy.
Mr. Walsh: I join Senator Doyle in welcoming the Minister of State to the House. Since he assumed office and his current responsibilities he has shown vigilance and diligence in articulating the concerns of citizens with regard to the risks of nuclear industry. This is not surprising coming from a politician who represents an east coast constituency where there is a high awareness of the risks emanating from Sellafield and the other installations which are predominantly located on the west coast of Britain.
Listening to Senator Doyle's concerns regarding the veil of secrecy surrounding much of what happens at Sellafield, this secrecy can have a much more insidious outcome when one considers what happened in Britain with regard to BSE. In that instance the failure to alert the public to the risks involved escalated concerns in Britain and throughout Europe. A more open and honest approach to the matter would have reassured the public and not caused the serious implications that followed. A more cynical observer might say we are more concerned with duplicity than with secrecy.
On the health risks involved, there is irrefutable evidence that there have been pockets of leukaemia and cancer outbreaks in areas adjacent to nuclear installations. Statistics in this country show evidence of leukaemia outbreaks in County Louth and the Newcastle area in County Down. A major concern in counties Down and Antrim is their proximity to Sellafield and the various accidents that have occurred over the years. People in these counties are strongly of the view that there is a co-relationship between the nuclear industry and the outbreaks of leukaemia  in the area. While that cannot be proved, there is international recognition that there is a direct co-relationship between leukaemia and radiation. Similar outbreaks have occurred in areas in Wales. Public concern is well founded in relation to this industry.
People in the industry often argue there is no proof and no connecting link between the industry and health risk. Perhaps the time has come to put the onus on the industry. This is a lucrative industry. Large sums of money are invested in it and there is significant State commitment to it throughout Europe. Maybe the time has come to put the onus on the industry to prove the converse, that it does not give rise to health risk. It is a highly lucrative industry, there is a huge amount of money invested in it and there is a great deal of state commitment to it across Europe.
It is similar to our discussions the other day on the construction of telephone masts where there is no direct proof of any health risk and experts differ on it. However, when push comes to shove and the telecommunications industry is asked to indemnify people against the health risk, they refused to do it. If they are so confident that there is no risk to health, then one wonders at their reluctance to undertake such indemnities.
I want to refer to one point which Senator Doyle addressed and which I had intended to address, that is the year 2000 issue and its implications for the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry, which would be highly computerised, would obviously be one of those at risk to the fall out from the non-compliance with year 2000 specifications. In the coming 12 months there is an increased risk factor because of this issue. I would add to Senator Doyle's suggestion about the distribution of iodine tablets that perhaps it would be timely to activate the national emergency plan for a full drill. We should ask the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland together with the county councils, to undertake such an emergency plan at this stage in order that any weaknesses in it could be clearly identified. I am led to believe that in the past when this was done on a more limited scale it identified weaknesses which could obviously be catastrophic in a real emergency where the plan had to be activated. Given the increased level of exposure arising from any failure of computer systems to comply with year 2000 specifications in any of the installations in Britain, it would be important that at least we would be in a position to respond properly in the unlikely event of a serious incident.
It concerns me that while the European Union is actively and influentially involved in regulation in many other areas, it is not so involved in this area. My town and many other towns across Ireland are awaiting decisions with regard to urban renewal. The scheme which was presented by Government to the European Union is now held up at Commission level while it makes  decisions in this regard. It is important that the European Union would also involve itself in this obvious area, that is, the protection of the environment and the health of the community, but it appears to be impotent. Perhaps this is because many member states have a strong interest in the nuclear industry for economic and other reasons. It would be a pity if there was not a strong input at European Union level in controlling this particular industry. Perhaps it is time for an international regulatory control body which would have the necessary powers to regulate and oversee nuclear plants.
Recently we were reminded of the need for such a body. Last July at the OSPAR Convention in Lisbon Britain undertook to reduce marine discharges into the Irish Sea over the next 20 years. They have undertaken for the next meeting, which will take place in Dublin between 18 and 22 January, to present an action plan on how they hope to achieve those reductions. It was significant, and almost flying in the face of such a commitment, that at the same time there was an announcement of the construction of a mixed oxide fuel production plant at Sellafield — what is referred to as the MOX plant. That received the approval of the British environment agency at a cost of some £300 million. That raises interesting questions. First, nuclear plants in general are now perceived as being a bad investment and many of them are regarded as not being viable. That certainly raises questions about the construction of the MOX plant in the Sellafield nuclear debate.
A study is being undertaken on the economies of BNFL generally by KPMG as a preparatory step to examining the options for privatisation. There is a good argument that such a decision should be deferred pending the public debate and consideration of the KPMG report on the viability of the reprocessing and MOX plants. We should be pursuing the British Government to make that KPMG report available in the public domain. These reports have not been made available in the past and this one must be open to public scrutiny. If the report is fully debated and considered, the decision will be well founded at least on economic grounds. One shudders to think of the measures which could be taken if BNFL was privatised and the viability of the plant was in jeopardy. Cost cutting measures could be taken which could seriously increase the risk factor. We need to be vigilant in that area.
The second question it raises is non-proliferation. The royal society's report on plutonium recommended that the British Government review options for stabilising and reducing Britain's stockpile of civil plutonium. If the reprocessing continues at present levels, the report indicated the stockpile would reach 100 tonnes by 2010. That would represent 50 per cent of the world's civil plutonium. The global implications for nuclear weapons proliferation is fairly obvious if that is the route which is being pursued. Britain  needs to clearly state its position with regard to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Its actions need to match its stated policy in this regard.
Third, one must be concerned about the aerial release risk from pollution and particularly the high level of liquid waste stored in tanks at Sellafield. In addition, the failure of BNFL to meet its scheduled targets in regard to the vitrification of the fuel must be a matter of concern. Certainly it should be clarified before there is an increase in BNFL's activities in that regard. If it is brought into its solidified form, then its handling and storage becomes immeasurably safer. It is important that BNFL is actively pursued in that regard.
As regards storage at Sellafield, the measurement of one radioactive isotope, caesium 137, is used to measure radioactivity levels and the unit is referred to as TBQ. It is interesting to note that storage at Sellafield runs to 7,000,000 units. Releases at Chernobyl amounted to 89,000 units and this underlines the potential risk involved.
Caesium 137 has a half life of 30 years. It is relatively volatile and can be released comparatively easily in an accident. It adheres strongly to surfaces and is a strong source of gamma radiation. Most of the off-site exposure from the Chernobyl accident is attributable to caesium 137. Sellafield contamination is comparable to Chernobyl. The consequences of the fall out from Chernobyl and Adi Roche's attempts to ensure a better quality of life for the children affected in Belarus, are constant reminders of the necessity for vigilance, controls and regulations to be strictly implemented. Fields and mud flats at Newbiggan and Muncaster, which are adjacent to Sellafied, contain levels of radioactivity comparable to those in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This must also be investigated before any decision is made.
Senator Doyle made copious references to Professor Gordon Thompson, one of the leading authorities in this area. My fourth question relates to the probabilistic risk assessment. I agree with Senator Doyle's call for an EIS but it should be recognised that a better and more important assessment would be the probabilistic risk assessment.
In the 1960s, as the commercial nuclear industry took shape, decision-makers sought information about the probability and consequences of potential accidents at nuclear facilities. Engineers recognised that new analytic techniques were needed if these parameters were to be estimated. Important early work on this subject was done in the UK by Farmer and others, but leadership later passed to the United States.
Beginning with the NRC's reactor safety study of 1975, practitioners in the USA and elsewhere have developed an engineering discipline known as probabilistic risk assessment, PRA. Nuclear facility PRAs are performed at three levels. At level 1, a PRA will estimate the probability of a specified type of accident, such as severe core  damage at a reactor. At level 2, which builds upon level 1 findings, a PRA will estimate the nature of potential radioactive releases from the facility. In turn, the level 2 findings can be used in a level 3 exercise, which will estimate the off-site consequences, such as health effects, economic effects and so on, of radioactive releases. For all three levels, a PRA can be performed for internal accident-initiating events, such as equipment failure, operator error etc., and for external accident-initiating events, such as earthquakes and floods.
Most potential accidents at a nuclear facility will involve a chain of events that might, individually, cause limited concern. Mathematical techniques have been developed whereby PRA analysts can examine each link in a potential chain, estimate its probability and combine these estimates in an overall estimate for the probability of the resulting accident. These techniques are very helpful but the analyst must also exercise common sense, be aware of historical experience, and consider the potential for subtle interactions among a facility's systems.
Historical experience shows that accidents involving complex technologies can proceed in complex and surprising ways. Thus, application of PRA techniques requires more than the simplistic use of mathematical techniques. It also requires the consideration of a variety of complicating factors which may not all be susceptible to mathematical analysis. These factors, which can interact, include gross errors by plant personnel — errors beyond historical experience; gross defects in equipment and-or structures — defects that have been undetected and exceed historical experience; earthquakes; fires or explosions; acts of malice; unanticipated accident sequences; and dependencies among events.
Because of these factors and statistical effects, the findings of a PRA, even when performed to prevailing international standards, contain substantial uncertainties. A PRA which yields very low accident probabilities is unlikely to be credible. For example, analysts examining the credibility of PRA findings for nuclear reactors have stated that a core damage probability below one per 100,000 reactor years is very suspicious, and a probability below one per 1,000,000 reactoryears is clearly incredible.
Experience shows that the development of PRA techniques and the application of those techniques in a particular PRA demand a high level of openness and thorough peer review. By contrast, a climate of secrecy will have a stultifying effect on PRA practice. BNFL claims to have conducted PRA investigations for facilities at Sellafield, but this work remains secret and, thus, cannot have received thorough peer review. There is reason to doubt that BNFL's probabilistic studies are systematic or comprehensive. BNFL officials concede that, if Sellafield were overseen by the NRC, a PRA would have been  prepared and published for the site's major facilities.
Most of the nuclear PRA experience worldwide is with reactors. Every commercial reactor in the USA has been subjected to a PRA or similar analysis. Surely it is time for this example to be followed in the EU? The Minister of State should actively and vigorously pursue the commissioning of a probabilistic risk assessment for Sellafield.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht a bheith linn inniu agus as an méid oibre atá déanta aige maidir le Sellafield agus áiteanna eile mar sin ar fud an domhain.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and I acknowledge the efforts of successive Ministers in objecting to the continuation of operations at Sellafied. It is amazing that in a civilised world, Britain continues to allow BNFL operations at Sellafield. There may be occasional scaremongering on the part of certain groups. However, when one looks at the devastation caused by the accident in Chernobyl, and the sight of children still affected by that accident, it is time to call a halt.
I am bitterly opposed to nuclear energy and the disregard governments show about this issue. They should set a timescale which would put the nail in the coffin of nuclear power. Until such time as we have developed better technology, no fuel should be used which cannot be controlled. It has been proved beyond doubt that nuclear energy cannot be controlled. Every few months we hear of accidents and leaks at power stations. Even though Ireland is separated from Britain by water, the distance between Dublin and Sellafield is very short; it is only half an hour away by plane, maybe less. If an accident happened in Sellafield we would probably by wiped out before the city of London. If such an accident happened we could say goodbye to the two islands. It would be the end of the story. It is a potential bomb waiting to go off. I have no love for Saddam Hussein but I consider it heavy handed that Britain is imposing sanctions on his country to get rid of a potential danger while it poses a danger thing to Ireland and does nothing about it.
The Minister stated that at the OSPAR meeting in Lisbon last July a strategy on radioactive discharges was adopted which committed all OSPAR Ministers, including those of the UK, to the virtual elimination of such discharges into the maritime environment by the year 2020. In effect, this means that there is no intention to close down these nuclear stations for at least another 22 years. We can talk all we like about the dangers of nuclear power but that is the stark reality.
Mr. Jacob: It has to be a gradual process; the terminology is close to zero by 2020. As Senator Walsh stated earlier, they have to portray next year how they are going to effect that process over that period of years. It is not a question of procrastination.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I thank the Minster of State for the clarification. He seems to be fighting alone on behalf of Ireland and humanity at many of these meetings. It appears he receives little help. Does the elimination of discharges into the environment by the year 2020 mean that even though there will be a gradual shutdown, in 2020 the nuclear station in Sellafield will be out of action? I believe it will not and we have to make our voices heard.
I talked about Chernobyl earlier and the effects of that disaster that were felt not only in Chernobyl but throughout the world. It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that due to the cloud structures and wind direction at the time, some of the clouds came over Ireland and Scotland and the effects were felt there. I have no proof this happened but the experts have told us this.
The Irish Government continues to be committed to legal action but what legal action can we take? We have no laws on this, so they cannot be broken. Senators will remember the Harbours Bill as it came through the House. I was involved through the then Minister, Deputy Éamon Gilmore. For the first time in the history of the State a Bill imposed a total ban on nuclear powered ships, vessels, cars, rubbish, waste and other things from all harbours and ports in Ireland. At the time I wanted to go further, and I still want to do so through legislation. I am a firm believer in declaring our territorial waters a nuclear free zone in legislation. Then if our territorial waters are polluted by nuclear waste from Sellafield we can take those who polluted our waters to the courts. From my discussions on this, I feel this is the way to go. To my knowledge we do not have a law that is being broken. We need to enact such a law.
If someone drives through a town at 40 or 45 miles per hour and the town does not have a speed limit, then he or she is not breaking a law. However if a 30 mile per hour limit is in place, then a law is being broken. We must first put legislation in place. If we declare our territorial waters, that is the 12 mile limit, a nuclear free zone, we will have legislation in place so that if anybody interferes with or pollutes that water we will have the right to take them to court because they have broken our laws. I am not an expert on this; I am taking advice.
In relation to the Irish Sea, I would like to remind the House that after World War II the bird life of this country was almost wiped out and nobody could figure out what happened. It was very simple. We were a poor nation at the time and, as some Senators may remember, the health boards freely distributed DDT in schools and  other places. Flies were being killed off. The amount of DDT that would kill a fly is very small. However a small bird eats about 500 flies every day. A bird that ate 500 flies took a lethal dose and was killed by the DDT. In Ireland we are famous for our Dublin Bay prawns. We are told the level of radioactivity in fish and prawns is so small that it will not affect us. However if one ate 15 or 20 prawns in a normal meal and each had a small amount of radioactivity, I wonder what the danger to the human being would be.
I appeal to the Minister to ask the Government to consider declaring the 12 mile territorial waters around our coast a nuclear free zone. I see nothing to prevent us doing this. It might only be gesture, but it would be one of goodwill and would show we mean action and that we want clean waters. It would ensure that the next generation, including all the children in the Public Gallery, can be assured that we did our best to ensure they take over a world that is a little better than the one we inherited.
I again thank the Minister of State for his hard work. I have listened to him countless times strenuously objecting to the nuclear power station in Sellafield. I congratulate him on everything he has done. If I have quoted something out of context, then I take it back. However it appears that the power station in Sellafield will be there for the next 20 years. We must renew our efforts and make our voices heard. We should introduce legislation to ensure we are protected.
Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): It was indicated to me that there would not be a facility to reply. However, I am pleased I have been given an opportunity to reply to the excellent and sincere contributions on a subject which is very close to my heart and one which I have endeavoured to digest, absorb and live with over the past year because of the huge level of public opinion and aversion to and fear of this monster on the immediate periphery of our shores. I will endeavour to deal with as much as possible of what my officials and I have been able to note of what Senators said.
Senator Avril Doyle expressed her opposition to MOX and gave her strong reasons. She considers it a violation of our national sovereignty, with which I agree. I am similarly opposed to THORP. She quoted Gordon Thompson, whom I have met. I have also read his paper and one must be impressed with the work he has put into this subject. I am grateful for the support promised by Senator Doyle.
Senator Doyle and Senator Walsh referred to the inordinate secrecy of the UK nuclear industry. I agree with them. We have endeavoured to do something about this. The RPII has long sought environment risk assessment material and BNFL has repeatedly refused to give that information  on the basis that it deems it breaches what it calls “commercial confidentiality”.
In recent months I asked the chief executive of RPII to try again and write to BNFL and seek that information. I simultaneously wrote to the appropriate UK Minister endorsing and substantiating that demand for information. I am glad to say that has produced some results. The UK has, for the first time, responded positively and made an offer as regards how that information can be gleaned and supplied. As we speak, the RPII and BNFL are interacting as regards that information. I do not know yet whether the information we get will be adequate. However, it is a start and the RPII, my Department and I are pleased. I will keep Senators informed on progress in this extremely important matter.
Senator Avril Doyle spoke about the Y2K bug and the possibility of future malfunction. This has been given our concentration and attention. This problem, in so far as it may impact on the nuclear sector, was recently discussed at the EU Atomic Questions Group. The EU Commissioner will prepare a paper for a future meeting of that group on what action the commission has taken and is taking as regards this problem. It is of vital importance that computer based systems essential to safety in nuclear plants in EU member states and elsewhere do not encounter problems associated with the Y2K bug.
The Y2K problem in central and eastern European countries and the states of the former Soviet Union is of particular concern. The safety of nuclear installations in those countries may be adversely affected. We have had the horrific experience of Chernobyl and reports of unstable plants in those countries of which we regularly hear and read. Ireland is anxious to seek community involvement with the regulatory authorities of the CECs and the NIS to identify and provide assistance with problem areas.
The expertise of the community as regards this problem would be most valuable to those countries. A community initiative involving those countries could also be linked with the initiative being undertaken by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The Taoiseach has taken a hands-on approach to the problem of the Y2K bug. State companies are under direct instruction from the Taoiseach to get their house in order in that context well in advance of the predetermined date. The RPII and other agencies under the auspices of my Department have already reported that they are on target. The point is well taken. We will continue to give due attention to that matter.
Mr. Jacob: I will deal with that in the context of the Senator's question about the national nuclear emergency plan. I cannot answer questions from  the top of my head with a great degree of accuracy.
Mr. Jacob: To my knowledge, there may be no stockpiling. However, there has been an extensive review of the national nuclear emergency plan. It was recently sent to Government and the changes have been approved. The question asked by Senator Doyle about the tablets comes under the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children which will deal with the matter.
Senator Walsh referred to the weaknesses identified in the national nuclear emergency plan. A simulated exercise was carried out in 1996 which showed up substantial weaknesses. These have been addressed and a new plan has been put in place, submitted to Government and approved. I intend to have a full exercise of the new plan in 1999 involving county councils and the Civil Defence. I will brief Departments and others affected on the recent changes approved by Government. I am confident, given the work which has been done by many Departments and the expertise we have been able to call upon, that we will be able to provide an effective response, should we ever be called upon to do so. That would include Senator Doyle's question on the tablets.
Senator Doyle and Senator Walsh raised the question of the new inspection force. This is something for which we have been trying on a number of occasions and for which we have been pressing but there are different views among member states, some of which are strong pro-nuclear powers. Unanimity is called for in terms of changes here. In effect, we have not been able to make significant headway on the matter. I am satisfied with the innovation, that is, the peer review process I mentioned. That process under the new IAEA international conventions will go some way towards opening up member states and the nuclear industry generally to scrutiny. As Senators said, that is to be advocated and I am at one with them.
Senator Doyle talked about the joint convention and I thank her for her comments on the international conventions. The Government is working on ratification of the convention. Preparations are ongoing at international level for the coming into force of the convention and the format of the aforementioned peer review process. The Senator also expressed concern about the proliferation of weapon grade plutonium, as did Senator Walsh. Both Senators may be interested to know that in September this year Ireland signed an international protocol designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and safeguard the use of nuclear materials. The objective of the new protocol is to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing safeguards agreement entered into following on from the treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
 The existing agreement is implemented by the IAEA as part of an international effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to provide assurances about the peaceful use of nuclear materials. The new protocol extends the scope of the existing agreement to include specified equipment and non-nuclear materials of dual use capability, that is, civil or military. Under the protocol contracting parties will be obliged to furnish information to the IAEA on the manufacture and export of components and equipment used in the civil nuclear industry which could potentially be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
I thank Senator Fitzgerald for his comments and his excellent contribution. He came up with some rather innovative suggestions. Like the good Senator, I do not have legal training but I will certainly see what legal advice has to say on his suggestion on the declaration of our territorial waters as a nuclear free zone. The question of taking a legal case is at all times under review by myself and the Government. We seek the scientific and legal information and confirmation on an ongoing basis as to what is available. When speaking publicly I always endeavour not to say something which will prejudice a case in the future. I would take a case in the morning with the full backing of Government as and when the necessary scientific and legal advice is available to me. Senators and the public would certainly agree with that and would like it to happen. I think I have covered everything but I will peruse the record and get back to Senators if I have left anything out. I thank them for the invaluable and genuine points they raised on this important subject and for the support they offered to me.
Mr. Walsh: I thank the Minister for being so forthcoming and particularly for his reply. It is good he is taking a hands on approach. What is a major public concern is in extremely competent hands. His openness and co-operation with this House certainly contrasts with that displayed by BNFL.
Mrs. A. Doyle: I concur with Senator Walsh. For some time now — my colleagues will realise this — I have been making the point on the Order of Business that statements as such without a response or a question and answer session with the Minister are really a sterile use of this House. I thank the Minister for his immediate response to questions without any prior notice. I understand that places some limitations on him but it is the only way we make sense of the statement procedure in this House. I hope his example will be continued and used as a precedent for other Ministers. Even ten minutes at the end of a long session of statements — they were not that long today — makes sense and ties ends together. I thank the Minister for that.
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