Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

3:00 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Labour)
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Question 142: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding his request to the British authorities to allow Irish experts to inspect the Sellafield nuclear plant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2886/04]

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Question 197: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if his attention has been drawn to the concern expressed by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland that it has become more difficult to obtain information on Sellafield from the British authorities since 11 September 2001; if he has raised those concerns with the British Government; the response received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2888/04]

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 142 and 197 together.

Access to Sellafield by Irish experts has been sought by the Irish Government on an ongoing basis and in February 2000 staff of the RPII received permission for a formal visit to the site. Based on its examination of the safety documentation, in December 2000 the RPII produced a report on the storage of liquid high-level radioactive waste at Sellafield. That set out a number of conclusions and recommendations for BNFL and its regulators. The report is freely available from the RPII.

I understand that the concerns expressed by the RPII relate to the difficulty posed in accessing certain information from the UK authorities regarding Sellafield in the security climate after the attacks of 11 September 2001. A review of security, including access to information, was undertaken by the UK authorities in the aftermath of 11 September regarding sensitive nuclear sites, including Sellafield. That review was welcomed by the Government and considered necessary, given the threat posed by a malicious attack on or accident at Sellafield. It is neither the intention nor in the interests of the Government or its citizens to compromise in any way security arrangements at Sellafield.

However, the current UK policy of restricting access to certain information and to the Sellafield site for RPII on security or other grounds should be balanced against the increased need for assurance after the attacks of 11 September 2001. I firmly believe that the genuine interests and concerns of the Government on behalf of the Irish people must be addressed and a mutually acceptable balance achieved between the reasonable national security requirements of the UK and equally reasonable requirements of Ireland. I consider that the model of the previous visit by RPII to Sellafield in 2000 provides an appropriate basis on which further visits could be accommodated.

The views of the UK on the security issue were set out in a letter from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt MP, on 16 April 2003 in response to my letter of 28 March 2003. I placed the UK letter on the record of the House as part of the reply to Question No. 141 of 14 May 2003. The question of access for the RPII to Sellafield was raised by me at a meeting with the former UK Energy Minister, Brian Wilson, on 28 May 2003. It was also raised by me and by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, in meetings with several UK Ministers.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Plutonium in children's teeth is double the normal level in the area around Sellafield, according to the British Minister for Health. There is a leaking roof on a storage tank in Sellafield and a strike took place among workers at the plant which put it at risk. Waste pipes from the facility have recently been washed up on the shore and more are missing. A new storage facility for additional nuclear waste at the plant forms an international nuclear dump. There is also the ongoing immediate threat to Ireland of the storage of highly active liquid waste. The classification of that waste, which we were regularly promised, has proceeded at a snail's pace. The sea and air are polluted daily for profit rather than out of need.

Given that we know all that, apart from a legal action taken to a tribunal with no competence in the matter, which ended with the Government being taken to the European Court of Justice by the Commission for so doing, meaning that it has effectively run into the sand, and an occasional press release from the Minister's spin doctors on the matter, we have no other information. Will the Minister tell the House what exactly he is doing to achieve the Government's much-trumpeted objective of closing down Sellafield? He has been two years in his present post, more or less, and we do not seem to have advanced, except for the promised legal action, which has run into the ground.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I do not accept that. There is, and has been, fairly strong consensus in this House. As a former Minister with some responsibility in the area, the Deputy knows the difficulties first hand. However, we have advanced matters quite far under two cases, OSPAR and UNCLOS — the Deputy referred only to one. The situation regarding the European Court of Justice and the Commission believing that it had primacy of jurisdiction in the case remains to be resolved. However, I reiterate that it is important in the view of everyone in the House that the RPII gains access to Sellafield. I and, I am sure, all parties in this House feel very strongly about that.

It would help enormously in confidence-building between our two countries if that happened. It must be possible for two countries which have repeatedly demonstrated their abilities in many other more difficult areas to reach some understanding on the issue. I explained the critical nature of the issue and the necessity that the UK deliver on it. The cases to which the Deputy referred are not yet completed. They represented a substantial step forward, which was fully supported by the Government. I thank the Attorney General for the enormous time which he gave to move forward the issue. Ultimately, the closure of Sellafield is a clear objective.

In the meantime, I would like to see the moratorium on the technetium 99 discharges finalised so that there are no discharges into the Irish Sea. I have made it clear publicly that I see no moral, economic, environmental or other justification for any discharges whatsoever into the Irish Sea since, once the discharges enter the environment, the damage is done for hundreds of years. The waste could and should be stored in underground facilities from which it could be retrieved so that when technology develops to the point where it can deal with such issues, at least we can do that.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Before I call Deputy Allen, I remind the House that supplementary questions and answers are subject to a one-minute time limit.

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I will deal specifically with the question on the Order Paper. I asked a question on the lock-up policy of the British Government regarding our nuclear experts from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and suggested that, at prime ministerial level, Mr. Blair might give the Taoiseach details of the security systems in place in Sellafield to assure us that there is no risk in the event of a hijack attack on it. What approaches have been made to the British Government on a prime ministerial level regarding the details and assurances on the security of Sellafield? What has happened since our last series of questions in the Dáil? Has anything happened and are we content, as we were before the last general election, simply to flood the British Government with postcards? As far as I am concerned, that is all that has happened.

May I have specific information on what approaches have been made? When I visited the plant in July I was assured by British Nuclear Fuels Limited that if the approaches were made on a Prime Minister to Prime Minister basis, it was sure the details would be supplied. I trust the Taoiseach in that if he got the information, he would judge it accordingly.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy knows this is an issue in which the Taoiseach engages in a fulsome way and which is always on his agenda. I think he has confirmed to the House that he raised this matter with the British Prime Minister. I do not have the details but I am confident he has confirmed it to the House.

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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May we have the details?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Following the cases, serious discussions are going on as to how we implement and improve substantially the relationship between Ireland and the UK covering the full range of issues which the Deputy, Deputy Stagg, others and I have raised. However, these are not complete. I am anxious for them to be completed and when they are, I will give a full account to the House as to what the position shall be, but I am not in a position to do so now. I assure the Deputy that substantial discussions are taking place.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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When the Minister took office, highly dangerous radioactive material was stored in rusty sheds in the Sellafield complex and that material is still stored in rusty sheds. When was the last time the Minister discussed the issue of Sellafield with his UK counterpart?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I did so just before Christmas, less than two months ago. I raised it in my pre-Presidency discussions with Minister Beckett. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, was with me and we went on to meet the Minister for Energy on the same occasion. We had lengthy meetings on various subjects and I raised this with them. As I said to Deputy Allen, negotiations and discussions are taking place and we are trying to get through some of the issues with the UK Government which, I think, understands the Government's position. It is important as we have a duty of care and a responsibility to the people on this issue. I am anxious we come to a formalised arrangement in regard to the exchange of information on, and access to, the Sellafield site.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Arising from what he said, will the Minister state the prospects of the British authorities agreeing to the Radiological Protection Institution of Ireland being allowed to effectively and meaningfully visit the facility at Sellafield? When does he expect that might happen?

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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As the Deputy knows, the RPII visited the site previously. When we talk about the site, one of the issues is that it is a vast site. The issue is perhaps more important than simply getting on to the site. I hope we can resolve this issue and see a further visit in the near future, but I am guarded in what I say for specific reasons, which the Deputy may appreciate, as I follow up on the cases. Discussions are taking place and I do not want to say anything that might, in any way, undermine them. I reconfirm that the British Government is in no doubt as to the position of the Government and with what it would be satisfied.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Minister aware of the seriousness of this threat? Only last week in a court in Cumbria, British Nuclear Fuels Limited was fined £30,000 sterling when it was found guilty of and admitted to endangering the life of one of its divers. Is the Minister aware that the health and safety executive in Britain advised that court that the British Nuclear Fuels Limited systems were wholly inadequate? Given that British Nuclear Fuels cares so little about the lives of its workers, does the Minister expect it to have any greater concern for the lives of or the threat represented to Irish people as a result of its operations?

Is the Minister aware that today British Nuclear Fuels Limited has again been outed? The Department of Trade and Industry in Britain engaged a consultancy firm to carry out an audit on BNFL but there was a conflict of interest because it regularly does consultancy work for BNFL. Given that wanton level of disregard by BNFL, it would have no concern for the safety of the people.

Photo of Martin CullenMartin Cullen (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I reiterate that the Government remains committed to and is deeply concerned about the activities at Sellafield, as it always has been. The Government will use every avenue open to it, legal and otherwise, to ensure it gets the message home to the British Government and, ultimately, to achieve its objective which many people in Ireland and elsewhere would like to see, that is, the closure of Sellafield.