Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Nuclear Power Plants
I welcome the Minster, Deputy Hogan, and appreciate his attendance at this hour of the evening. On 19 March 2013, only four weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK, Mr. Edward Davey, MP, granted development consent in respect of a 3,260 MW nuclear power plant development at Hinkley Point, Somerset, in the UK. This is approximately 150 miles from Ireland and our most densely populated east coast. This facility will be as close to many Irish people as it will be to many UK residents. For many Irish citizens, nuclear power facilities cause serious concern regarding risks for health, the environment and the economy, and in particular for the fishing, agriculture, food and tourism industries, which are essential indigenous industries on which Ireland relies.
The Seanad need not be reminded of the long-standing concerns and issues and the documented record of accidents and discharges into the Irish Sea from the UK's nuclear facility at Sellafield, as well as the recent disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Despite these legitimate concerns and the proactive stance taken by previous Irish Governments in regard to securing access to Sellafield by Irish nuclear specialists, there appears to have been a fundamental failure in consultation between the UK and Ireland on the transboundary effects of this development, and a failure to involve Ireland and the Irish public in the consultation process essential to the decision-making process.
The documents publicly available make it clear that both the applicant energy company and the UK Government believe that nothing will go wrong and, consequently, there will be no transboundary effects on Ireland. This five-page document, known as a regulation 24 screening document, outlines some of the concerns I am bringing to the Minister's attention. For example, the document deals only with geographical area concerned; the distance to any other EEA member state is not specified and there has no been no scoping exercise outside of the UK. Any assessment of magnitude is not included in this document and neither are questions of frequency and duration. This screening document appears to be the basis on which the UK Government decided not to consult with the Irish Government or, more importantly, the Irish public. Glasgow was consulted about its geographical relationship with Hinkley Point but not Dublin, Wexford or the Minister's constituency. As I said, the distance to the east coast of Ireland is 150-odd miles, so I consider this to be a serious matter.
I would like to know whether the Irish Government was consulted on this decision. It is my contention that the Oireachtas and the Irish public should have been consulted according to the Aarhus convention. If the Irish Government knew about this development, why was the Irish public not consulted?
The second issue is more important and urgent. Does the Minister not consider we should do something about this? What is the intention of the Government and what is its responsibility to consult and inform the Irish public about the terrible and worrying situation regarding the development of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant? Will the Government seek a judicial review, which has to be submitted by 29 April? It is four weeks since we found out about this and it is a very tight deadline. Perhaps the Minister can suggest other channels by which the Government can communicate its view on this issue, particularly with regard to representing the Irish public's view. How can the Oireachtas and the people of Ireland assist the Government in perhaps making a complaint to the European Commission or making an application for interim measures or other actions with the European Court of Justice?
All of us - those in the Oireachtas and all other Irish citizens - need to be fully briefed and informed and do everything we can to stop this development, which will take place over approximately 65 hectares. The fact that the Irish public has not been consulted is deeply worrying and possibly illegal. We now have an opportunity to examine the decision and to prevent the nuclear development from proceeding, but we have very little time.
The Government of Ireland and its people have long been concerned about the potential impacts on Ireland, including the Irish Sea, from nuclear activities in the United Kingdom. Although Ireland does not have a nuclear power industry, it is Ireland's position that where a State chooses either to develop a nuclear power industry or, in this case, to consider expanding its existing nuclear power industry, this must always be done in accordance with the highest international standards with respect to safety and environmental protection. Ireland's priority is the safety of the Irish people and the protection of our environment, including the shared marine environment of the Irish Sea.
The UK announced and published its draft energy national policy statement in November 2009, which signalled the UK's intention to construct ten new nuclear power stations at sites judged as potentially suitable. This was subsequently revised in October 2010, when the number of planned stations was reduced to eight, following the dropping of two sites originally proposed for Cumbria, near the existing Sellafield facility.
It is incorrect to state there was no consultation with the Irish Government, and I will set out why this is the case. Since the original announcement by the UK, we have written twice at ministerial level to the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change outlining concerns about the potential environmental impacts on Ireland and on the Irish Sea. The key issues of concern raised in those letters include the assessments by the UK of effects on the environment, management of radioactive waste and the rationale underpinning the proposed justification decision for new nuclear facilities. The engagement with the UK at ministerial level has also been supported and informed by a continuing dialogue at official level under which Irish officials engage and raise concerns, where appropriate, with UK officials involved in the development and implementation of the plans. In parallel, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, given its statutory advisory role to the Government, was asked to carry out an assessment of the potential radiological impacts on Ireland from the programme of new nuclear power plants in the UK, including the plant at Hinkley Point. Therefore, I am doing something at expert and agency level to ensure the safety of the Irish people in this respect.
The RPII assessment considers both routine operations and a range of postulated accident scenarios at the plants. The assessment is being finalised and I expect to receive it very shortly. It will then be published and the RPII will provide briefings for interested parties, so the Senator may wish to receive a briefing. This assessment will be of considerable assistance to Ireland in quantifying scientifically the risk profile to Ireland arising from each of the UK nuclear new-build facilities, including the facility at Hinkley Point. This will enable Ireland to engage constructively with UK authorities to continue to ensure that the interests of Ireland are strongly represented.
As well as regular engagement as official level, the RPII has been heavily involved in monitoring UK nuclear activities and advising my Department, and will also be responsible for monitoring the effects of day-to-day operations of any new facilities on Ireland, particularly on the Irish Sea.
It should be noted that under the EURATOM treaty, the United Kingdom was required to satisfy the European Commission that the development at Hinkley Point would not result in the radioactive contamination of the water, soil or airspace of another member state. In that context, a Commission opinion, issued in February 2012, considered that in normal operating conditions discharges of liquid and gaseous radioactive effluents were not likely to result in exposure of the population of another member state, which is significant from the point of view of health.
It is my intention that the improved engagement between Ireland and the United Kingdom on nuclear matters will continue. This will ensure the Government and the people will be in a position to be properly informed of radiation developments in the United Kingdom of interest to them, as well as conveying concerns or issues arising directly to the relevant UK authorities.
I thank the Minister for offering a briefing. I am not clear on whether the Government was briefed about the particular decision of 19 March to develop at Hinkley Point. The Minister has mentioned the RPII's assessment, but at what point was this made public? There seems to be an onus under the Aarhus Convention and the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context to also consult the public. We have very little time in concluding this issue because 29 March is the deadline set for that decision. I want to be precise about this.
There is no point in making people aware of it until such time as a scientific and technical assessment is carried out on my behalf by the relevant agency - the RPII. The agency has been engaged with the UK authorities for a long time and raised the issues I have outlined.
The RPII has been engaged constantly at official level since and carried out its own studies of these matters, which is why I offered the Senator a briefing when matters were concluded. There is no point in coming to conclusions without first doing the homework on the science or making an assessment of the facility to establish if there is a danger. If there is, the Government will be proactive in bringing these matters to the attention of the UK authorities.