Wednesday, 25 May 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
—commends the Government for ensuring this position is made clear regularly through responses to public consultations on nuclear matters, contacts at all levels and in correspondence with the UK authorities;
—commends the Government for pursuing separate legal actions against the Sellafield MOX plant through the OSPAR Convention and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, and through participation at EU level and at other international bodies where the Irish position is stated at all times, individually and with like-minded countries;
—notes, with approval, that the Government joined other like-minded countries in a declaration on this matter at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and urges the Government to use all other opportunities as they arise;
—requests the Government to keep up-to-date nuclear emergency plans, including sufficient stocks of medical supplies, so as to minimise harm to public health from the effects of any possible exposure to radiation in Ireland;
—supports the strong commitment of the Government to seek full disclosure from the UK authorities of all information relevant to accidents, malfunctions, unauthorised disclosures and lapses in safety procedures and of any evidence of heightened risk to health or the environment;
—and asks the Government to convey to the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, Seanad Éireann’s implacable opposition to Sellafield as well as this House’s firm conviction that the UK authorities should speedily ensure the safe and orderly closure of Sellafield because of the potential threat it poses to the Irish people.
I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad we have such a comprehensive motion before us. We are all aware of the various protests that have taken place over the years demanding the closure of Sellafield. Many people have gathered at, or near, Sellafield and there have been protest songs written about the closure of the plant.
I am pleased that, in line with Government policy, Ireland has initiated proceedings on two separate fronts. One set of proceedings relates to the Sellafield MOX plant, under the 1992 OSPAR Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic; the other is under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as UNCLOS. Much progress has been made on these two cases.
The OSPAR hearing took place in the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague in October 2002. The objective of the OSPAR action was to bring about the disclosure of certain information which had been excluded from two economic reports on the MOX plant, commissioned by the UK. The court issued its judgment on 22 July 2003 and although Ireland failed to gain access to the confidential information withheld from the UK public consultation papers, the court established an important international legal precedent. It determined the following: Ireland has a right under the OSPAR Convention to access information on the marine environment; the UK has an obligation to make such information available; and Ireland has the right of redress to vindicate its rights to such information.
The UNCLOS hearing took place in The Hague from 10 to 21 June 2003. The issues in this case included the threat to the marine environment from the continued operation and expansion of Sellafield, including security issues, the threat to the Irish Sea from shipments of nuclear materials and the inadequacy of the 1993 environmental impact statement from the MOX plant. However, at the beginning of the hearing, the tribunal was concerned with arguments from the UK that the issues in dispute were matters of European Community competence and should fall for decision by the European Court of Justice.
The issue is the continuing discharge of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. Unlike sludge, which can be broken down, the radioactive material remains intact in the sea and is moving towards the Scandinavian countries. That is why the Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway, are supporting us. It is of major concern that this practice, which has been going on for years, is continuing and it will take many more years before we find a resolution.
The tribunal took the view that it would be inappropriate to go on to consider the merits of Ireland’s case while uncertainty remained over the division of competences between UNCLOS, the European Community and the member states. In those circumstances, the tribunal proposed to hold hearings on the substantive case to facilitate a resolution of the issues relating to jurisdiction between the European Community and UNCLOS. However, the tribunal agreed to hear an application by Ireland for provisional measures, pending the hearing of the substantive case. These provisional measures were dealt with and the tribunal issued an order on 24 June 2003 calling on both parties to develop suitable secure arrangements at intergovernmental level to improve co-operation and consultation.
Discussions at official level between Ireland and the UK are ongoing on the implementation of the tribunal’s order. The provisional measure orders provide a basis on which to improve co-operation and consultation arrangements between the UK and Ireland. Four reports have been submitted to the tribunal to date and the next report is due at the end of May 2005.
On the issue of competences between UNCLOS and the EU, the European Commission initiated proceedings against Ireland in the European Court of Justice on 31 October 2003. Written pleadings in the case have been exchanged and Sweden has intervened on the side of Ireland, while the UK has intervened on the side of the Commission. The written procedure is now closed and Ireland has requested an oral hearing at the European Court of Justice. It is expected that the hearing will take place later this year.
It would be useful to take a look back at the work of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. I notice, from contact with it and its website, that it has introduced new technology over the years. In 2000 an experimental buoy equipped with a radiation detector capable of continuously measuring radioactive contamination of sea water was placed in the north-western Irish Sea. The new technology also includes instruments for measuring the physio-chemical parameters such as salinity, temperature and current velocity.
This particular piece of equipment was developed and constructed by a Norwegian company, Oceanor, in conjunction with the IAEA’s marine environmental laboratory and is a good example of co-operation and how countries opposed to Sellafield work together. The Irish Sea project was planned jointly with the RPII and the environmental heritage service of Northern Ireland which supports the project financially. I understand the project is scheduled to run for 12 months and will provide valuable information on the performance of the new technology. It is a useful project. The RPII was delighted to get the new equipment and by the participation of the Northern Ireland environment and heritage office.
We may become complacent when we hear the radioactive levels in Ireland due to Sellafield fell in 1999 and 2000, as shown in the main findings produced on radioactivity levels. However, this is an issue the Government should continue to raise with the British Government because while levels may be low, they are undesirable and unnecessary. The Taoiseach raised the matter with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. The case has been made based on the results of sample levels from fish, shellfish and other marine biota from Irish waters. Under the OSPAR Convention we should ensure that our case is highlighted so we can seek the early closure of Sellafield.
An issue the RPII has repeatedly mentioned is that of the high-level storage tanks which hold radioactive waste. The quantity of radioactive material in these tanks is such that an accident involving a major release into the atmosphere could have serious consequences at a considerable distance from the plant. The RPII was given unprecedented access by the plant’s operators, BNFL, in 2000 to detailed information about the safety of the tanks. The RPII found that while the likelihood of a serious accident is low, BNFL could and should take a number of actions to make the risk even lower. For example, some of the issues relate to BNFL providing more accurate and up-to-date information on the reliability of individual plant components. BNFL also needs to complete its analysis of the potential hazards to the plant from, for example, seismic disturbances. Alternative water supplies for tank cooling are not fully independent of each other. The RPII also recommended that instrumentation for the detection of possible hydrogen build-up should be installed. Another practical issue raised was the random checking of plant personnel for alcohol or drug abuse. The institute also raised the issue of the consequences of a severe accident if one should occur. These issues have not been adequately assessed.
I hope BNFL takes action on these matters as suggested by the RPII. There are significant risks associated with the storage of high-level radioactive waste in liquid form. The RPII has suggested that a long-term programme to convert the material to a safer solid form should be accelerated. I hope this will be done. It is a pleasure to propose this motion this evening and I hope the House agrees to it.
Mr. Brady: I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to speak on an issue that affects us all. I commend the person who compiled the motion because it captures concisely and accurately the seriousness with which this and previous Governments have taken the issue.
Until the events of 11 September 2001, the idea of Sellafield and the possible consequences for Ireland of an accident or terrorist attack were taken with little seriousness. In some quarters it was only considered with a degree of cynicism. However, since then we realise that such things happen and the probability is that they will happen. Whether we like it, we must plan for such events. When talking about the United Kingdom, we are not just talking about Sellafield.
The United Kingdom currently has 14 nuclear plants at various stages of production and decommissioning, 12 of which are magnox reactors, a UK technology introduced in the 1940s and 1950s which has not progressed much since. It is widely accepted that this technology is inefficient and unsafe. Sellafield has two processors, one of which is a magnox plant which has been decommissioned and the other a thermal oxide reprocessing plant, THORP, in which nuclear waste from throughout Europe and Japan is reprocessed.
A debate is currently raging in the United Kingdom as to whether to continue with a nuclear power programme because by 2010, all bar two of the UK plants will be decommissioned. However, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland informs us:
The RPII is one of those bodies whose work only comes to public attention when there is a major incident or accident. However, it has played a crucial role in assisting this and the previous Government in achieving its current position of contact and monitoring between our officials and UK Government officials. Since the initiation of international legal proceedings against the United Kingdom by Ireland in 2002 — on which I congratulate the Ministers of the time, Deputies Cullen and Noel Dempsey — under the OSPAR Convention and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, in 2003, the institute has worked extremely closely with legal, governmental and diplomatic teams to further the Irish cause with regard to Sellafield.
The actions taken have resulted in the setting out of a very important international legal precedent regarding access to information for Ireland under the OSPAR Convention. Under the UNCLOS Convention, as Senator Kitt stated, the fight continues. So far, despite questions about EU competency in certain areas and other issues, it has resulted in much improved co-operation and in access and consultation arrangements being put in place. Given the nature of what we are dealing with, it is clear that more needs to be done, although we have done a significant amount of work. The RPII’s recent report on its visit to Sellafield does not make for very good reading.
A bilateral agreement was signed in December 2004 after many years of struggle. It provided for visits by the RPII and the Garda to Sellafield and access by this country’s authorities to the UK’s radiation monitoring system, RIMNET. Ireland receives a great deal of support at EU level and from Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway. A significant amount of work remains to be done, however, as Senator Kitt said. The sea and the air around our coasts are being continually monitored. We need to resolve some major issues.
There have been many developments since Ireland started to take legal action in this regard. The Calder Hall reactors at Sellafield were closed in March 2003. The RPII is dealing with two specific matters, the first of which is the discharges from the 1970s and 1980s. While there is no significant risk at present, continuous monitoring of the discharges, in particular, is essential. It is accepted that the reductions in discharges which have been sought by the Government will not be achieved until 2020. It is worrying that the authorised discharge, as laid down by the UK environment agency, is greater than the current rate of discharge. There is scope for BNFL to decide to increase the discharges at some stage in the future, for commercial reasons, for example. That is worrying when one considers the nature of the discharges.
The second specific matter with which the RPII is dealing is the safe storage of nuclear liquid waste. Such waste, which is stored in tanks at present, accounts for approximately 90% of the radioactive waste at Sellafield at present. I started to understand the commercial nature of this system when I read the section of the RPII report that stated that it would cost approximately £150 million per year until 2020 to clean a magnox fuel storage pond. The substantial commercial and economic pressure that is being placed on the UK Government in this regard is part of the reason for the delays in this area. The Irish Government has to maintain its diplomatic and governmental pressure to get the UK authorities to move on this issue.
According to the RPII report, there have been improvements in physical security at Sellafield as a result of contacts which have been built up. Such security measures, including improved fencing around the various sections of Sellafield and increases in the number of armed security guards on the site, have been deemed necessary in light of the threat of terrorist attack and the possibility of accidents. The problem is that there is no framework for assessing the risks and consequences of a terrorist attack. Plans can be put in place and certain measures can be taken, but there is no framework for assessing the risks involved. We should not forget that the onus is on BNFL and the UK Government to provide adequate security measures.
The Government has sought the technical information that will be necessary in real time in the case of an accident or a terrorist incident. There will be no point in telling the Irish authorities about an incident an hour, half an hour or 15 minutes after it takes place. We need to get information in real time. The RPII has worked hard to get such information. Recent exercises have indicated that the notification arrangements are working well, which has been welcomed by the RPII. The RPII has expressed deep concern about the lack of access to information about security issues and threat assessment arrangements. The mantra used by the Sellafield authorities is that such information cannot be exchanged for security reasons.
Given the nature of this issue and the proximity of Ireland to the nuclear installations in the UK, it is right that the Government has committed itself to demanding the closure of Sellafield, which is the bottom line. Even if the plant is closed, there will be a continuing need to monitor and assess its impact. I warmly welcome and second the motion, which succinctly and correctly sets out the position the Government has taken.
Mr. Bannon: There is a great deal of public disquiet in Ireland, not only about the manner in which the Sellafield facility has reported incidents and accidents in recent times, but also about the weak response by the Government to such incidents. The time has come for all political parties to go to the European Court of Justice because this issue has serious implications for the entire Irish community. We want the Sellafield facility to be closed in the interests of the safety of our people. A catastrophe is waiting to happen if we sit on the sidelines.
The scandalous abuse of safety at Sellafield is a European issue. The Government did not succeed in its bid to close Sellafield when it went to the UN international court, but some progress was made. We need to continue to bring all possible pressure to bear on the UK Government to close Sellafield. The high level waste tanks at Sellafield pose a serious risk to the east coast of Ireland. If the cooling tanks overheat, a large amount of radiation will be released. Sellafield was the main topic of discussion at the Local Authority Members Association’s conference in Dundalk last year. Local representatives expressed the views of the people about what is happening at Sellafield.
The US Congress commissioned the United States Academy of Science to compile a major study of nuclear power. The report, which was published last month, highlights the danger of nuclear power and describes the storage of radioactive liquids as a critical security issue in the United States. Traces of radioactivity from Sellafield have been detected in seaweed and shellfish in Norway. We know that discharges have been taking place since the 1970s, just as we know about the appalling nuclear accident of 1957.
Mr. Bannon: As I said, we know that an appalling nuclear accident took place in 1957, shortly after the Sellafield plant opened. Important records about reprocessed material were routinely falsified over the years. Sellafield’s main customers, Japan, Germany and Switzerland, have been frightened away as they have learned that Sellafield suffers from lax safety standards, as well as what is known among nuclear inspectors as “management failure”. Last year, I, unlike Senator Ross, who would sit on the sidelines and make comments, visited Sellafield.
Mr. Bannon: I saw for myself what was happening there. Several times when I tried to pose questions that members of the public are posing to public representatives, I was told that my questions were out-of-date and that there was no need to ask them because safety could be guaranteed at Sellafield. I spent two days visiting the plant and returned to Ireland with a great sense of fear.
If we needed any further proof that we are being treated with contempt by our UK counterparts, we need only look at the recent major leak of radioactive material at the THORP nuclear reprocessing facility at Sellafield. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, was only notified of the accident three days after it occurred. This made a farce of the signing of the bilateral agreement on the notification of nuclear incidents and the exchange of information on nuclear facilities, which the Minister, Deputy Roche, signed last December. This agreement provides for both Governments to take appropriate measures in the event of a serious nuclear incident. Clearly, the British Government was unaware of its commitments or decided to ignore them for a considerable period in regard to the recent incident.
Reprocessing is carried out at the THORP facility at Sellafield, which reprocesses spent nuclear fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. It is now likely to be closed for an undetermined time as a result of this accident. An estimated 83 cu. m. of radioactive liquid — enough to fill two normal family living rooms to the ceiling — escaped from a broken pipe into a concrete chamber before it was detected on 18 April last. As this chamber is now heavily contaminated, it is unsafe for workers to enter. Any clean-up operation may have to be carried out using robots or other remote control instruments. It is still unclear when the leakage began and the incident has been classified as category three and described as serious on the seven-point international nuclear event scale. The spilling of two chambers of radioactive liquid cannot be dismissed as being of no threat to Ireland or our food chain, with the resultant health and economic consequences.
Mr. Bannon: The extraordinary response from the UK Government to our current concerns is that radioactive discharges from Sellafield pose no threat to human health or the environment, that the Sellafield plant and associated transports are safe and secure and that the legacy waters arising from the UK’s nuclear programme are being addressed through the establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has taken over ownership of Sellafield from British Nuclear Fuels.
However, the UK must be aware that the danger does not only lie within. The ever present threat of terrorist action following the 9/11 attacks, and the potential catastrophic repercussion of such action for Ireland were Sellafield to be a target, must intensify the need for us to put pressure on Britain, Europe and the international community. We are in grave danger from radiological sabotage or an attack on shipments from Sellafield. Ireland, like Belarus, which is situated next to Chernobyl in the Ukraine, has no nuclear plants, but a terrorist attack on Sellafield could leave us devastated. The high-level waste storage facility at Sellafield has the largest radioactive inventory in Europe.
I have no doubt the Government, including the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has good intentions in regard to the closure of Sellafield. I urge the Minister to allow no loophole to remain and to spare no effort to bring this about. A weak response at any level to this threat would be a blow to the safety and health of our people and the protection of the environment.
Politicians from the North and South of the island are at one in regard to the closure of Sellafield, in particular politicians on the east coast. I have spoken to many members of the National Association of Councillors and the Northern Assembly. There is also unanimity among the political parties in this House.
Mr. Bannon: Senator Brady referred to other facilities across Britain that have not been highlighted to the same extent as Sellafield. We need action in regard to those plants and also those on the western coast of France. Serious consequences would result if accidents were to occur at those plants.
Ms Ormonde: Lest I am attacked by Senator Ross, I acknowledge that I too will be reading my contribution from a script. Normally, I do not do so but I will rely on a script in this debate. Senator Ross should not stick his nose in the air on hearing that as if he is disgusted that we cannot think for ourselves.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to the House. This issue has arisen several times since I entered the Seanad. We have continued to raise the subject as often as possible because it has become a real security, environmental and health risk to the people of this country.
I commend the Government motion. It is clear the Government put a lot of work into the issue, which was a central plank of its election manifesto and programme for Government in 2002. We have lobbied politically and pushed every available angle to achieve the closure of Sellafield. Unfortunately, the plant remains open and it appears it will do so for a long time to come.
I commend the Government on taking the legal action which has brought this issue to centre stage. Although the case taken through the tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was not successful, the judgment recommended that the Irish and British Governments should discuss improved co-operation and consultation in regard to the MOX plant at Sellafield. This resulted in the visit by the RPII to the Sellafield plant last September, a trip that brought some useful information into the public domain.
Having said that, there are still major concerns regarding the plant in Sellafield. Another part of the recently agreed procedures between the Irish and British Governments was notification of accidents in the plant. However, after the recent major leak of radioactive material — enough to fill two typical family living rooms — it took three days for the RPII to be informed of the matter and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was not told of the incident by its British counterparts, via the British Embassy, until four days after it happened.
I encourage the Government to place as much pressure as possible on the United Kingdom to address this serious discharge. It is not good enough. Any accident in Sellafield needs to be relayed to the Irish authorities immediately. We cannot allow a system to be introduced that will see information pass through a chain of diplomacy before we are informed. The Irish people deserve better; we deserve to be the first to be told. It should be remembered that London is further away from Sellafield than Dublin, yet we had to wait for the information to be relayed to us from the British capital. There should be direct contact between officials in Sellafield and Dublin. There is no need for information to go from one pillar to another before we hear of it.
When compiling its report on Sellafield, the RPII noted that its British counterparts did not disclose their assessments of a threat of terrorist attack for reasons of security and the institute reported its serious concern. It might have understated the case in this regard. How can we expect to deal with a disaster without the co-operation of the British authorities? We do not have access to information that would show the potential main problems and the aspects which would be of greatest concern to the Irish people. It is rather weak for the British authorities to hide behind the excuse of security reasons. The British Government is not the only one that would have to deal with the implications of a terrorist attack should one occur. Britain would also enjoy the benefit of being removed from the danger, unlike us on this side of the Irish Sea. The British authorities must have far more respect for our situation in this regard and not hide behind flimsy excuses. They cause more fear by suggesting they do not know what would happen in the event of a terrorist attack.
Some of the information put into the public domain by the National Cancer Registry is also a cause for concern. I am not a doctor or a medical expert, but it is odd that the registry published a report stating that the increased incidence of cancer in County Louth cannot be attributed to radiation from Sellafield. According to the registry the higher cancer rates in the county are more likely linked to factors such as smoking, diet and sun exposure. Its central argument is that smoking is the only shared risk factor for the cancers found in higher numbers. However, this statement is shortsighted. Nuclear radiation affects everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe and even our simple physical development. Did the National Cancer Registry take a deeper look at why diet in County Louth is different or why more people there are contracting cancer through smoking? Radiation possibly weakens people’s immune system and perhaps this makes them more susceptible to cancer in County Louth rather than being the specific cause. However, it would appear that the only environmental difference between County Louth and other parts of the country is its proximity to Sellafield. This is a case of scientific research not seeing the wood for the trees.
I welcome the Government motion and urge the Minister, his Department and colleagues to ensure the good work and links that have started are maintained and that the desire to shut Sellafield remains top priority. Such a motion should be proposed every so often so that we can reinforce the concerns expressed by many.
Mr. Ross: With the permission of the House I propose to share my time with Senator McCarthy. I am delighted this motion has been proposed because I have been tabling motions on Sellafield for a very long time in a similar, but perhaps not quite so detailed, manner. No matter how many times motions are tabled regarding Sellafield and the danger it poses to Ireland they have little effect, and this is one of the many failures of both Houses. The Government has great and good intentions in putting forward this motion, but the end result will be the same as the motions I previously proposed and the court cases and confrontations between the Irish and British Governments with regard to the issue.
The story of Sellafield is pretty pathetic and has involved discussion, protest and the taking of the issue to various courts and local and international levels. However, nothing has happened. Senator Ormonde is absolutely correct in her enormously passionate and eloquent speech. The Government has not been met with any great friendship or reciprocation by the British Government and it is a terrible blot on Anglo-Irish relations that an issue of this sort should persist. It shows a certain paternalistic contempt for this country by our closest neighbour and potentially greatest friend. We share much in common with the UK Government and work in great co-operation on so many issues that it is an extraordinary reflection of their attitude to Ireland that it should allow such a deep and potentially wounding threat to persist and ignore the representations made by our Government.
Regardless of what the BNFL claims, the dangers posed by Sellafield are very real indeed. All of us have been subject to the propaganda which comes over the airwaves. The BFNL has a brass neck because it always puts out one of its spokespeople to reassure us that Sellafield is not dangerous. However, Sellafield is extremely dangerous and some of the statistics quoted this evening illustrate this. The MOX plant produces waste and water which will remain radioactive for 250,000 years. Such a figure is unthinkable and I do not know how we might deal with such a situation. It will take at least 150 years to decommission Sellafield and the radioactive dangers contained therein. It is quite obvious from surveys relating to fish and the extraordinary leukaemia clusters around Cumbria that this is an evil in our midst which we must cleanse and do something about. One of the British Government’s defences is that it is being cavalier with the lives of its own people, although it does not use that language. However, that is cold comfort to us. It is up to the British Government if it wants to treat its people in this way and have a nuclear reprocessing plant on its land, although I think it is wrong. However, it is vital that we have a say when it threatens us.
The issue of a terrorist threat is of an extraordinarily uncontrollable dimension. It pops up from time to time and then disappears. After 11 September 2001 we all became very conscious of Sellafield and started to talk about what might happen if a suicide bomber crashed into the plant. If that happens and the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, as Senator Brady suggested, then we are in serious trouble and could suffer a huge number of diseases and deaths as a result. The potential is huge. The British nation is a primary target for terrorists because of its political position on the Middle East and other world issues. That position taken by Britain is threatening our livelihood, our health and our future. We must take this issue more seriously and use every platform where the British and Irish Governments meet to raise it. We must take it not just to prime ministerial level but to the level of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. We should include it in the Northern Ireland talks because as Senator Ormonde said, people in Northern Ireland are just as affected by this issue as ourselves. It is the one issue on which we can unite because of the threat to us. We must do what little we can to protect this country from the threat of Sellafield.
Mr. McCarthy: I thank Senator Ross sincerely for sharing his time with me. I welcome this important debate and concur with the comments of previous speakers. This is an issue that, from time to time and for various reasons, has slipped off the agenda yet there have been countless opportunities to keep it to the fore.
Casting our minds back to 11 September 2001, we are all too well aware what a civilian airliner loaded with aviation fuel can do to buildings. The consequences of the events of 11 September were devastating and catapulted this issue back into the public domain but it has fallen back since then. This issue must be kept to the fore, and not just in terms of the Northern Ireland talks, which would provide an ideal opportunity to discuss it with a view to taking a proactive measure. It could be raised in a European context also.
I acknowledge this plant is Government owned, that it is an important part of the UK economy and that it supplies one quarter of the UK’s energy but as a result the Irish Sea is one of the most radioactive bodies of water in the world. The danger it poses to the environmental and physical health of our nation is frightening and there is a clear consequence also in terms of trade. Many Irish fishermen have caught mutated fish. It is not a mystery why fish, shellfish and sea plants in the Irish Sea often contain substantial amounts of radiation.
There is no doubt that the dumping of radioactive waste puts human life at risk. Spray from the Irish Sea turns into radioactive dust and can be found on beaches and in people’s homes. I will give the House some startling statistics based on factual information. There are increased rates of cancer, not just on our east coast but also on the west coast of England. There is a little village near Sellafield called Seascale where a disproportionate amount of cancer has been reported among the population. The residents have to be convinced that this is as a direct result of Sellafield. There is also an unusually high number of leukaemia cases among children but in March 1996, Government scientists in the UK were able to produce a report that concluded there was no link between the cancer levels and radiation from the Sellafield plant. I can only assume that intelligence is as inaccurate as the intelligence the Prime Minister received on weapons of mass destruction. We are all aware what happened when Governments wanted to advance the destruction of civilian lives in the Middle East. They were able to produce dossiers that supported a belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We now know who was right and who was wrong about that but it is unfortunate that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered in the process.
Sellafield has 11 silos of radioactive nuclear waste, each containing an amount of waste eight times the amount released by Chernobyl in 1986. That is a startling statistic. Sellafield is of benefit to the UK economy but it is of no benefit to this country. It is all risk and danger. On the last occasion of a leak at Sellafield, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland was notified within a few hours. That was a change in terms of the track record of that institute and a welcome development.
The first part of the motion states that Sellafield should be closed in view of the pollution, poor safety record and devastating impact a serious accident or terrorist attack could have on all aspects of life in Ireland. That is not realistic. A total of 15,000 people are employed directly or indirectly in the plant at Sellafield. The British Government will not shut down the plant. We would want that to happen but we must be realistic. The process of attempting to shut down this plant should begin with a call for an immediate halt to the reprocessing at the plant. That would be a step in the right direction.
There is an irony in the Government’s motion this evening. The Government agreeing to proceed with an electricity interconnector to Britain casts a slur on the motion and represents marked hypocrisy in terms of its purpose and the Government’s track record.
I call for an immediate cessation of reprocessing at the Sellafield plant and urge the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to make the Government aware of the importance of discussing that issue in the Northern Ireland talks. That is a critical forum in which to advance it, not just in the European context but in the Northern Ireland context also.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. N. Ahern): On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Roche, and the Department, I am pleased to strongly support this motion on the Sellafield nuclear plant. While this plant lies in the jurisdiction of our near neighbour, the United Kingdom, at its closest point it is located less than 120 miles off our coast. The Irish Sea has been subject to continuing radioactive discharges for over 50 years. Due to the potential risks from a major accident or other incident, Sellafield represents potentially the most serious health, environmental and economic hazard to this island.
Ireland rejected the use of nuclear power many years ago. Our position on Sellafield is that the Government will not rest in its efforts to secure the safe closure of the Sellafield plant. We will continue to take all diplomatic, political and legal avenues open to us to achieve that aim.
The most recent serious incident at the THORP plant only confirms our resolve in that position. While our efforts have been successful in securing greater understanding and a better flow of information between the UK and Ireland, particularly in the past year or so, that does not in any sense undermine our fundamental policy regarding Sellafield.
For our part, I assure the House that the Minister, Deputy Roche, and the Department will leave no stone unturned in pressing the concerns of the Irish people in seeking the safe closure of Sellafield. To this effect, the Minister wrote this week to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seeking a meeting to discuss the issue.
I am aware that all Members of this House are at one in agreeing that Sellafield continues to be an issue of widespread concern among Irish people. As an endorsement of that, I need only refer to research undertaken on behalf of the British-Irish Council and the British Embassy in Dublin in 2003 on attitudes among Irish people to the UK in the 21st century. Some 80% of those surveyed considered that the relationship between the two Governments was good or excellent. However, the contrast was striking when the issue of Sellafield was brought into the frame. A significant 72% of those sampled considered that, on the issue of Sellafield, there remained much room for improvement.
While the relationship between Ireland and the UK has never been better, Sellafield sticks out like a sore thumb. We still have a very long and difficult journey to travel on this issue. It is evidence of the deep difference in policy perspectives between both Governments and the lack of real engagement on the issue that our Government felt obliged to engage in international legal proceedings against the United Kingdom on Sellafield. That reflected the continuing concerns of the Government to demonstrate the seriousness of the issues and place them centre stage.
Ireland initiated legal proceedings on two separate fronts against the Sellafield MOX plant under the 1992 OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS.
Oral hearings in the OSPAR proceedings took place in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in October 2002. The objective of the OSPAR action was to bring about the disclosure of certain information that had been excluded from two economic reports commissioned by the UK on the MOX plant. The information had been withheld by the UK on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal issued its award on 2 July 2003. Although Ireland failed to gain access to the confidential information withheld from the UK public consultation papers because the tribunal deemed that the information sought was not environmental information, it did determine that Ireland has a right to access information on the marine environment. The tribunal also determined that the UK had an obligation to make such information available and that Ireland has a right of redress under the convention to vindicate its rights to such information. The tribunal therefore established a number of extremely important international legal precedents.
In October 2001, Ireland launched separate legal proceedings against the UK on the MOX plant under UNCLOS. That arbitration remains suspended pending resolution of jurisdictional issues in the dispute raised by the EU Commission. The legal proceedings between Ireland and the EU Commission on those jurisdictional issues which deal with access by member states to dispute procedures provided under UNCLOS are continuing. Written pleadings in this case before the European Court of Justice have been completed and it is expected that the hearing will take place later this year.
However, the UNCLOS tribunal issued an order in June 2003 after hearing an application by Ireland for provisional measures. The provisional measures award and orders recommended that Ireland and the UK enter into dialogue to improve co-operation and consultation between the two Governments and report to the tribunal on specified dates. These discussions are continuing.
It has been the Minister’s view for some time that there is significant scope for both Governments and administrations to develop a higher level of co-operative engagement on the nuclear issue. He does not consider that such engagement will compromise our position on the fundamental policy differences on Sellafield and the broader nuclear issue between the two Governments. What it can and should do, is provide a platform for informed engagement on the issues that divide us. It is in this context that the provisional measures order of the UNCLOS tribunal was opportune and significant. This order provided for the development of improved co-operation and co-ordination measures between both Governments on the nuclear issue.
At the first opportunity the Minister reported on the progress from the co-operation discussions, at the signing of an agreement on notification and exchange of information arrangements between Ireland and the UK in December last. The agreed package of measures announced then is designed to address a wide range of issues related to nuclear safety. The package facilitates visits to Sellafield by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, and the Garda Síochána. It also provides real time access for the RPII to the UK’s radiation monitoring system and it includes a series of initiatives to develop and improve existing co-operation arrangements between both Governments. This package of measures represents progressive, practical and real improvements in the relationship between Ireland and the UK on the nuclear issue.
The measures deal with the sharing of information, which is vital for emergency planning in the event of an accident or incident at a nuclear plant. They are about improving communication, co-operation and co-ordination between friendly neighbouring states. They cover identifying risks and threats and enabling national authorities to exchange information on, plan for, and actively address those risks in an informed way. Fundamentally, they deal with identifying areas of mutual interest and concern and putting in place systems and structures to enable those areas to be addressed.
Senators are aware of the recently published report by the RPII on its visit to Sellafield and I am sure they will join with me in complimenting the institute on its work. Its report, which should be widely read, is the essence of clarity on a difficult and complex technical issue. This co-operation allows our experts to advise and inform the public and the Government with the benefit of having visited the Sellafield site. It is the intention of the UK to facilitate further visits by the RPII to Sellafield. I welcome this and the Government appreciates the professional and expert engagement of the institute’s board and staff in this important process.
While the package of measures developed and put in place represents significant progress, the historically poor safety record and recent events at the plant only exacerbate the real concerns of the Government about Sellafield. This poor safety record and the recent incident at the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, THORP, also reinforces the clear commitment given in the programme for Government that we will continue to work towards the safe and orderly closure of the Sellafield plant.
Following a September 1999 finding that quality control data for MOX fuel destined for Japan had been falsified, the UK safety regulator published three investigative reports. The first dealt with the scandal itself. The second report stated that there was “a lack of a high quality safety management system”, “insufficient resources to implement even the existing safety management system” and that there was a “lack of an effective independent inspection, auditing and review system within BNFL”. The UK regulator made 28 recommendations, the implementation of which was required to fully meet the standards expected of a nuclear site licensee.
In March 2004, the EU Commission issued a directive to the UK because of an infringement of the safeguards provisions of the EURATOM Treaty relating to the accounting for nuclear material in a storage pond, B30, at the Sellafield nuclear plant. This storage pond, apart from breaching the safeguards provisions of the Euratom Treaty, is also a significant radioactive and environmental challenge that needs to be addressed.
The recent spill at the THORP plant was a very serious incident. I understand that following detailed evaluation the incident has been assigned as a class 3 incident under the international nuclear event scale. A malfunction occurred within the process in the plant where the spent fuel is sheared and dissolved, and shearing was suspended on 18 April. Camera inspections were subsequently carried on 20 April in order to inspect the vessels and pipework in the feed clarification cell. This inspection identified a failure in the pipework system along with signs of liquor spillage and some corrosion of the structural steelwork adjacent to the tank. As a precautionary measure, the front end of the plant’s reprocessing operations was closed down on 21 April.
The spillage, which contains uranium, plutonium and fission products, is on the floor of a sealed cell with walls several feet thick, but the amount involved was approximately 15,000 gallons. Given that the spillage was contained in a secondary containment area, there has been no abnormal activity in the air and no risk to employees, the local community or the environment. In particular and thankfully, the incident has no immediate implications for Ireland.
Notification of the incident by the UK authorities to Ireland was made on 21 April. Notification arrangements were in accordance with the established procedures for the exchange of information about such incidents. Given the need to examine, assess and evaluate the incident itself by the UK authorities in order to establish the circumstances involved, the RPII has confirmed that in its view the notification by the UK authorities was prompt and effective. Additional information is being made available to the institute by the UK authorities as the situation develops.
These examples are indicative of the concerns raised for this Government and the Irish public by the continued operation of the Sellafield nuclear plant. The THORP incident, in particular, has again brought into sharp focus in Ireland and among a number of other EU member states, the very strong and real concerns the public has with many aspects of the nuclear industry in general and Sellafield in particular.
The highly-active storage tanks represent the most significant terrorist threat in Sellafield. The UK authorities have implemented a number of enhanced physical protection measures in attempts to address this risk. Additionally, assurances to the effect that the terrorist threat to Sellafield nuclear plant is continually reviewed and assessed have been received from the UK authorities. Nevertheless, the Government has continuing concerns regarding the threat posed by the tanks and this is one of the issues addressed in the international legal actions undertaken by the Government.
There is an obvious conflict between the necessity for the UK authorities to ensure the security of the installation is not compromised by limiting access to security sensitive material and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland’s need for access to information to provide advice to the Government and the public regarding threat assessments and security arrangements. In this regard, the access provided by the UK authorities to the Garda Síochána has been useful. Further visits and contacts at senior police level are continuing. Access to further information sought by the institute is also one of the issues being addressed in the UNCLOS discussion process. The Government will continue to keep the national emergency plan for a nuclear accident up to date to the highest international standards.
Mr. N. Ahern: A review group established by the Department of Health and Children, chaired by Dr. Barry McSweeney, chief science adviser to the Government, is currently examining the continued use of iodine tablets as a countermeasure under the national emergency plan for nuclear accidents.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is the principal organisation dealing with nuclear matters at the international level. The agency plays a vital role in setting safety standards and providing for their implementation and co-ordination in member states. On this basis, the United Kingdom has primary responsibility for ensuring the operation of the Sellafield nuclear plant is safe and secure. Nevertheless, Ireland’s concerns about Sellafield are clearly and consistently articulated at all suitable opportunities, both in the IAEA and in bilateral contacts regarding the work and mandate of the agency. Ireland actively engages with the agency on a range of issues with the primary objective of ensuring that the safety and security standards adopted by the IAEA reflect only the highest international standards. This in turn will assist in ensuring that nuclear installations in the United Kingdom and globally can be as safe and secure as possible.
One of the principal areas of engagement by Ireland at the IAEA in recent years has been on the issue of the transport of radioactive waste by sea. Coastal states including Ireland argue that, given the risk posed and public concerns about such shipments, it is necessary for coastal states to be fully informed regarding such shipments to enable them to assess the risk and take appropriate measures concerning emergency preparedness and response should they consider it necessary. Ireland has participated actively and constructively and has co-sponsored a resolution with like-minded states at the IAEA’s general conference on this issue.
While the issue will continue to prove difficult, the most recent resolution in September 2004 provides a basis on which to address the concerns of coastal states. Ireland, together with like-minded states, will continue to pursue these issues at the IAEA and other relevant international fora. Regarding the transport of radioactive spent fuel by sea, I can also assure the House that the attention of shipping states, including the United Kingdom, is regularly drawn to the Irish Government’s policy on this issue in bilateral and multilateral meetings at diplomatic and official level.
The issue of Sellafield also receives rigorous attention in the context of Ireland’s participation in the OSPAR Convention. In June 1998, the contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention at the ministerial meeting of the OSPAR commission in Sintra, Portugal, adopted a strategy on radioactive substances. This strategy effectively provides for the virtual elimination of radioactive discharges to the maritime area of the north-east Atlantic, which includes the Irish Sea, by 2020 through progressive and substantial reductions in such discharges.
The Irish Government’s view remains that continued discharges of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea from Sellafield are untenable and should cease. The welcome success of improved abatement techniques recently introduced at Sellafield in reducing dramatically the amount of technetium99 discharged into the Irish Sea indicates the real potential for addressing this issue in a constructive way. Active engagement on this issue, with like-minded countries such as Norway, was a significant factor in prompting a positive response from the UK. I am committed to availing of every opportunity in all relevant fora to maintain and develop alliances with like-minded states to address issues of common interest on Sellafield.
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002, Ireland joined a political alliance of countries opposed to any promotion of the use of nuclear energy as a renewable energy source in developing countries. Ireland, along with Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Greece and Austria, signed up to the view that nuclear energy should have no place in the European Union’s new energy partnership initiative for developing countries.
Decisions on nuclear policy taken by the UK can potentially have considerable impact on the interests of Ireland. In this context, we have repeatedly emphasised that Ireland has a significant stakeholder interest in the deliberations and consultations that inform such decisions. For this reason, our policy is to proactively engage in these consultative processes and our concerns are clearly and regularly conveyed to the UK authorities. These include most recently, the establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, NDA, and the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, CoRWM. While there remains a significant difference of views between the Irish and UK Governments regarding UK nuclear policy, the legal and diplomatic offensive mounted on the Sellafield issue has contributed significantly to a greater understanding and awareness of the Irish position by the UK authorities.
The measure of the problem of Sellafield is that it is not only a problem with which we have to deal, it will form a legacy that our children and grandchildren and future generations may have to deal with. The view of this Government is that the only long-term, viable and acceptable option is the ending of reprocessing and the safe and orderly closure of the plant. This Government has never wavered from our view that Sellafield should be closed. The case for closure is compelling and the closure process by the United Kingdom should begin soon. This is the message that has been conveyed and will continue to be conveyed to the UK Government at all levels of contact up to and including contact between the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister.
The Government will continue to use all diplomatic, political and legal options to achieve this objective. I am glad the House is having this debate. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, would have liked to attend but he was called away at the last minute. I am sure he is pleased the debate is taking place and I apologise on his behalf for his absence.
Mr. B. Hayes: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is a very substantial speech concerning our Government’s involvement in Sellafield, about which there is a great degree of public concern. Motions coming before both Houses should reflect this concern. We support this Government motion and wish to support any action the Government may take.
I will approach this subject in a different vein. I wish to put on the record a number of political realities that need to be recognised. New Labour is committed to nuclear energy. It made a complete U-turn. When it was in opposition, it was against nuclear energy. When it entered government, it was for nuclear energy. The White Paper produced three years ago gave a commitment that nuclear energy would represent somewhere between 15% and 20% of Britain’s energy component over the next 25 years or so even though New Labour wanted to reduce it.
Unfortunately, there is now a political consensus about a nuclear future in Britain between the Conservative and Labour parties, as seen during the recent general election campaign when the very controversial issues of decommissioning existing plants or locating new plants were shunted to a review. The matter was not even dealt with in the election. This is a blatant reality because, when there is a consensus on this issue between Britain’s two big parties, we have a problem. The only people who can change the policy are either of those parties when they are in government. Quite frankly, this is a real issue we must confront.
Another reality is not one I address lightly, namely that of jobs in a very deprived area of north-west England. I visited Cumbria and it is a beautiful part of England. We can speak about peripherality but one could not find a more peripheral regional part of the UK than Cumbria. Trying to get from Manchester Airport to Cumbria takes approximately four hours by car. If we are serious about telling a community that 50,000 jobs directly and indirectly connected to the plant must go, we must also produce a few ideas about how we will re-employ these people.
The British Government scandalously underutilises that beautiful part of Britain, indeed, our Government is possibly guilty of underutilising our regions in terms of providing proper regional development policy. One cannot fly into Cumbria and there are no decent roads into it. There are no tourism opportunities. If we are honest about this debate, we must announce what we propose to do with 50,000 people who need jobs. Dr. Jack Cunningham, the MP for the area, will tell one his view on this particular issue if one asks. If we were to suggest for even a minute that 10,000 jobs would be wiped out in any of our own constituencies, there would be a political price to be paid.
The great crime of the British and French is that none of the technology they have developed since the Second World War has been given to Asia, particularly Japan. Most of the actual business of reprocessing is the Japanese-Asian business that comes half way across the world to France and Britain so that they can do Asia’s dirty work for it. None of the technological advances the British, French and other Europeans developed in this field was ever shared with Asia. This is another reality on which we must focus. Reprocessing “dirty” energy by sending it half way around the globe is unsustainable. How can we as Europeans share the technology we have advanced since the Second World War? Due to problems with Japan and the war, there is a significant reluctance to share any of this agreed technology.
As other speakers such as the Minister of State have rightly said, even if we close Sellafield tomorrow, what does one do with nuclear reactors? I am unaware of any complete solution to managing a plant that is decommissioning. I have visited Sellafield as a member of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and I commend my colleagues on that body for agreeing on a report between British and Irish parliamentarians. That British and Irish MPs, Senators, Lords and Deputies have managed to come to an agreement is significant considering we differ fundamentally on many of these issues.
I met Mr. Norman Askew when I was at Sellafield. I am unsure whether he is the current CEO but he was when I met him two years ago. I was astonished to discover that the International Atomic Energy Agency is on site to discover how much plutonium and uranium is “knocking about the place” in order to keep an eye on this very dangerous material. I asked Mr. Askew why Ireland’s experts, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, cannot be based on site. The Minister of State said the RPII wants access to information but this is not good enough. Ireland should want access to the site, a point on which the British Government should be able to concede. I asked Mr. Askew whether he would have any difficulty with the RPII being based in Sellafield full-time, independently going wherever it wants and making any reports or announcements . He said he had no problem with that prospect whatsoever but that it is a decision for the British Government despite his being in charge of the plant.
The time has come for the British Government to face up to this issue. Whatever it says about Sellafield will not be believed by anyone. Similarly, whatever Mr. Askew and the BNFL say about Sellafield will not be believed by anyone. We have gone beyond the stage of examining the straightforward issue. If we have a competent international body in the RPII, it should be based on site carrying out the activities I mentioned earlier. We should campaign for this, which is a part of an amendment I made to a similar motion two years ago but that I do not see in the Government’s motion tonight. We should be able to deliver on this issue. If we are honest about the new relationship between North and South, there should be a new relationship between east and west. This means that Britain must treat our concerns on this matter in a much more serious way than it has to date.
Equally, we must face up to their realities, such as the employment and political issues I mentioned. I am not confident that legal action will change this situation. At the end of the day, it is a political decision. New Labour is committed to a nuclear future, as is the Conservative Party. While this commitment remains, Sellafield will unfortunately remain open. We must do everything we can and one of the ways we can make progress is by demanding that the RPII is based on site with the exact same rights and powers as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mr. Brennan: This is a suitable, strong and timely motion and I add my support to the points made and words of genuine concern expressed in the House tonight. This motion is timely for one particular reason, on which I will use my few minutes to expand. On 11 May, the RPII made a presentation to the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. The RPII deserves credit for its presentation and much of what it had to say should form part of our discussion. Regarding nuclear power plants in operation in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, the RPII ensures up-to-date information on accident scenarios that are likely to impact on Ireland is available to inform our emergency arrangements. During its presentation, the RPII summarised briefly the background to its recent visit to Sellafield and the issues of most concern to Ireland. I will recount this summary, as both positive and negative findings should be aired when debating the plant.
The RPII has concluded that the routine operations at the Sellafield site give rise to radiation doses that are not significant from a health point of view. Most of these doses result from exposure to radioactivity discharged in previous years, specifically in the 1970s and 1980s. The RPII found that, unless a very significant increase in discharges occur, these doses are not expected to increase by a large amount in the future. On the other hand, based on information provided during the RPII’s visit to Sellafield, the worst credible and reasonably foreseeable accident involving storage tanks could result in levels of contamination to the food chain here that would require intervention by the Irish authorities.
I will now address an issue that is often raised in connection with the matter of Sellafield, which is the risk to Ireland from a terrorist attack on the plant. According to the RPII, while there is a well established and internationally accepted framework for assessing the safety of nuclear installations in respect of accidental failures, the situation with regard to terrorist attacks is very different. There is no widely accepted or transparent methodology for assessing risks or consequences. In Sellafield’s case, I understand the UK authorities have re-evaluated their assessment for the threat of terrorism. However, this information has not been made available to the institute on the basis that it might compromise security and safety at the site. Perhaps there is some role for our Government in making the relevant information available to the State in a confidential manner.
However, the RPII also indicated that the UK’s nuclear installations inspectorate, the NII, has reassured it that there is now a high level of protection in the form of engineered safety assistance and physical security. In so far as possible, the NII has looked at various aeroplane flight paths that could impact on the tanks. As regards how aircraft could breach the tanks — and given the strength of the tanks at that point — it is believed that there would not be a serious risk from an 11 September 2001-style attack. More work should be done to reassure the public, both here and in the United Kingdom, in this regard. At this point, I believe most people would share my healthy scepticism on the issue.
People here and in Britain are unhappy about the operation of Sellafield. The history of the plant is somewhat worrying, so I am glad that this matter is being kept under the spotlight by debates both in this House and outside it.
Mr. O’Toole: I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to the House. The particularly strong language of the motion is to be welcomed also, encompassing as it does a clear commitment from the Government. I am happy to support it. The most worrying aspect of Sellafield is that the problem cannot be solved in our lifetimes. No matter what we do, there will still be a difficulty there for another 150 years, according to the recent survey referred to by Senator Brennan. The concern is that an accident at Sellafield followed by an easterly wind would bring the sort of destruction here that we saw in the Ukraine in 1986. If that happened our food chain would be contaminated for decades, if not for generations.
I know the Minister shares my worry that every time someone undertakes a safety survey at Sellafield, they come out with an extraordinarily optimistic view that they will now implement 24,000 new safety measures. Senators will excuse my exaggeration in this respect. Every time such a safety survey takes place, however, I wonder how dangerous Sellafield was before and how dangerous it will be in future. Is it getting safer or will it always be dangerous?
I do not know the answer to questions that have been raised about the risk of cancer from Sellafield. I have heard the various arguments reflecting different views. There are those who say that Sellafield is a safe issue for Irish politicians and, so, it is easy for them to take a hard line on it. That is the line I take, and I make no apologies for doing so.
Will the Minister examine the possibility of undertaking a survey of Sellafield’s possible impact on disease and illness? Are the stories about Sellafield’s carcinogenic effects correct and, if so, where do we go from here? There is no economic argument to justify the continuation of Sellafield.
Mr. O’Toole: There is certainly no environmental argument in its favour. Nothing is as likely to drive Irish people mad as listening to the polite, plummy accents of people from Sellafield who try to tell us that there is no environmental risk from the plant and that nuclear energy is a safe and environmentally clean way of producing electricity. That argument does not work. Sellafield is the dominant polluter of the Irish Sea and that fact must be dealt with. I would like to be able to add with certainty facts concerning Sellafield’s carcinogenic impact on the Irish population, including skin and other forms of cancer. At different periods, surveys have been undertaken on various parts of the east coast but they seem to have come up with conflicting reports. Nonetheless, the evidence produced by a number of investigative programmes on RTE showed without doubt that Sellafield had a problematical impact.
It is impossible to discuss Sellafield without balancing the argument by examining alternative methods of producing energy. One way to demolish the economic argument for Sellafield is by taking a strong line in favour of alternative energy sources. I have raised, both in the House and privately with the Minister, the fact that there are no financial supports or tax incentives for wind energy here. Ireland is the only country in western Europe that does not provide such support for that alternative energy source. When the issue of wind energy was raised recently in the House, a spokesperson on the Government side said, “But isn’t wind energy for free? Why should we be paying any money for it?” That was an honest reaction from the other side of the House but I wonder how far we have to go to convince some people of the need for wind energy projects. It is in all our interests, as well as being an investment in our future, to ensure that wind production is given the go ahead. Last Sunday morning, I heard an interesting discussion on this matter between Dr. John FitzGerald and Mr. Eddie O’Connor. The latter was a serous loss to the public service.
I want to debunk the arguments against wind energy. Wind farms may be unattractive but we should be prepared to put up with them. They may affect our skyline but as long as they are producing environmentally safe, green energy we should support their use.
Mr. O’Toole: It is not difficult to address that. If the output of wind farms was tied into the national grid, we could supply at least 70% of Irish energy needs. Britain could do the same and that would be end of the anti-wind energy arguments.
Mr. Kenneally: I regret that my time for contributing to this motion is so limited, for it deals with an important subject. Sellafield has health and safety implications for everyone currently living on this island. In addition, given that some nuclear material can remain active for thousands of years, the implications for future generations are clear. The official website of the Sellafield complex shows that the programme of work for managing the nuclear facility is scheduled to continue for the next 150 years.
Item 35 on Sellafield’s official website deals with the managing director’s commitment to the people of Britain. Apparently, therefore, we, on this side of the Irish Sea, do not count. The managing director states that Sellafield “represents the most challenging nuclear site management programme in the world”. The site manager’s message states:
That seems to sum up the priority of the facility, namely, to reduce costs and make money. What is the scale of the financial turnover of the facility? The report states that Sellafield will “introduce our plans to significantly accelerate the reduction in radiological risk and hazard on the site, whilst securing commercial income in excess of £8.2 billion from the provision of spent fuel services”. That is a considerable income and it appears that it is worth securing with greater efficiency and zeal than the efforts made to protect the health of Irish people across a narrow stretch of the Irish Sea.
In any political conflict between the abstract health, safety and protection of people outside a jurisdiction and those within it, who are economically dependent on the Sellafield facility, which will win out? Consider these simple statistics, again from an official source:
In other words, Sellafield represents a huge political commitment, or a political minefield if it closes with the loss of a high proportion of those 10,000 jobs, and the Irish people are treated as no better than pawns in the game.
The management of Sellafield declares that “Sellafield represents the most challenging nuclear site management programme in the world. Management Services, Sellafield, has an unrivalled understanding of the site and a demonstrated ability to deliver improved safety and environmental performance whilst exceeding production targets and delivering clean-up.” I would like to believe that but it must be read against a background and history of mistakes, cover-ups, lies, forged and falsified records, accidents and bungling inefficiency, the kind of mistakes and deception which, in any other private facility, would see its management fired forthwith.
To get some idea of the scale of the operation in Sellafield and the enormity of the task facing any Irish Government we should look at the timescale for the next 150 years. By 2016, all commercial operations associated with reprocessing, MOX fuel manufacture and vitrification of high level waste are to be completed. By 2040, all legacy wastes should be retrieved, packaged and stored and shipment of those intermediate level waste materials should have commenced to the intermediate level waste repository. By 2075, all intermediate level waste should be shipped to repository and shipment of high level waste to its repository should have commenced. By 2150, the site should be in a safe, passive state, subject to institutional controls pending final decision on its future.
Mr. Kenneally: I hope our descendants, however, will be in good health, free from nuclear risk and certainly not at the mercy of the management regime of a death factory which has, to be kind, a history of inefficiency, ineptitude and deceit.
We know and accept that we have one of the greatest threats to this country’s health and safety on our doorstep, a prime target for terrorist attack. That is not exaggeration or scaremongering but a realistic assessment of the situation with which we are presented. We do not accept that this should be so and we must regularly place on record our opposition to it, our desire that remedial action be taken and ultimately, sooner rather than later, that the site should be closed, cleaned and made safe.
We have some idea of the scale of the battle facing our Government today. It is, and will continue to be, difficult for our Government to make inroads on this problem while the private financial stakes are so high. I commend the efforts of the Taoiseach in raising this issue with the British Government and his forthrightness in pointing out the risks for us. I also commend the outspoken, independent and courageous stance of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who knows better than most the risks for us all, especially those who live on the east coast. I am not naïve enough to think that this problem can be solved overnight but I am confident that our Government will keep this matter high on its agenda with its British counterparts.
I subscribe fully to the intent and aspirations of the motion before us this evening. I accept the points made therein and wholeheartedly support every Government attempt to keep the single biggest national risk at the top of the international agenda and to seek, in the words of the motion, “full disclosure from the UK authorities of all information relevant to accidents, malfunctions, unauthorised disclosures and lapses in safety procedures” and the other elements of the motion.
Mr. Norris: I apologise for my lack of a script. I gather Senator Ross objected to the number of people reading from scripts. I would read from one if I had one but I only have my own disconnected thoughts.
Although this debate has taken place many times over the years, and I used to take a principled and sometimes leading part in it, we are now so used to it and so accustomed to being rebuffed by the British that a certain life has gone out of the debate. The unanimity of the House, however, is significant. I hope the unanimous passing of this clear and specific motion will provide a significant weapon for the Minister. I hope that the Taoiseach, who enjoys a close relationship with Mr. Blair, might be able to use this in discussions with him because it is unacceptable that there is an accident on 18 April and we are not told about it until 21 April. That was coyly skated over in the script I received. It is outrageous that the British waited three days to let us know about an accident.
The Minister had to go elsewhere for more important matters but in his absence, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, made a remarkable contribution. If anything nasty goes off in Sellafield, I suggest the Minister of State makes the announcement because he read his script in such a reassuring fashion with no hint of excitement whatsoever, not even the mildest modulation of tone. If he were to make the announcement the Irish people would be immensely reassured.
Mr. Norris: I never got any. The Minister did not get any either. That is a national scandal, I feel a tribunal coming on. They are not the slightest use anyway so I am not too deprived but I would have liked to have seen what they looked like. I had to contact the Minister’s predecessor to get my millennium candle as well so the north side is deprived, with neither iodine tablets nor candles. We need the candles because when the lights go out across Europe, we will need to light our millennium candles to see where we put the iodine tablets.
The Minister of State’s speech dealt effectively with the court cases but the outcome, even though it is a marginal advance, represents what in the game “relievio” are called baby steps. The plant was told they must make a better attempt to communicate and there was nothing mandatory in the judgment. That is a pity and I hope this motion encourages the Minister to continue his efforts to get this matter properly resolved.
This has all happened in my lifetime. Until 1947, Sellafield was a straightforward munitions factory. In 1947 it decided to go into the nuclear business and by 1949 had generated enough radioactive material to explode a bomb in Australia. I remember clearly the fire in 1957 at what was then called Windscale. In 1949 there was already a 2 km pipeline discharging radioactive material but that was controlled while the 1957 incident was an uncontrolled discharge of radioactive material into the atmosphere. There are lingering suspicions that this has a connection with clusters of leukemia around Dundalk. I have a feeling in my bones that there is a connection, although it is difficult to prove scientifically. Certainly there are parallel clusters of leukemia occurring in the children of those who were workers at Sellafield.
The fire in 1957 was a disaster greater in scale than the incident at Three Mile Island in America. That is the risk we face. Why are we facing it? Even the British accept it is an economic nonsense. It was always an economic nonsense and a loss maker, so why did BNFL go into it? It could not even get that right because it lied and falsified material, alienating its largest client, Japan. For no economic advantage to the British Exchequer and in a manner that alienates not just Ireland but also Norway, which was co-plaintiff in the case, BNFL is transporting dangerous materials to be reprocessed from all over the world through the Irish Sea and by aeroplane. There are concerns that these convoys, either at sea or on railway tracks, could be the subject of a terrorist attack. That is not likely but it is a possibility that must be examined. There is also the possibility of an aeroplane being crashed into the plant, considering the Americans did not manage to stop a similar attack on the Pentagon. This would result in the discharge of 8 million litres of material which is an enormous amount. We have the most radioactive sea about which there are music hall jokes. We are directly concerned in getting the British Government to take a proper view on the matter.
The report of the European Parliament’s scientific and technological options assessment concluded that radioactive discharges from the Sellafield and La Hague sites are the largest anthropogenic releases of nuclides in the world. It also concluded significant increases in the incidence of leukaemia has occurred both near La Hague and the Sellafield reprocessing plant. This report is not suggesting post hoc ergo propter hoc which, as the Minister of State knows, is most often a logical fallacy.
The report also concluded that the release of a fraction of high-level radioactive waste at Sellafield will be several dozen times greater than the release at Chernobyl and cause over 1 million fatal cancers. Any Member who has seen what happened at Chernobyl, even on television, will be alarmed. It also notes dissatisfaction with the European Commission’s verification procedures.
I strongly support this motion. In some ways I looked at it with a certain degree of light-heartedness but it does not detract from the strong support I give it. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Government on their work so far, but more must be done. The Minister must use this motion, which will be passed unanimously, as a political instrument with his colleagues across the Irish sea.
Dr. M. Hayes: I support the broad thrust of the motion but the terms are somewhat self-satisfied and buaileam sciath; what wonderful people we are as we do not have a nuclear industry and we can tell everyone else how to run theirs. I have lived all my life 90 miles downwind from Sellafield for 90 days a year. Of the other 270 days, the wind blows in the opposite direction. Creating hysteria does not help with this issue, as this is not the biggest threat to the health or well-being of the Irish people.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of the Minister commissioning research on the matter. I recall 25 years ago commissioning research from Dr. Sidney Lowry in Belfast. At the time there was concern about the high incidence of leukemia among young adults along the east Down littoral and the nearest place to Sellafield. The research concluded that there was no observable connection. There was more irradiation from the average granite gatepost than there was from Sellafield. We also examined the incidence of Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland and discovered there was a higher rate in Norway which is as far away as one can get from Sellafield. There is no proven connection in that way. It does not help to create these bogeymen.
What there has been in Sellafield is abominably bad management which at times has been criminal. The cover-up and falsification must be addressed. There is going to be a continuing management task there. I agree with much of what Senator Brian Hayes said. As the site is providing much employment, it will not be closed down. Even if it were closed down, it will not go away. Dealing with this site will be a problem for centuries ahead. The best the Minister can do is ensure that management is transparent, responsible and under control.
It is also important that the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland should have a base on the site. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that it would be a great improvement if it had a permanent or semi-permanent presence there with access to the information it needs. The best way forward is through British-Irish governmental linkages.
International agencies and regulatory bodies, such as EURATOM, must also be used to ensure activity at the site is minimised, the transport of noxious materials is limited to the greatest possible extent and material that needs to be stored is done so to the highest degree of safety. More progress would be made that way than us calling other people names. It is an important task and I commend the Government for the progress already made. We must ensure the Irish authorities competent in this field have a permanent presence and access to the site, that there are published reports, transparency in the workings of the site and that local management is held accountable.
Dr. Mansergh: I do not take the benign view on Sellafield of the previous speaker. It is true that our power is limited. Everything possible has been done in the legal process. As there are several nuclear powers in the world, there is limited scope to raise the matter through the various international conventions.
A disaster at another nuclear plant would not have the same impact on the surrounding area. At Chernobyl hundreds of square miles were devastated with lasting health effects. That the waste has to be stored for thousands of years shows that it is peculiarly dangerous material. What we do not want is a complete disaster that will devastate Cumbria and parts of Ireland, be it by terrorist attack or whatever.
A month ago, there was, to put it politely, a malfunction. Reprocessing is unnecessary and uneconomic costing the British state approximately €36 billion. The British taxpayer is a creature I do not understand. How do they tolerate the amounts spent on propping up its nuclear industry? Britain’s Labour Party Government is pro-nuclear but that does not mean it has the same commitment to reprocessing. At this stage it is a purely political issue, an employment issue in Cumbria. We must keep alive a sense of the dangers, which are of a quite different order to anything else we have around us.
Mr. Kitt: I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for attending the House and I thank all who contributed to the debate. It seems that the motion has unanimous support and if so, it sends out a powerful message from the Seanad.
Following the visit by the RPII to Sellafield in September, 2004, its report was presented to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. What it said regarding the need for significant investment in Sellafield for up to 25 years, until the site is decommissioned, even if the plant itself is due to close in 2012, is interesting. I accept the point made by Senator Brian Hayes regarding transparency and the need for more information and access by the RPII. The RPII has made a number of visits to Sellafield. It is interesting that its chief executive has spoken about the significant changes in Sellafield between the visits in 2000 and 2004, for example, particularly regarding the issue of waste arising from the closure of the magnox reactors.
The RPII report deals to a large extent with safety commissioning. It acknowledges that its visit took place as a result of regular meetings which take place between representatives of the Irish and British Governments. I hope that those meetings will continue and that we will have more information.
I was concerned to see what the chief executive officer of the RPII said about the information supplied to the RPII: “The potential contamination levels in Ireland, arising from a series of accidents or incidents at Sellafield, could be such that the Irish authorities would have to intervene to reduce contamination in the food chain”. Senator O’Toole referred to this very serious issue for a country which is so proud of its good record in food production.
In its report of May 2002, the RPII said that while radioactivity levels in Irish food are very low, particularly in milk products, and in baby foods, beef, lamb and poultry, Irish drinking waters were found to comply with legal requirements and the World Health Organisation guidelines for water quality from a radiological perspective. When I checked this further, I discovered that the sampling from public water supplies takes place only every four years, though it may take place more often in the major population centres. If that is going to be the case in the future, we would need more sampling of water to ensure that we comply with the safety guidelines for water supplies, and for radioactivity levels in food.
This has been a very good debate. We were given a good deal of information in the speech by the Minister of State. We must work together — and are doing so by means of this unanimous motion — to achieve what is set out in this comprehensive motion, which above all is seeking the decommissioning of the Sellafield project.
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