Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

3:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Question 54: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on whether Ireland's nuclear policy as presented by his Department's submission (details supplied) to the British energy review is compatible with Ireland's membership of and part-financing of EURATOM and if the credibility of that policy would be strengthened if Ireland withdrew from EURATOM. [22848/06]

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The recent submission by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the British energy review consultation process affirms the Government's position on general nuclear power and, in particular, UK nuclear policies.

The Government's concerns over the current and future UK policy on nuclear energy relate to the potential impact on the environment and health of Irish citizens. In particular our issues relate to the Sellafield nuclear plant where there are ongoing safety concerns, the potential for a serious accident or incident and the ongoing radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea, all of which remain to be resolved.

The Government would have favoured an extensive review of the EURATOM treaty in the EU constitution discussions, leading to a significant updating of its provisions. It has made clear that this continues to be its position. It is important, however, not to lose sight that EURATOM does good work in health and safety areas. In the absence of consensus among member states to update the EURATOM treaty, the Government's policy is to steer EURATOM's activities towards nuclear safety and radiological protection. EURATOM is active in both areas. For example, EURATOM Directive 96/29 lays down basic safety standards for the protection of workers and members of the public from the dangers of ionizing radiation. It represents major legislation in radiological protection.

Membership of the EU obliges Ireland to make its contribution to the EU budget. There is no separate contribution from Ireland towards the budget of EURATOM. Accession to the European Union has been of such major benefit to Ireland that I do not see any public appetite to withdraw. Membership of the EU does not come with À la carte options.

Following the recent European Court of Justice decision regarding jurisdiction on the matter of the legal dispute between Ireland and the United Kingdom concerning the commissioning and operation of the MOX plant at Sellafield, I expect a more active and visible role by the Commission in this area. I have made it clear to three EU Commissioners — Stavros Dimas, Commissioner for Environment, Franco Frattini, Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security and Andris Piebalgs, Commissioner for Energy — that having taken Ireland to the European Court of Justice on the matter, I expect the Commission to show the same enthusiasm to pursue the UK on it.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I take issue with the suggestion that we must go with the prix fixe menu. I believe we can eat À la carte. Other member states have requested that part of their contributions to the EU budget are not given to EURATOM. EURATOM receives €1 billion of the €100 billion annual EU budget. Much of that money is spent on researching the next generation of nuclear reactors. Ireland contributes €8 million every year to the EURATOM budget, spending more on it than it spends on the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and nuclear safety.

How then can the Minister look the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, in the eye and tell him to shut the Sellafield plant when the Government spends millions of euro on EURATOM? How can the Minister take a case to the European Court of Justice regarding the MOX plant when the taxpayer is funding research into the next generation of nuclear reactors? Some reports presented to the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government show that EURATOM is conducting research into gas-cooled fast reactor systems, lead-cooled fast reactor systems, molten salt reactor systems, sodium-cooled fast reactor systems, supercritical-water-cooled reactor systems and very high temperature reactor systems. EURATOM is not about nuclear safety but about pushing the nuclear energy agenda at a European level. Large amounts of EURATOM funding are going into making the next generation of nuclear reactors. How can the Minister claim he is doing everything he can to shut the Sellafield plant when taxpayers, through his intercession, are funding research into the nuclear industry to the tune of €8 million?

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The hypotheses on which Deputy Cuffe bases his assertions is false. I suspect the Deputy knows just how false it is. No À la carte attitude can be adopted in the contribution to the EU budget. I could debate long and hard with Deputy Cuffe on my personal views on EURATOM. I did so during the course of the Convention on the Future of Europe. Ireland and Austria stood alone on that issue and towards the end of the convention, it was Ireland, Austria, Germany, Sweden and Hungary which pointed to the inadequacies of EURATOM and sought a review. It is false for the Deputy to suggest that any member state can hypothecate moneys it makes to the EU budget. There is no point in recreating that false premise. Every member state makes a contribution to the EU budget and it is used in a variety of ways.

If the Deputy were to ask me if I believe funding for EURATOM is the most prudent use of European taxpayers' funds, I would say no because of its constitutional arrangement. If he asked me if it could be better spent, I would agree with him. However, it is simply untrue, deliberately misleading and mendacious to suggest that any member state government would have the opportunity to ring-fence its allocation to the EU budget.

The future of the EURATOM treaty must be debated. As a member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, one of my regrets was that it did not enter into that area. I forecasted accurately that citizens in Europe concerned with the issue, whether they lived in a nuclear-powered state, would take a view on it. Their concerns can be attributed — in a small part — to the difficulties into which the constitutional treaty got. The Government has no enthusiasm for the type of EURATOM activity described by the Deputy.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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On a point of order, as the Minister responded to my Parliamentary Question No. 56, I assume he intended to take the two questions together.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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No, I intend to respond fully to Deputy Stagg's question.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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The Minister responded to my question fully in that reply. I look forward to a fuller response to my question.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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All bets are off regarding the future of the European constitution. There is now a role for smaller member states to take the lead in suggesting their concerns regarding the constitution. Ireland has been surprisingly mute in its discussion of any aspiration to disengage from the EURATOM treaty. Europe Inc. spends more on research into nuclear energy resources than it does on renewables. The Government must stand tall and withdraw from the EURATOM treaty to ensure our taxpayers' money is spent on renewable energy rather than on the next generation of nuclear power plants. I will repeat my question that was not answered. How can the Government take a court case to the European Court of Justice regarding the MOX plant in the UK when it is contributing millions of euro every year to the future of the nuclear industry?

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The answer is simple. Taking court action against the UK is the appropriate course of action. We will deal with that when we come to Deputy Stagg's question. I do not disagree with the Deputy on diverting funding from EURATOM activities to renewables. Some of our neighbours are even investing in cleaning up their nuclear messes. If the Deputy has any doubts on the Government's view on nuclear energy, I suggest he dips into The Accidental Constitution, the definitive work on the EU constitution. From it he will see that Ireland did take some significant interest in that area.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Question 56: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the effect of the recent European Court of Justice decision that it had jurisdiction in the matter concerning the commissioning and operation of the MOX plant at Sellafield which Ireland had originally referred to an international tribunal; and the action he proposes to take arising from this new and enhanced position of the European Court of Justice. [22627/06]

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The recent European Court of Justice decision is about where the dispute between Ireland and the United Kingdom concerning Sellafield should be litigated. It does not deal with the merits of the dispute itself. In 2001, the Government instituted legal proceedings against the United Kingdom before the tribunal provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The advice available to the Government at that time indicated that the dispute resolution procedures provided under the convention were an appropriate avenue for the litigation of the issues raised for Ireland by the continued operation of Sellafield. This advice was based on the best analysis as to the state of Community and international law at the time. The action in going to UNCLOS was widely welcomed politically in this House.

The European Commission contested Ireland's right to take proceedings under UNCLOS procedures. Ireland considered that national competence operated in this area and that, consequently, the duty to co-operate with and consult the Commission on the dispute proceedings with the UK did not arise. It is interesting to note that in discussions between Ireland's legal team and the legal service of the Commission, it was recognised that these issues were not the subject of settled law at the time.

The court judgment on 30 May, inter alia, declared that Ireland, by instituting proceedings against the UK under UNCLOS, failed to fulfil its obligations under Community law. The judgment also established that certain provisions of UNCLOS form part of the Community legal order and that the European Court of Justice has jurisdiction to determine disputes on their interpretation and application. Therefore, the judgment represents a significant development and clarification of Community law. It means that the resolution of disputes between member states on a wide range of international agreements, especially in the environmental field, comes within the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

The judgment presents member states, such as Ireland, with new mechanisms for holding other member states to account on their transboundary environmental obligations. These and other issues consequent on the judgment are being examined in detail by Ireland's international legal team, led by the Attorney General. Ireland's strategy in pursuit of the objectives of this case will be considered and determined by Government based on this examination and analysis.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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Before I comment on the reply I wish to refer to the fact that I asked a question of the Minister concerning nuclear safety, the use of iodine tablets to combat contamination, and if there were any new plans in this regard. The question was transferred to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children. Has the issue of nuclear safety been transferred from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to that Department? The question was not just about iodine tablets, which have proved to be useless, as I stated at the time they were issued.

I assure the Minister that I support the notion of a cross-party position on Sellafield, similar to the approach taken to Northern Ireland, but that should not prevent us from asking questions and pursuing the Minister if he is not doing a good enough job. Having lost the case, the Minister raised my hopes by stating that the decision presented Ireland with great opportunities for pursuing the matter at the European Court of Justice. He took a positive position on the matter. There is only a year left in the Government's term of office, no matter how long it is stretched. Up to now, the effect of all the actions taken by the Minister is that he has failed in a court case. What is the novel range of opportunities for holding the UK to its obligations and how does the Minister intend to pursue the matter with the UK authorities? In his reply the Minister stated the Department is examining the matter but, as I stated, he only has a year remaining to get some positive results.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Stagg and acknowledge that he has been most supportive on this issue during my period in office. The judgment of the European Court of Justice is most interesting, especially if one reads it in the context of the earlier opinion given by the Advocate General. A most interesting new law was enacted on the jurisdictional right of the European Court of Justice in matters relating to this. It is important to remember that we were in a novel position, in the sense that one member state was suing another member state in an international tribunal.

The interesting point about the court judgment is that it clarifies certain international agreements that fall within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which was not clear before. Previously, the view of the legal services was that this was an ambiguous area. One of the things that has been leveraged out of this case is a clarification of the position of the European Court of Justice.

If one reads what the Advocate General has said, which I am sure Deputy Stagg has, he made some interesting comments about a member state having rights under UNCLOS which could not be frustrated because of an issue as to where one would take the case. Incidentally, that applies not only to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea but also, potentially, to other international conventions, which makes this a most important case in terms of the role of the European Court of Justice.

The case requires detailed consideration. Deputy Stagg is correct that we only have a year left in office, but my suspicion is that the issue of Sellafield will be ongoing for some time. What has resulted from this case is a new clarity on the Community legal order and the jurisdictional right of the European Court of Justice. Those are the issues which we will now pursue.

Deputy Stagg's point was good and well made. Rather than exhaust ourselves occasionally looking for minute differences in opinion on this issue, it should be something on which we could combine our forces. I would like to see this matter discussed, for example, by the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government to see how we could further it because I know Deputy O'Dowd shares my passion, as does Deputy Stagg, to see Sellafield closed and a line drawn under that sad part of the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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I thought the Minister's last intervention would refer to nuclear safety and whether the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, was now responsible for this area. Perhaps he will have an opportunity to refer to this matter when he replies again. Given that the Minister has stated there is now clarity and new opportunities, can he give the House some indication of what is likely to happen, rather than just saying he will examine it in detail? I am sure he will and I would urge that he would do that, but he should be able to provide an indication of where we are going on this issue and when something concrete will be done. We know the case which has already been stated in the other forum so it is a matter of transferring it to the new forum that is now available to us.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Stagg is correct, but there are outstanding issues. Among other things, Ireland will have to consult the European Commission on what exactly the new order means.

I was not avoiding Deputy Stagg's question on iodine tablets, I would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss them. However, the issue of iodine tablets is a matter for the Department of Health and Children. I am sure the Deputy is being slightly mischievous on this matter because, as he well knows, the iodine tablets were specifically focused on a particular type of radiation and they had a shelf life. They related to the situation that pertained in Sellafield prior to some of the changes that have occurred.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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That was not what the question was about. It related to——

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I did not see Deputy Stagg's question.

Photo of Emmet StaggEmmet Stagg (Kildare North, Labour)
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It related to the new safety regime.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The issue of iodine tablets was raised. Deputy Stagg will be pleased to learn that nuclear safety is not a matter for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children.