Wednesday, 2 July 2003
Nuclear Safety: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann commends the Government on the recent developments with regard to Sellafield, in particular the pro-tem order issued by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that both Governments must exchange information on nuclear safety, and calls for the case to remain at the Tribunal and to continue to be pressed vigorously by the Government.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. I commend him and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and their Department on their ongoing battle against Sellafield. The decision to continue a relentless campaign against Sellafield despite the setback of the OSPAR tribunal ruling underlines our determination to defuse this time bomb on our doorsteps. This ruling is disappointing but we can draw comfort from the fact that the OSPAR tribunal decided that it has jurisdiction in such cases and this leaves open the possibility of further legal action. The Minister and the Attorney General must explore every possible legal avenue.
The case before a UN tribunal under international maritime law is one of the most significant legal actions we have undertaken as a country. This shows that many people on this side of the Irish sea are genuinely terrified of the danger that Sellafield represents. While the operators of Sellafield, BNFL, have shown themselves to be experts in the game of PR they cannot hide the fact that there is no economic or environmental reason for the plant to remain in operation. Experts are frequently hauled out in an effort to assure a disbelieving public that the discharges from Sellafield do not represent a danger. We regard any level of discharge as unacceptable. There simply should not be such radioactive waste. Internationally, I would like to see greater effort in trying to pull together a coalition of like-minded countries against Sellafield. I ask the Minister to pursue the issue until we have secured a successful outcome.
Since 1994, when planning permission for the MOX plant was granted, Ireland has conveyed to the UK authorities on numerous occasions, at official and ministerial level, by letter and at meetings, its opposition to the MOX plant, including detailed responses to five rounds of public consultation convened by the UK authorities. In October 2001 the UK Government announced that the manufacture of MOX fuel was justified in accordance with EU law. On 20 December that year the UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, gave the go-ahead for the plutonium commissioning of the plant.
Ireland has initiated legal proceedings on two separate fronts regarding the MOX plant: under the 1992 OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In June 2001 Ireland initiated arbitration proceedings against the United Kingdom under the OSPAR Convention regarding the commissioning of the MOX plant at Sellafield in Cumbria. In the OSPAR Convention case Ireland has sought disclosure of two UK reports that addressed the justification for the production of and trading in MOX fuel. They were prepared for the UK Government and formed the basis of five separate rounds of public consultation in the United Kingdom. Edited versions of both were made available to the public as part of the consultations in response to which Ireland asked to be given the complete texts. This was denied on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Oral hearings regarding the proceedings took place in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, PCA, in The Hague in October 2002 before an international tribunal consisting of the chairman, Professor Michael Reisman, Mr. Gavan Griffith, QC, and Rt. Hon. Lord Michael Mustill, QC. Today, 2 July, the OSPAR tribunal published its judgment, making five principal determinations: a unanimous rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction; a unanimous rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that Ireland's claim was inadmissible; a two-to-one majority rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that Ireland had no right to sue at an international tribunal; a two-to-one majority rejection of Ireland's argument that the specific information requested was covered by the scope of OSPAR Convention; and a unanimous decision that each side should pay its own costs.
Although Ireland failed to gain access to the confidential information contained in the consultants' reports, the tribunal established an important international legal precedent: the United Kingdom is now accountable to an international tribunal to disclose information to another state which relates to the marine environment. This gives Ireland the legal right to access information on the United Kingdom's nuclear industry, using the provisions of the OSPAR Convention, should the need arise.
An arbitration tribunal, also under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, was established to hear the substantive issues in Ireland's case. Hearings in the case were heard in The Hague from 10 to 21 June. Ireland's legal team was led by the Attorney General. They discussed issues relating to the threat from the continued operation and expansion of Sellafield.
At the hearing arguments were introduced by the United Kingdom that Ireland should have taken its case before the European Court of Justice. A Commission reply to a European Parliament question tabled by Proinsias De Rossa MEP was cited by the United Kingdom as evidence. In its reply the Commission stated it would not take a position on the merits of the case brought by Ireland but cited article 292 of the EC treaty, which stated questions of Community law should be considered only by the European Court of Justice.
The past week has seen us reach a milestone in our relentless battle against Sellafield. Britain must now consult us about future developments at the plant. For that reason, the decision is historic and perhaps the most significant ruling in our favour since we started the long battle decades ago. The legitimacy of our concerns has also been underlined in the past week by revelations that traces of Sellafield waste have been found in packets of salmon in UK supermarkets. While the health authorities are arguing that the traces found do not represent a threat to consumers, there should not be any amount of such material in the food chain.
The revelations over the waste in supermarket salmon are also causing concern in other countries, particularly Scandinavia, Iceland and the Isle of Man. We are committed to co-operating with other countries concerned about Sellafield to increase the international pressure on Britain finally to clean up its act. We have been successful in getting support from those countries. I believe we can also build on the growing concerns in Germany and other continental countries.
Sellafield's record certainly does not inspire confidence. Since the Windscale fire in 1957, the plant has built up a catalogue of accidents and safety breaches. We are pursuing our legal actions because we see a very real threat to our environment. The people have ongoing concerns about the nature, safety and frequency of shipments of nuclear fuel. The events of 11 September 2001 have added a further worry about malicious attacks and security. This represents an unacceptable and avoidable risk.
Assertions by BNFL and the UK Government that emissions from Sellafield and the MOX plant do not pose significant health risks oversimplify the issue. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has explained that there is simply not enough known about the long-term implications of the discharge of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea and its subsequent effects on the marine environment to justify that position.
It is good that relations between the Irish and UK Governments are closer than ever before. However, that close relationship between our two countries, though very important and valued greatly, also means that we should continue our battles regarding Sellafield. The Irish Government has a responsibility to the Irish people as well as the environment – responsibilities we must honour. Others support the promotion of the nuclear sector but we are focused on the issues of protection and safety. We believe we are entitled to no less.
The Government has made many attempts during the years to have the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria shut down. I pay tribute to the Attorney General, Mr. Rory Brady. The legal team led by him has made a very strong case, particularly recently in The Hague regarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, radioactive discharges and pollution of the Irish Sea. He made a strong case that the Government's protests were not taken into account when the licence for the Cumbrian complex was granted. The Minister has also expressed his concern at the inadequacy of the environmental assessment undertaken by the United Kingdom regarding the facility and the failure properly to assess the risk of terrorist attacks on the site. He has described the action at the United Nations court as essential to protect Ireland's interests, though he said he regretted that such a step was necessary. The British Government has rejected claims that discharges from the MOX plant pollute the Irish Sea.
This debate is very useful. I hope we will have all-party agreement on the motion in order that we can put a united case to secure what we seek. We certainly want to ensure Government action will continue to be supported by all parties in this House and also that we work in a united fashion, making a strong case for us to remain at the tribunal and continue to press vigorously.
I formally second the motion and welcome the Minister to the House tonight to discuss this very important issue. For many years now we have listened to the lip service paid by the UK Government and BNFL to our concerns about the Sellafield plant and the ancillary activities carried out there. Not only our concerns but also those of the Scandinavian countries and the Isle of Man and others have been dismissed and, on some occasions, ignored with contempt. Slick PR campaigns and glossy brochures have been used to disguise what is generally accepted as a clear and present danger to the future health and well-being of the Irish people and to our environment.
When we look at the frightening catalogue of accidents and potential disasters associated with the plant, no amount of prevarication or weasel words can hide the threat that exists, not only to ourselves but also to those UK citizens who live directly beside the plant and to the wider population of northern Europe. After the Windscale fire in 1957 the plant should have been decommissioned. The purely economic arguments that the British have used to justify the continued use of the plant have diminished greatly over time and we are at the stage where there is absolutely no excuse for the way in which the Government there refuses to see the dangers posed by the plant.
There is no justification, economic or environmental, for the continuation of operations at the Sellafield nuclear plant. These operations, which include the storage of high level radioactive liquid waste, the continued operation of the old Magnox reactors and the transportation of nuclear fuels to and from the plant, all pose huge threats to our country's environment and our economy but particularly to our people's health. There is now a long list of incidents and near-misses which when added up are a frightening indictment of how the British Government has, over the years, refused to take on board the expressed concerns, not only of the Irish Government but of many international bodies and in some cases of its own experts.
The UN OSPAR Convention is in the news at present. The British Government has repeatedly ignored the requirements of the convention for member states, of which it is one, to take the necessary measures to protect the seas against the adverse effects of its own activities and to conserve maritime ecosystems. The discharge of nuclear materials into the Irish Sea and the recent findings of contamination of the fish stocks – ironically on the shelves of shops in London of all places – is unacceptable, as my colleague, Senator Kitt, said. Our Radiological Protection Institute tells us that not enough is known about the long-term implications of the discharge of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea and its consequences for our health and environment. With support from the Scandinavian countries and Iceland, we must continue to press at all levels for the cessation of activities at Sellafield.
Yesterday's decision regarding access to information on the MOX plant is disappointing but it is certainly not the end of the road. That there was a split decision in this case and that the unanimous rejection of the UK's argument that the tribunal had no jurisdiction have, in the Minister's words, established an important international precedent and, in my opinion, should act as an incentive for us to continue this fight.
I congratulate the Attorney General, Rory Brady – my namesake but no relation unfortunately – and his team on their excellent work to date. We have to defend strongly our sovereign right to protect ourselves in whatever forum we choose. Yesterday's decision vindicates that right and any costs incurred are wholly justified. We must continue to build the case piece by piece. The decision last week in the International Court in the Hague, along with the actions taken under the UN Convention of the Sea, will all add to this case.
When we look at the number and the nature of the incidents associated with Sellafield it is no wonder the public is concerned – and in some cases terrified – that no action is being taken on the plant and its activities. Since the Windscale disaster there has been a catalogue of accidents and safety breaches. From the long-term storage of plutonium in questionable conditions to the disastrous debacle of the transport of MOX fuel pellets to Japan in 1999, and their subsequent return from there due to the falsification of documents, we should not only express concern but object outright to the continuation of the operation of the plant, full stop.
The UK Government's decision last year to set up a liabilities management authority is at least an admission that it has a case to answer when it comes to the safety and environmental viability of the plant. When BNFL makes statements such as, "A building at Sellafield which is 50 years old cannot be expected to conform to the standards of a modern plant," and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reports, "Sellafield showed a deterioration in safety performance and a weakness in control and supervision of operations at the site," it is no wonder people are afraid.
We all agree that our relationship with the British Government is crucial to this country on a number of levels, not least in the context of Northern Ireland. However, we should not be afraid to protect, and be seen to protect, our national interests when it comes to the matters of health and safety of our people. We should continue to engage in constructive dialogue and, when needed, constructive criticism in the cause of our national interest.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, on their obvious interest in and commitment to this vital issue. I commend the efforts they and their Department have made so far and I wish them well with what is definitely a good fight. This is a great opportunity to speak on this issue because it affects us all. I wish the Minister well in his efforts.
I move amendment No. 1:
After "Government" in the last line to add:
"and calls on the British Government to immediately grant access to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to act as an Irish observer at Sellafield thereby having the same status as the International Atomic Agency at this facility."
It is easy for any Irish politician to call for the closure of Sellafield. I say that because everyone knows it will not happen. It will not happen because if one has read the recent White Paper on energy proposals for Britain, one will come to the conclusion that New Labour is committed to a nuclear future.
The Labour Party has done a complete U-turn on its policy. In opposition it said one thing about a nuclear future but in Government it has done the opposite. I understand it has given a commitment to have 20% of its energy produced by the nuclear sector during the next ten to 15 years. New Labour is committed to a nuclear future, as is the Conservative Party in Britain. I do not believe that we in this Chamber or those in the other Chamber or nationally will change that commitment. That is the political reality with which we are faced. We may not like it, we oppose it, we want it closed but it will remain open until such time as political opinion in Britain changes. That may be in 20 years' time or after a terrible atrocity takes place there but it will remain open. We can cut through much of the huffing and puffing about this issue and get to the heart of the matter during the course of this debate.
I welcome the Fianna Fáil motion. It is useful to review progress in this matter. If Sellafield were to cease processing tomorrow nobody would know what to do with its stockpiles. There is no international view on what should be done. It would take 100 years to decommission fully the stockpiles at that plant and at every other reprocessing plant. Even if the plant is closed tomorrow, Sellafield has to be dealt with on a long-term basis.
I cannot understand why the British and the French, the big producers in this industry, have not ensured that the proper technology is given to the Asian countries in particular. Most of the material transported from Asia to Britain and to France need not be transported if the technology base was in Asia to reprocess it. After the Second World War none of the information was shared because of hostility towards the Japanese. If we are honest about this we have got to look at ways in which this problem can be solved internationally through proper exchange of technology so that the reprocessing industry will not use our part of Europe as a dumping ground.
That leaves us with a conundrum. What can we do to make a difference? The Fine Gael amendment tries to help the Government in its task. We want to support the Government in what it does internationally but I suspect it will not get us anywhere. One ruling is positive and another ruling is against. We will not succeed in getting Sellafield closed unless the British decide it. That is the bottom line. Therefore, we have to convince the British to do so.
If we take 50,000 jobs out of Cumbria, we will have to subsidise them. Is that a realistic proposition? If the British Government came to my constituency and told me to abolish an industry that would have a knock-on effect on 10,000 jobs, who would pick up those jobs? The reason Mr. Jack Cunningham is so belligerent on this issue is that it is about jobs, regional development and the pathetic policy in Britain and Ireland where places like Cumbria are excluded. I have visited Cumbria, which is one of the most beautiful places on these islands, but there is no tourism development there. We must put our money where our mouth is. If we talk about closing down these jobs, we must talk about doing something to help Britain close Sellafield. That is the real politics involved here.
The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, the regulatory authority for safety standards in this area in the State, should have automatic right of access as an observer to the Sellafield site. I was in Sellafield and put this suggestion to Mr. Askew, the site director. He said he had no problem with it but that it was a matter for the British Government in bilateral arrangement with the Irish Government.
While I was in Sellafield I saw representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which, as the Minister knows, is an important UN agency charged with responsibility for tracking plutonium and uranium throughout the world to ensure that rogue elements and nations do not get hold of it. When I asked why they were there, I was told by BNFL that they were there because of the company's international obligations to ensure that none of the product got into the wrong hands. If the British have conceded that the International Atomic Energy Agency should be there, then surely they must concede that we have a right, as their nearest neighbour, to have our authority there to report independently to the people whenever it sees fit and to issue reports on anything that issues from the company.
No matter what BNFL or the British Government say about Sellafield, nobody believes them. We have a responsibility to press the British Government on this issue. We can achieve this in the short term. Let us continue with court cases till the cows come home and we shall see how far we get. With my sceptic hat on, I do not think we will get far. However, if we demand that our regulatory authority has a 24 hour, seven days a week, 12 months a year base there, the members of which can go wherever they want in the plant and report independently, it would give credibility to the information coming from Sellafield. However, it might be that we might not like the information coming from our regulatory authority if it issued positive reports.
I put this suggestion to the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and colleagues there supported it. I also put it to the Government which I understand is supporting the amendment to the motion, for which I thank it. It is time for the British Government to deliver on this issue. The British-Irish Council, which is still in place despite the breakdown of the Northern Ireland institutions, will have its next plenary council meeting in December. Before December there will be a meeting of environment Ministers. I want this issue addressed by our Government and ask it to put this proposal, with which Mr. Askew has no difficulty, to the British Government. There is international precedent for it because the International Atomic Energy Agency is there. I want our authority based at Sellafield on a permanent basis. That is progress we could make in the short term and I ask the British Government to agree.
We must take on the responsibility of Sellafield because it is right beside us. Whatever about the issue of the ongoing discharges into the Irish Sea, since the events of 11 September the nightmare scenario is that if any internationally branded terrorist organisation wants to take a pot at Sellafield, by whatever means, we are in the firing line. We have a direct interest in Sellafield. The British Government has accepted the international precedent of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It must now accept our interest and act as a good neighbour and friend and concede to this proposal, irrespective of the longer term objections we have to the site.
The Minister has the support of this side of the House in his endeavours. He should keep up his work at an international level but we also have a wider responsibility to think out the implications in regard to the huge amount of employment Sellafield provides. We must be honest on the issue. It is easy for us to make remarks about Sellafield which make us and our constituents feel good, but nothing happens as a result. Our amendment is something we can achieve in the short term. I ask the Government to press the issue and I ask the British Government, as a good friend and neighbour, to concede.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. I support and second my colleagues' amendment.
Any concession that gives Ireland a vestige of control over a situation that affects our citizens, our health and safety, the safety of our unborn children and our environment is unreservedly welcome. The interim order by the Hague based UN Permanent Court of Arbitration is the first major concession that has been granted to Ireland in relation to the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Ireland's other claim, taken last October under the OSPAR convention – an agreement between the 14 north Atlantic states relating to pollution and discharges into the marine environment – in which Ireland sought documents relating to the MOX plant at Sellafield, has been denied. This came to our notice this morning.
Ireland sought a ruling, under the 1992 OSPAR Convention, that it was entitled to a full version of two partially suppressed British reports, one of which deals with the economic justification for the £470 million MOX plant and the other with its likely environmental impact on the Irish Sea. Although the current ruling of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration is unlikely to affect processing operations in Sellafield in the short term, the court has set the scene for future dialogue and has delivered a rebuke to Britain for not having co-operated fully with Ireland in the past.
The Government did not succeed in its international court bid to close Sellafield, but progress has been made. It is incumbent on us to continue to bring whatever pressure possible to bear on the British Government for closure. We must not rest on our laurels. Following on this ruling, we must actively demand safety information from British Nuclear Fuels Limited, which manages Sellafield, and from the British Government.
I support my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes's, call for Ireland to have an independent observer at Sellafield, on a permanent 24 hour basis. The International Atomic Energy Agency observes the site continually but given Sellafield's proximity to the east coast of Ireland, we must have observers on site at all times.
The ever present threat of terrorist action following the events of 11 September 2001, and the catastrophic repercussion of such action for Ireland, must intensify the pressure for this concession on both Britain and the court of arbitration. Apart from the issue of the proximity of Sellafield to Ireland, the shipping of large consignments of plutonium based fuel around the world is highly dangerous. This has been emphasised many times in the past.
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 terror attack on Sellafield could leave us equally devastated. I compliment the many Irish people who take young children from the Ukraine and Chernobyl into their homes each summer and I welcome the group in Ireland at present.
Ireland, and particularly our east coast, has been a sitting duck since 1956, forced against our will to be party to Britain's atomic age. When the world's first industrial-scale power station was opened at Calder Hall in Sellafield, it was promoted at the time to British consumers as "electric power that would be too cheap to meter". It did not take them long to realise the falsity of that statement. The station closed last March as it was said to be increasingly uneconomic. That is good news but it will take 100 years of decommissioning before the site is declared to be safe.
It is the more recent activities at Sellafield that are of major concern to Ireland and, likewise, the people of the Cumbria region. Two years ago British Nuclear Fuels opened a MOX fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield. This plant combines oxides of uranium and plutonium from reprocessed fuel into mixed oxide fuel for use in reactors. Britain was granted permission for it, despite a scandal over suspect safety data and the knowledge that the Irish Sea was among the most radioactive-polluted in the world. The company has a long record of radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea. Any choice on behalf of Britain in relation to nuclear power plants implies a duty to protect Ireland as its near neighbour.
Millions of gallons of contaminated water are pumped from Sellafield into the Irish Sea every day. This in itself is worrying but it is compounded by the succession of accidents which have made it the worst managed nuclear waste plant in Europe. The court rejected the Irish demand for an end to radioactive discharges from the mixed oxide plant at Sellafield as Ireland had not proved that the MOX plant was causing serious harm to our marine environment. However, the tribunal has agreed to allow Ireland to apply for provisional measures to protect the marine environment against serious pollution.
The case in The Hague is of immense benefit to Ireland in building international political awareness of the dangers of the Sellafield plant. We are involved in a unique situation. A small country is taking on a much larger one and highlighting issues that have major consequences for the nuclear industry worldwide. In doing so it is reaching further than Ireland's case against the Sellafield plant. We are questioning the role of the European Union's constitutional position on the promotion of the nuclear industry. Within Europe any decision taken in The Hague could impact on countries such as France which also ships nuclear waste without consultation with its neighbours.
Currently, only Norway and Denmark support Ireland's call for extended measures to reduce radioactive discharges, over and above the national plans agreed at the last OSPAR ministerial meeting five years ago. Ireland, with Norway and Denmark, has called for legal authorisation on discharges of technetium, one of the most toxic radioactive pollutants from the Sellafield plant.
Since 2001, certain initiatives have been taken in regard to forcing the closure of the plant at Sellafield. In October 2001 the Government stated it would take a case against it to the European Court of Human Rights. This has not yet happened. In November 2001 the Government failed to prove that the Republic's rights, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, had been breached. In November 2001 Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth failed in the High Court in London to stop the start-up of the MOX plant at Sellafield. In April 2002 campaigners sent 1.3 million cards – one of them from me – to the British Prime Minister in Downing Street which called for the closure of the plant. In September 2002 the Government and environmentalists protested at the passage of a nuclear waste ship through the Irish Sea en route to Sellafield. In October 2002 Ireland took a case for the release of confidential information on the plant under the OSPAR Convention but the claim was rejected. In June 2003 a case was taken to The Hague under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
As many of us would say, a lot has been done but, undeniably, a lot still remains to be done. With the ever present threat to health and safety uppermost in all our minds, I urge the Government to press ahead with whatever means possible to bring about the closure of the plant at Sellafield. This issue is of paramount importance and on everyone's lips throughout the north-east of Ireland. I have met people who object to the plant as far away as Galway, Clare and the west. The Minister has our support. I have no doubt he will accept the amendment to the motion.
I welcome the Minister and the Government motion. I commend the Minister on the work he has put into this task. Since assuming office, he has been working step by step through the machinery available in legal international fora to bring about the ultimate objective, the closure of the plant at Sellafield. In the context of that work, I commend the Minister for the pro tem order referred to in the motion. He will be aware that many efforts and long days and nights have been spent over the past five years in an attempt to achieve this.
Some measure of achievement was recorded before the pro tem order was made. It is encouraging and gratifying that an order was made to give Ireland the right to consultation. The Government knows that the British Government is now obliged, under the direction of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, to consult it in future and exchange information on nuclear safety.
The motion is timely. It is as much about the MOX plant as it is about the Sellafield complex in general. The case made by Ireland at the OSPAR tribunal was for access to certain information about the MOX plant which had been withheld from the public domain by the British Government. The judgment in the case handed down today did not go entirely our way but we are as heartened as the Minister that three of the five main points in the judgment are very much in our favour. It is disappointing that a 2:1 majority rejected Ireland's main argument. However, even in rejecting it, as the Minister rightly said, quite considerable scope is now being given to the Government to examine all the options available, given that there is now a clear acknowledgement that the British Government is accountable. On the basis of the judgment, the Government may seek out, identify and pursue all options available. This considerably diminishes our disappointment that the main argument was not accepted.
We were never naive enough to think that, simply by going to a tribunal in Europe – despite the fact that the Minister had made a good case – we would automatically succeed. There is a huge force to the contrary and, with the Minister, we were aware of that fact. Nevertheless, his achievement must be recorded and, as he rightly said today, he is more determined than ever to exploit the opportunities and options presented. Three of the five main aspects of the judgment provide a clearer road map than that which was in place heretofore and known to the Minister's Department yesterday.
The judgment represents a milestone in Ireland's step by step approach to the objective of having the plant at Sellafield and its operations closed down. In his response to the ruling today the Minister clearly articulated his relentless determination to continue to pursue every legal avenue and available international forum to establish that the operations at Sellafield constitute a clear and present threat to the Irish Sea and the citizens of Ireland. That determination is warmly welcomed.
All discharges from Sellafield constitute unacceptable radioactive pollution of our marine environment and must be stopped. Since the 1950s, the plant at Sellafield has had a disastrous history of repeated leaks, accidents and safety failures. There is a furtiveness and secrecy about the BNFL operation, as evidenced by the withholding of information and the deliberate falsification of records on safety standards.
Colleagues on all sides will be familiar with the slick presentation of propaganda about the nuclear industry in general and its safety. It is heartening to know that all Oireachtas Members and citizens are at one when it comes to the plant at Sellafield. We all want it closed. There is no argument about it. It is the only response that will restore our confidence in the safety of our waters and operations in the neighbouring country.
The decision by Britain to proceed with the implementation of the MOX plant against the background of an increase in international terrorism and after waiting five years and engaging in consultation on five occasions is hardly the action of a friendly neighbour 50 to 60 miles from our coast. It is regrettable that, at a time when the distrust of centuries in Anglo-Irish relations is dissipating quickly, the British Government persists in causing needless ongoing friction between the two countries by its refusal to acknowledge our legitimate concerns about the threat of the plant at Sellafield and the MOX plant to our people and marine and terrestrial environments. That is sad and regrettable but a fact, one the Minister has faced every day since he took office. He has reaffirmed and reinforced his determination to deal with it.
The British Government's decisions have been made contrary to independent and international political and scientific concern. It has ignored the repeated warnings of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who has referred to the exposure of the operations to the increased risk of terrorism involving nuclear weapons. Leading scientists, to whom I referred on the previous occasion this issue was discussed, such as Dr. Frank Barnaby of the Oxford research group and Dr. Large have stated publicly on a number of occasions in recent years that the MOX plant represents a prime target for a terrorist attack and poses a major threat to this country.
Dr. Barnaby publicly accused the British Government of gross stupidity and irresponsibility, to use his words, in granting BNFL permission to operate a mixed oxide fuel plant at the Sellafield site. He pointed out that the plutonium in the MOX could be used to produce nuclear explosives. He explained that, if terrorists were to get hold of the MOX, they could easily chemically separate the plutonium and uranium oxides and use the plutonium oxide in a crude nuclear explosive. He said very little expertise was required and that most people with one or two years' experience dealing with explosives could do it. He also said MOX was particularly vulnerable to acquisition by terrorists, especially during transportation.
Dr. Barnaby also saw the possibility of a terrorist flying a plane into the plant at Sellafield. Previous speakers have also referred to this. Dr. Barnaby saw this possibility as a major and real threat. He said such an attack would have devastating contamination consequences over a very wide area. He estimated that upwards of 3.6 million people could die as a result. His views were supported by two other scientific reports, one by Dr. Large – I am unsure of the author of the third. All concluded that terrorists could easily identify the most dangerous parts of the plants from publicly available information and crash aircraft into them, releasing vast amounts of radiation.
It is not that long ago that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, when making a statement to the world on the lessons of the volatility of financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the challenges of globalisation, told all countries, including Ireland, that our self-interest and our mutual self-interest were inextricably woven together. It is a pity that, in those profound words of wisdom he was so anxious to give to the world, he did not take account of his decision in 2001 on the MOX plant.
I thank Senators for tabling this important motion and affording me the opportunity, of which I am pleased to avail, to speak to the House on it. I welcome the motion and the spirit in which it has been tabled. It is an important recognition and endorsement of the Government's strategy on the Sellafield site and its operations.
On 24 June 2003 the tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, delivered what I regard as a significant interim judgment in our case against the Sellafield MOX plant. This judgment recognised, by way of an order of the arbitral tribunal, Ireland's claim that the necessary co-operation and consultation required between the United Kingdom and Ireland was inadequate. The award of the OSPAR tribunal was published today. I am pleased to have the opportunity to report to the House on the outcome of these proceedings also.
These judgments are the latest milestones in a series of interrelated legal actions initiated by the Government in June 2001 but whose genesis dates back much further. Those with a long-standing interest in Sellafield matters will recall that it was a Fianna Fáil Government which originally considered taking a legal case against the plant as far back as 1994, when the option of taking action under the then Paris Convention was considered. It was decided at the time not to proceed with action under this convention as its provisions were not considered sufficiently robust in their prohibition of radioactive discharges to provide an appropriate basis for action in this regard. However, legal action remained an option open to the Government, and our approach was subject to continual review. Ratification by Ireland and the United Kingdom of both the OSPAR and the UNCLOS Conventions provided a stronger legal framework in which to act. Our concerns heightened with the development of the Sellafield MOX plant.
Ireland first became aware of the plans to build a MOX plant at Sellafield in 1993 when a planning application was submitted to Copeland Borough Council. In our response to the council's consultation the Government expressed its concerns about the adequacy of the environmental statement, the economic case for MOX, the security implications of the plant and its obvious interdependence with reprocessing activities at Sellafield. Ireland continued to reiterate these concerns on many occasions over the following years, including by its participation in no less than five separate public consultations in the United Kingdom on the justification for the plant, as required under EU law.
Throughout these consultations Ireland had to rely on heavily edited consultants' reports on the economic case for MOX. The Government considered that the full versions of the reports should be made public to provide a fully transparent analysis of the purported benefits of the plant. Ireland argued that the reports did not fully consider the major disadvantages of MOX fuel manufacturing, including a completely unsubstantiated analysis of the world market for MOX fuel. Despite repeated requests, Ireland has not seen full versions of the reports as the UK claimed that the edited material was commercially sensitive.
As a result of the unsatisfactory response that Ireland, as a sovereign and friendly state, had received in the consultations and in frequent ministerial correspondence, we signalled to the United Kingdom our willingness to pursue our concerns through international arbitration. Ireland set out this position clearly at the June 2000 meeting of the OSPAR Commission in Copenhagen when we advised the OSPAR contracting parties, including the United Kingdom, that if a settlement could not be reached with the United Kingdom on access to the full consultants' reports, we would pursue the issue under the OSPAR Convention.
In June 2001 the Government launched a legal action under the convention. This case sought access to the complete and unedited consultants' reports commissioned by the United Kingdom in support of the economic justification for the MOX plant. The case came to an oral hearing in The Hague in October 2002 and, as I mentioned, a judgment was announced by the tribunal today. While the case related to access to information withheld by the United Kingdom on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, it also related to the elaboration of the fundamental rights and obligations of contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention. In arguing its case before the arbitral tribunal the United Kingdom had contended that the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter and that Ireland's claims were inadmissible.
In its decision the tribunal made five principal determinations: a unanimous rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction; a unanimous rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that Ireland's claim was inadmissible; a two to one majority rejection of the United Kingdom's argument that Ireland had no right to sue at an international tribunal; a two to one majority rejection of Ireland's argument that the particular information which had been requested was covered by the scope of the OSPAR Convention; and a unanimous decision that each side should pay its own costs.
Although the tribunal has decided that the information we sought in this instance did not come within the scope of the OSPAR Convention, we nonetheless have established an important international precedent. The United Kingdom is now accountable to an international tribunal for information it must disclose to another state under the OSPAR Convention. The possibility, therefore, of further action under the convention is kept open to us. I have little doubt that this judgment, in setting out the respective rights and obligations of the parties, will prove extremely valuable in time to come.
Ireland launched parallel proceedings against the United Kingdom under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in October 2001 when the United Kingdom confirmed, on 3 October 2001, that it would proceed with commissioning of the MOX plant. The case was taken when the strongly held objections of the Government to the commissioning of the plant, conveyed many times over many years to the United Kingdom, were disregarded. This is a much broader case, taken in support of Ireland's position that the MOX plant had been built and commissioned without a proper environmental assessment, without due regard to the pollution impact on the Irish Sea and without adequate consideration of the possible security implications for the plant at Sellafield or for the consequent increase in the marine transport of radioactive materials through the Irish Sea.
It was in respect of this case that oral hearings began in The Hague last month and on which the UNCLOS tribunal delivered a provisional measures award on 24 June. This is an interim judgment in the case pending a further hearing scheduled for later this year. I regard this judgment as a significant milestone, not just in terms of our case but also in terms of our wider policy on the plant at Sellafield and our relationship with the United Kingdom on the Sellafield question. The tribunal has reaffirmed the earlier judgment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea from December 2001, which ordered the exchange of information on the consequences of commissioning the MOX plant, and the establishment of effective monitoring measures and prevention of pollution of the Irish Sea.
Last month in The Hague the tribunal heard submissions from Ireland that the December 2001 judgment had not had the intended outcome of greater transparency and co-operation from the United Kingdom. It agreed with Ireland that such co-operation was not as timely or effective as it could have been and that this stemmed, in large measure, from the absence of secure arrangements for the co-ordination of all the various agencies and bodies involved. This judgment is important because it is not solely the claim of the Government but the judgment of an independent, impartial tribunal and, as such, carries an authority and imposes obligations that neither Ireland nor the United Kingdom can ignore. The United Kingdom must now, with Ireland, set up an effective mechanism for co-operation which ensures our rights to be properly informed about nuclear safety issues are provided for and that our views are fully taken into account. Nor does the process end there. Both Ireland and the United Kingdom will have to report back to the tribunal on progress toward achieving this goal and I am confident that the tribunal will act with rigour in assessing how much progress is being achieved. As I mentioned, this is not the final part of the case. When we return to the substantive case, Ireland will continue to underline our view that these operations at Sellafield constitute an unacceptable risk.
Some Senators may also be aware that the European Commission has recently expressed an interest in Ireland's case against the United Kingdom. This is the principal reason given by the tribunal for its postponement of full hearings until December this year. I have previously been asked the reason Ireland did not decide to take its case through the European Court of Justice and my answer remains the same. Ireland chose the UN route because we recognised that route as being the quickest and most effective way of making our case. The Convention on the Law of the Sea contains important provisions on co-operation and marine pollution that do not exist in European law. While I welcome the interest of the European Commission in Ireland's case, I do not accept a view that Ireland should have taken a case before the European Court of Justice. Our position does not preclude a future challenge through that court. I remain committed to this litigation, which is in line with the policy of the Government to oppose the continued operation and expansion of activities at the Sellafield site.
Senators will be conscious from previous debates in this House that a multiplicity of operations, from decommissioning and reprocessing to storage of waste and separated fuel, and now the fabrication of MOX fuel are currently conducted at Sellafield. Each of these activities represents a potentially serious threat to Ireland's population, our environment and economy. Senators may also be aware that, until February 2003 when it was announced by BNFL that generation of electricity at the site would then cease, the plant at Sellafield also generated electricity through the four on-site Magnox reactors at the Calder Hall section of the site. While I welcomed this announcement of the planned closure of these reactors, there remains much work to be done. Closing the Magnox reactors will be a lengthy and time consuming process; it involves defuelling and decommissioning, each stage of which requires the consent of the United Kingdom's nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
As well as the legal actions, the Government has continued to execute its policy on the plant at Sellafield through a variety of other means, all of which involve advocating the highest possible standards of safety as well as health and environmental protection. My officials and I continue to meet our United Kingdom counterparts on a regular basis through the UK-Ireland Contact Group on Radioactivity Matters, the British Irish Council and through regular meetings between the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and its regulatory counterparts in the United Kingdom.
I emphasise that throughout this process of legal action, as befits neighbouring states with so much in common, our relationship with UK colleagues, both at ministerial and official level, remains friendly and positive. However, our perspectives in relation to the plant at Sellafield are some considerable distance apart. The UNCLOS interim judgment will be influential in developing our co-operative relationship as the tribunal recognised that both countries met and co-operated across a wide range of bodies but that improvements in these arrangements were necessary.
The current plans and consultation process for the establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority include a recognition of the importance of Ireland as a significant stakeholder in the protection of our shared environment with the United Kingdom. They are also an important recognition that the legacy of nuclear operations in the United Kingdom will require many decades to clean up and, in particular, that the way in which the Sellafield site has been managed by BNFL has been wholly inadequate. The short-term commercially-driven outlook of BNFL must be replaced by a body which recognises that the management of operations at Sellafield requires a long-term commitment to safety, security and environmental protection, and that this will ultimately cost many billions of pounds. We should see such a body in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
In the meantime Ireland will continue to campaign against the ongoing high risk activities at Sellafield, including liquid discharges into the Irish Sea, the storage of liquid high level waste in ageing tanks and the storage of separated plutonium. On the latter, I welcome the recently published report of the plutonium working group – part of a standing dialogue between BNFL, local authorities, NGOs and UK regulators – which explored the options for the safe disposal of separated plutonium. Importantly, the group recognised that there were options other than the manufacture of MOX fuel for the safe disposal of plutonium and that these should continue to be investigated.
Ireland achieved a further significant step against the continuing liquid discharges from Sellafield at the recent meeting of OSPAR Ministers in Bremen, Germany on 25 and 26 June. This meeting included a review of progress towards achieving the aims of the Sintra Strategy on Radioactive Substances, agreed in 1998. At Sintra Ministers agreed that discharges of radioactive substances into the marine environment should cease by 2020.
I had been concerned, in the run-up to the meeting in Bremen, that the necessary agreement required to determine baselines for objective monitoring of progress in implementing the Sintra strategy would prove difficult to reach. While my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, who attended the meeting, confirmed that agreement was difficult, I am happy that through his efforts, and with the support of like-minded countries, credible baselines were established for the measurement of progress toward completing the strategy.
Furthermore, the meeting recognised the concerns of Ireland and others about the continuing discharge of technetium-99 from Sellafield and our view that these discharges should cease immediately. It also welcomed the UK's recent request to BNFL to stop discharges from the MAC treatment process for the next nine months. This will create the necessary space for further research into abatement technologies for technetium-99, which I hope will lead to a safe and permanent cessation of these discharges from Sellafield. The Government considers the moratorium proposal to be a welcome and positive development in that it would bring about an immediate cessation of tc-99 discharges to the Irish Sea. We strongly urge that the moratorium proposal be implemented.
The Government has long been concerned about radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea, including discharges of tc-99, and has consistently called for the immediate cessation of such discharges. In December 2001, my predecessor, Deputy Jacob, expressed his concerns about the proposal by the UK Environment Agency to retain the existing tc-99 discharge authorisation limit of 90 tbq per annum and not to reduce this limit to ten tbq per annum until around 2006. We consider that proposal to be totally at variance with the commitments given by UK Ministers at OSPAR in 1998 when the OSPAR Strategy on Radioactive Substances was adopted. I welcome the request by the UK Government to BNFL to introduce a moratorium on tc-99 discharges pending the introduction of TPP abatement technology in respect of treating the existing stored MAC – medium active concentrate. While welcoming this proposal, the Government would be concerned as to what will happen with the stored MAC if further research into TPP shows that the concerns of both the Environment Agency and the HSE cannot be satisfactorily addressed and that, as a result, the process does not become licensed for use on a commercial scale. In the meantime, Ireland will continue to press for the ending to all other discharges from Sellafield as they continue to constitute unacceptable pollution of the Irish Sea.
There is no moral justification for the discharge of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea – not now, not ever. As technology advances, there are now alternative options available for the safe disposal of this waste. Surely it is better that waste is treated rather than simply dumped into the sea. The horrendous knock-on damage to the marine environment is incalculable and remains so for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As Minister, I am determined to bring discharges to an end.
In relation to the Fine Gael amendment, the possible inspection of the Sellafield nuclear plant by Irish experts, in conjunction with appropriate independent international experts, is a matter that is currently under consideration. This issue was raised at a meeting between myself and the former UK Energy Minister, Mr. Brian Wilson, MP, in Dublin on 28 May. I anticipate that it will be followed up in the engagement between the Irish and UK authorities going forward. Accordingly, I have no difficulty accepting the addition contained in the Fine Gael amendment.
I welcome this motion, which is an important recognition of the efforts of the Government to address the concerns of the public in relation to Sellafield. My Department has given, and will continue to give, a high priority to this issue and I would like in particular to acknowledge the commitment and effort of the Attorney General and his staff as well as officials of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland in their prosecution of these cases. The Government remains committed to ensuring the safety of the Irish population, environment and economy from this unacceptable threat.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him and his officials on a splendid speech which has given me more insight into nuclear power than I had before the debate began. The Government has been very wise in actively pursuing the issue of Sellafield, as have previous Governments which took up this issue. As well as monitoring Sellafield, however, will the Minister ensure we keep an eye on an even greater nuclear danger to us, that is the situation regarding Chernobyl? When the Chernobyl explosion took place almost 20 years ago, there was evidence of radiological fallout in this country, and particularly in Wales, which is nearer to Sellafield than Ireland. Distance does not always make something safer.
The situation now with Chernobyl appears truly appalling. Apparently, the sarcophagus over the damaged reactor is cracking badly. Worse still, one of the scientists who complained about it has been imprisoned. We should make an objection about this to the Belarus Government because if we cannot get information from its scientists, how will we know what is happening there? Will the Minister support international efforts to try to have reparations made of the sarcophagus, or whatever remedial action is necessary, because it appears we are in a serious situation which could cause dreadful damage?
The Minister will remember that because of a lack of proper organisation of the fire after the explosion, there was considerable loss of life and a considerable spread of radioactive material, including on clothes which were taken away as souvenirs by people all over Russia. I raise this matter now because there are other reactors which could pose a problem and I hope the Minister will support all the EU efforts to have those examined, both within the Russian Republics and any others remaining in eastern Europe.
I find it alarming that in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the American and British forces did not see fit to secure the nuclear power stations and facilities. Apparently, there has been theft of low-grade radioactive material. For example, the barrels which were used for storing contaminated water were taken by the locals and used for washing their clothes or storing water or food. Apparently, that has already led to the development of leukaemia in some members of the local population. It is dreadful to think that with the terrible damage already done in Iraq by the invasion and occupation, and due to the inadequate precautions taken by the occupying forces in regard to maintaining the integrity of these sites, the local population will suffer even more. We are aware that the UN monitors were allowed in again to examine these sites but they were not allowed to assess what happened to any of the stolen barrels or to take account of the effect of that on the local population. While the Minister is continuing his good work on Sellafield, I hope he will keep those two issues very much to the forefront.
The position regarding Sellafield is important but Chernobyl is important also. It appears to be in a disastrous state. At the same time we must monitor the situation in Iraq regarding the possibility of the theft of nuclear material. We know that nuclear material was taken and sold from sites within the Russian Republic shortly after the breakdown of the federation. These are real concerns. They are not something that just happens in films. They happen every day. I would like to think the Minister would also support the international efforts being made to stop these sort of instances occurring.
I welcome the motion and the all-party spirit of it. I have been with this issue off and on for the best part of 20 years. I have a vivid memory from 1986 when Charles Haughey, as Leader of the Opposition in the Dáil, forged by force of character an all-party motion on the closure of Sellafield. Since then, there has been an all-party position on the subject.
I commend the efforts of successive Ministers. There are three I can recall immediately who pursued this matter with energy – Ray Burke, Deputy Jacob and the Minister, Deputy Cullen. It is an important issue. I declare an extra interest in that my wife has some relatives who live in Cumbria and it is sad that such a facility is placed in such a beautiful part of the north-west of England.
There are three dimensions to this, the micro threat, the macro threat and the economic dimension of the argument. As far as the micro threat is concerned, it is a fact that the beaches around Sellafield are closed to the public. If Sellafield were not a threat to anybody, that would not be the case. There are clusters of leukaemia, both among workers and in the vicinity of Sellafield. As the cigarette companies argued for a long time that cancer had nothing to do with smoking and it was a pure coincidence, I think BNFL has been trying to make an argument of the same type in relation to the leukaemia clusters. I am not in the least convinced.
There has been a poor track record of accidents, with false spin-doctoring of said accidents, going back to the 1950s, which does not inspire great trust or confidence. I have been present at meetings where the matter has come up between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister, who otherwise have very good relations, as we know. The issue seems to be down to the preservation of jobs argument. Sometimes that is a sign that something is on its last legs. I think we would all agree that cleaning up Sellafield is going to be such a mammoth task that it would keep a substantial number of people employed for a long time to come, without continuing proactive reprocessing.
Obviously what we are most concerned about in this country is the danger of a major accident, arising either from a malfunction or from a threat of terrorism, which is clearly very real. It is a huge ongoing threat, and will remain so for decades if not centuries to come. There are suggestions that this is something which has at least been looked at by terrorist groups. For its own sake as much as ours, the British Government's priority should be to secure the place and close it down.
I am not aware of any other type of accident that would be so capable of devastating life in these two islands. There can be very bad accidents, like air crashes, train crashes, motorway pile-ups and chemical accidents, but it is very difficult to think of something that could so blight life. We have seen, in the example of Chernobyl, what can happen. A large tract of country in the USSR, which is a huge area, was devastated. These islands are very much smaller.
I do not know why it is being pursued as it makes absolutely no economic sense. The Minister, as an additional string to his bow, should look more closely at the economics of it. I think there has been any amount of false accounting and putting up of spurious economic arguments. I am not surprised that commercially sensitive reports have been suppressed, because the economic case does not stand up.
I mentioned this at the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. A figure of £36 billion sterling in debts associated with Sellafield has been written off. As I pointed out then, would Aer Lingus be allowed by the EU Commission to write off even €100 million of debt? What has happened to the laws of competition? Why is it permissible to subsidise to such vast extent the nuclear industry, which is clearly so uneconomic? If one looks at the restructuring, the thing would collapse if it was not propped up by the government. I doubt if it is any longer much connected with the nuclear arms industry, although originally it was. If Britain thinks that Sellafield enables it to punch above its weight in international councils, I am sceptical about that.
The British taxpayers are lambs being taken to the slaughter, and quite often they are very passive on this subject. What could £36 billion do for health and education? We need to publicise this to a greater extent. It is a menace to our existence. Let us hope an accident never happens, although we cannot be sure it never will. It is a complete economic nonsense which needs to be exposed. Brussels and the EU Commission, which are always complaining to us about competition, need to be asked why it is that the laws of competition seem to be suspended in the nuclear industry.
I thank the Minister for his attendance and the generous way in which he has presented what has happened and what is to happen on this very contentious issue. I also thank him for accepting the amendment. We met in the afternoon, when I found the Minister very generous and ready in his response on this matter. All sides of the House are united on this debate.
I am a member of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body to which Senator Mansergh referred and chairman of the sub-committee dealing with Sellafield. Maybe I can cast light on how this issue is being viewed by recounting an episode that took place when an eminent British Labour party MP, Mr. MacNamara and I, Deputies Glennon, Morgan and a Conservative MP, a very committed person, were on the sub-committee of which I was chairman. At the next meeting of the sub-committee the title of chairman had gone and I was now called the rapporteur, a vague term which means one reports on matters but is not quite the chairman. I did not want to make a fuss about it as I did not think it was worth it, but I did ask Mr. MacNamara, the British MP, how I had lost my title between one meeting of the committee and the next. He brushed it aside, even though he is an active and likeable person. We have had two meetings and we aim to meet again in Jersey and Guernsey on Sunday and Monday, to examine the management of waste material in small countries. I regard the work of the sub-committee of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body on this matter as a fine example of what can be done.
However, without waving any anti-British flag, I strongly believe Britain wants us all to be quiet about this, as quickly as possible. The intrusion of another voice, which may be discordant from time to time, does not suit their agenda at all. While it is clear the good relationship between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair is wonderful in the context of the North, they do not agree on the plant at Sellafield. We have – correctly – been defiant on this issue from the outset, laying out and pressing our case, which we will continue to do.
I received a telephone call yesterday from a Member of the Norwegian Parliament who will attend the meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body as an observer. The Nordic countries have observer status because of the plant at Sellafield. During our conversation he requested a meeting to discuss the issue and informed me of his intention to come to Dublin with his assistant on Friday week, 11 July. He also told me he understood I was no longer chairman of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, which I found interesting and indicative of the way the wheels turn. I told him he could address me as he liked, that I was deeply involved in the body and that he was most welcome to attend. I will contact the Minister's office requesting a meeting with officials from the Department to discuss the issue. It occurred to me that certain tentacles had spread when a Norwegian MP could be aware of the change in title. He also informed me he was present at the first meeting in Manchester at which I was appointed chairman.
Our approach in asserting our right to oppose the discharge of noxious substances into our waters is correct. I visited the site at Sellafield with Deputy Glennon and Mr. Kevin MacNamara MP, where we were courteously treated. The facility and the implications of the activities taking place there are frightening.
Large countries have clout, oomph and much else. It is easy to say small and large countries are equal. In reality, strident voices are listened to and their concerns addressed. It is interesting the European Union has woken up and is now asking the reason Ireland did not take the matter before it. The strident voices also appear to have got to the European Union. We will, if required, take the matter to the Union and exhaust every avenue open to us to ensure the "For Sale" sign goes up on an empty Sellafield plant. Only when we see such a sign will we know the necessary deed has been done.
A long, difficult and challenging road lies ahead. However, the Minister has got his teeth into the issue, as did the Minister of State in the Department of Public Enterprise during my term of office, Deputy Jacob. The Minister is the first person I have heard pay credit to Deputy Jacob who, as the Minister with full statutory responsibility for the plant at Sellafield, was thorough and relentless in his pursuit of the issue.
The reason I related the tale about my changing status on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body is that I am curious as to who persuaded Mr. MacNamara MP or the officials of that excellent body that I was to be sidestepped into a change of status. Regardless of whether I am chairman or rapporteur, I have got my teeth into this issue and will be glad to work with the Government and the Opposition to press the case. The Minister is a doughty fighter and I am sure will leave his mark on the issue. I hope there will be remarkable change before the Government's term ends.
Sellafield is one of the issues on which Government bashing, which we all enjoy, would achieve little. I have learned during my years in politics that there is little point in it, even though I, like most capable Ministers, enjoy it.
As Members will be aware from my frequent allusions to my profession, I am a chemical engineer. While I am not a nuclear engineer, I am certain there is no such thing as absolute safety. Anybody from Sellafield who comes here professing to be a professional engineer or technical expert and states there is no risk is either being dishonest or betraying his or her profession. There is no such thing as certainty, merely a possibility of minimising risk.
I am not trying to give the House an academic lecture. However, even my first year students know that risk involves two elements, the probability that something might happen and the scale of the damage that would result if it were to happen. It is possible to play games with numbers and put together risk indices by multiplying scale by probability. Obviously, there is high and low risk but one never has zero risk. For this reason, one always examines the risk and makes a judgment as to whether it is acceptable.
What the British Government has done with regard to the site at Sellafield is make a risk judgment about the British people – this is a problem for them and I wish they were more alert – but also about the people of this State without us having any serious input. My promise not to get involved in Government bashing does not extend to a succession of British Governments, which essentially decided that the risks inherent in a project such as that at Sellafield were acceptable.
The likelihood of the plant at Sellafield blowing up, while on the lower end of the scale, is not zero. Any engineer, technician or specialist who pretends the risk is zero is telling lies. He or she will be aware from his or her training that there is no such thing as absolute safety. An evaluation of the risk is, therefore, essential. The first factor to consider in undertaking such an evaluation is that the potential scale of the damage were something to go wrong is enormous. Moreover, in order to believe the risk is minimal, one must also believe, in the light of the likely scale of damage, that the probability of something going wrong is extremely low.
The record of Windscale, the former name of Sellafield, is an eloquent statement which attests to the fact that the British Government recognised the reality that people did not trust the installation. It decision to rename calls to mind the renaming of Asbestos Cement in my home town to Tegral Asbestos when the material went out of fashion.
We do not know what harm the Sellafield plant has done because our methodology for assessing low level environmental damage is still extremely primitive. While I do not wish to claim expertise – some of my colleagues have much greater expertise than me on this issue – in western society we are still not equipped to evaluate low level, long-term risks. The possibility of something major happening at Sellafield aside, the possibility of damage to people from low level radiation emissions from the plant is a second consideration. It is easy to state background radiation or discharges are currently quantity X and will be X divided by ten next year, or that there is no scientific evidence that exposure to radiation at such a level causes any harm.
The only scientific evidence available about the impact of low level radiation derives, tragically, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To my knowledge, at least twice or three times over the last 50 years, the threshold level of radiation deemed to be harmless has had to be reduced as evidence accumulated that people exposed to what were supposed to be safe levels of radiation, post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began to show signs of damage to their physiology, manifested in the appearance of tumours and such like. Given this, the acceptable level of what was regarded as safe radiation dropped.
The second issue concerns not only the level of exposure but also the long-term effects. How can it be said exposure for 40, 50 or 60 years is safe when there is not enough evidence, studies or knowledge? The same could be said of the medium to long-term consequences of incineration, even from the best incinerators, although incineration is on a much lower plane. The medium to long-term consequence of radiation cannot be known. For example, it cannot be known if the reproductive organs of a generation of young people are being slightly affected by exposure to low level radiation. It may be one or two generations before the damage becomes apparent.
Nothing is safe. Therefore, the scale of what is happening at Sellafield is sufficient to justify our campaign. In addition, nobody can say with certainty that exposure to even slightly increased levels of background low level radiation is harmless. It is only 60 years since the first nuclear fission was procured. This is an insufficient time period in which to gather enough information to be certain about the consequences. The wise precaution in such circumstances is to take the classical approach that the risks could be huge. Therefore, the precautions must be proportional to the potential risks. In this instance, the potential risk could be huge. Therefore, the wise approach is to close down the plant.
When I opened the debate, the Minister was not present. Therefore, I join other Members in welcoming him to the House. I thank him for his contribution to what has been a fine debate. It is a tribute to him that he not only presented a very clear argument but that the House also accepted the Opposition amendment. I wish him the best in his future endeavours. He has expressed clear concerns about the future of the Sellafield plant and, like us all, wishes to see it shut down.