Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:10 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to introduce Second Stage of the Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. The Bill has two main objectives: to provide for the dissolution of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, and transfer its functions to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA; and to introduce the necessary statutory provisions to enable Ireland to ratify the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, CPPNM.

The Bill also provides for the updating of certain fines under the Radiological Protection Acts, updates the definition of "ionising radiation" to the latest international standard and makes provisions to enable the RPII and the EPA to hold radioactive substances or irradiating apparatus, necessary for the fulfilment of their functions, without requiring a licence.

As part of the comprehensive spending review of all areas of public expenditure, the programme for Government includes a policy of reducing the number of State agencies. A Government decision of 15 November 2011 provided for the rationalisation of 48 State bodies and agencies, and the critical review of 46 other bodies by the end of June 2012. The merger of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, was considered as part of this critical review process. Following completion of the critical review in October 2012, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced that the EPA and the RPII were to merge, with a target date of summer 2014 for the merger. To meet this target, enabling legislation needs to be in place before the summer recess. I want to place on the record that there will be no diminution in the functions of either agency, or of the levels of service provided by them, arising from this merger. In fact, the synergies and greater linkages between environmental and radiological functions will enhance the capacity of both organisations.

It was concluded that the most efficient and economic means of merging the two bodies was to dissolve one and transfer all its functions, staff and assets to the other, rather than to dissolve both and create a completely new entity. This approach requires significantly simpler legislation, less cost and less potential disruption to service delivery. Accordingly, it was decided to dissolve the RPII and transfer its functions, powers, staff and assets to the EPA, as the larger of the two organisations. The merger will take the following approach which is reflected in the Bill. First, on a day appointed by ministerial order, the RPII will be dissolved and its functions, powers and staff will transfer to the EPA. It will become the Office of Radiological Protection within the agency, headed up by a director, taking the number of offices in the agency to five. The other four offices are environmental enforcement; climate, licensing, research and resource use; environmental assessment; and communications and corporate services. The Bill will make the necessary repeals and amendments to all relevant enactments and statutory instruments to ensure the EPA has the requisite powers to assume the radiological protection role. In this regard, all current functions of the RPII become functions of the EPA from the date of transfer.

The second principal objective of the Bill is to enable Ireland to ratify the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, CPPNM. The convention was signed in March 1980 and included all EU member states as signatories. Ireland ratified the convention in September 1991, the terms of the treaty being provided for through the Radiological Protection Act 1991. The convention required that the international community affords certain levels of physical protection to nuclear materials, including during international transportation. The CPPNM established a framework for co-operation among states that are party to it for the protection, recovery and return of stolen nuclear material. It also set out a range of serious criminal offences involving the misappropriation or harmful use of nuclear material which participating states were to make punishable in national law or for which offenders could be subject to extradition.

In July 2005, the states that are party to the CPPNM agreed the text of an amending treaty to strengthen its provisions, primarily by extending the provisions to require ratifying states to protect nuclear facilities and materials in peaceful domestic use, storage and transport. It also provides for extended co-operation between and among states to enable rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material and to mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage. The original CPPNM required that states introduce a series of offences relating to nuclear materials. These included unlawfully obtaining or demanding nuclear materials or using or threatening to use such materials in a manner that would cause death or serious injury to a person or substantial damage to property. The 2005 amendment to the CPPNM extends the range of criminal offences to include also offences relating to sabotage of nuclear facilities; smuggling of nuclear materials; or facilitating, conspiring or directing offences that could lead to deliberate, malicious and dangerous dispersal of nuclear materials or release of radiation from a nuclear facility. It also requires ratifying states to make it an offence to engage in any deliberate activity that releases radioactive materials, or radiation through the sabotage of a nuclear facility, in a manner that causes significant harm to the environment.

This amending treaty, when ratified, will create the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities, CPPNMNF. It is an important milestone in international efforts to improve the physical protection of nuclear material and facilities. It is regarded internationally as being significant for nuclear security and is expected to have a major impact in reducing the vulnerability of states to nuclear terrorism. It also increases nuclear security internationally by requiring common high standards of physical protection of nuclear material and facilities, requires parties to the convention to introduce a range of offences to prevent acts of terrorism involving nuclear material or against nuclear facilities, and allows for international co-operation to meet such threats.

Dr. Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, expressed the strong hope that Ireland would ratify the treaty soon, as it requires 96 ratifying nations to enable it to come into force. Ireland has committed to ratifying the amendment as soon as possible. Ireland has been a key driver of non-proliferation since the 1960s. The then Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, was the first minister to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, review conference called on all states parties to the CPPNM to ratify the amendment to the convention as soon as possible. It is important that Ireland does so to maintain our good standing as a state party to the NPT and at the IAEA.

Ratification of the CPPNMNF is also regarded by the EU as a key element of Europe's nuclear security policy. At present, 26 of the 28 EU member states have ratified the treaty, with Italy very close to concluding its own ratification process. However, the EU, through the Euratom treaty, cannot ratify the treaty until all 28 member states have ratified it first. In this context, our EU partners have also communicated their concern to us that Ireland ratifies the amendment at the earliest possible juncture. However, this ratification cannot take place until the necessary primary legislation is passed. As such, it is important that the enabling legislation to allow this ratification to take place is enacted, similar to the merger provisions, before the summer recess.

The Bill is divided into five Parts and one Schedule. Part 1 contains three sections. Section 1 sets the Short Title of the Bill. Section 2 defines the use of key terms and phrases. Section 3 allows for the repeal of sections of the Radiological Protection Act 1991.

Part 2 contains 12 sections providing for the dissolution of the RPII and the transfer of its functions, powers, staff and assets to the EPA. These are standard legal provisions necessary to ensure the smooth transition of the merger.

Part 3 makes various technical amendments to legislation to ensure the EPA can continue to carry out all the functions of the RPII without interruption after the RPII is dissolved, and to provide the EPA with the necessary functional authority to do so. It consists of 16 sections and is divided into three chapters. The first chapter makes the necessary amendments to the Radiological Protection Act 1991, the 1991 Act. The second chapter amends the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, the EPA Act, and the third chapter amends other relevant legislation and statutory instruments.

Part 4 contains 9 sections which make the necessary statutory provisions to enable Ireland to ratify the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM.

Part 5 contains 4 sections and outlines a number of miscellaneous provisions updating the definition of ionising radiation and making certain licensing exemptions for the RPII and the EPA to hold radioactive substances and devices necessary to carry out their functions.

The Schedule to the Bill incorporates the text of the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM.

This is an important Bill which should be enacted without undue delay. In part, it is a technical Bill that allows for the merger of the RPII and the EPA as required to meet the Government's agency rationalisation objective. The Bill also seeks to put in place the necessary legal provisions for Ireland to be able to ratify the amendment to the CPPNM. This is an important convention in terms of international nuclear security and to mitigate the potential for nuclear terrorist acts.

It is important that we live up to the standards we have always held on nuclear matters by meeting our responsibilities regarding this convention. If not, we risk undermining our position and the reputation we have developed over the past 40 years as champions of international nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation. I commend the Bill to the House.

3:25 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach agus go n-éirí leis sna laethanta amach romhainn.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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This is important legislation that the Minister of State has brought to the House and I wish to make a number of observations on it. As the Minister of State pointed out, there are two aspects to the Bill. I will start with the second one he mentioned, which is to enable us to ratify the 2005 amendment to the International Atomic Energy Agency Convention on the physical protection of nuclear material. That was a very important convention. The Minister of State did not provide in his address an explanation for why we are the second last of the 28 countries to ratify the convention, and that we needed urging from the other 26 EU countries that have already ratified it. That gives rise to questions. I note that in general we are slow to ratify various conventions we support. That seems to illustrate a lacuna in various Departments in terms of dealing with the conventions as we endorse and agree them and then move on with the necessary legislation so that they can be properly enacted and ratified. I suggest to the Minister of State that is something all Departments should consider. Could he elucidate for us in this instance how the situation arises, in particular given-----

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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It got lost in Newbridge.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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-----that we were very strong on this issue for the past 40 years? As the Minister of State outlined, we were one of the countries that championed this area of precaution. Could he comment also on nuclear waste and how it is affected by the ratification of the conventions? A debate has ensued for many decades on the disposal of nuclear waste, much of which is discharged at sea. The nefarious effects of such waste last for thousands of years and therefore is in itself a considerable environmental hazard. There has been much discussion about waste from Sellafield that has been dumped in the Irish Sea. I would be interested to hear the benefit or otherwise the convention has for environmental protection in terms of nuclear waste, as distinct from nuclear material itself. The threat of nuclear fallout and ensuing radiological poisoning is a dreadful vista for this country. It is important that we continue to guard against any such possibility and that we prepare to deal with it adequately. I recall controversy some years ago on our preparedness to deal with nuclear fallout. In replying to Second Stage, it would be interesting to hear the Minister of State’s observations on the steps we now have in place to ensure public safety.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Iodine tablets.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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That is correct. The Minister of State remembers the incident as well. I listened to the interview at the time. It illustrated the point that we often feel secure on the basis of being in a state of blissful ignorance rather than by virtue of any great precautionary measures that are in place to protect us. I would welcome a comment in that regard.

The programme for Government, and in particular Fine Gael’s five-point plan, made a great virtue of the abolition of 105 State agencies. The Minister of State indicated that 46 agencies have been abolished to date. My information is that 45 have been abolished due to mergers. The corollary is that 33 new quangos have been created during the lifetime of the Government. Some like Uisce Éireann are monster quangos. The net effect is a reduction of approximately a dozen quangos. I strongly supported the abolition of quangos. I would like to see greater emphasis placed on such an approach as quangos are very costly. I note that the propensity of the Government has been to merge quangos rather than abolish them. There might well be good reasons in certain instances for that but one of the difficulties with merging quangos is that the attendant costs of the quangos continue, albeit under a different and larger budget umbrella. Given the fiscal crisis, I would have thought eradicating the costs in some instances would have been an attractive target to achieve. The Minister of State’s observations would be welcome on Committee Stage, which I understand we will have tomorrow.

I note that the Minister of State indicated that the merger of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, are complementary. However, in many ways that is not the case. The RPII was specifically set up to protect individuals from the harmful effects of radon gas and to examine the health implications whereas the role of the EPA is to protect against the degradation of the environment by human activities. They are two different objectives.

I understand that any analysis carried out prior to the decision being taken showed no meaningful benefit would be derived from such a merger. The Minister of State could correct me if I am wrong. While I do not object to mergers in principle, anything we do in that regard places emphasis on the benefit to be derived from a higher public awareness of the dangers of radon gas. The RPII was particularly good in that regard and created such an essential awareness in terms of public health. I would not welcome any dilution of its power. The name of the organisation - the RPII - is important and I have tabled an amendment so that it is reflected in the organisation following the merger.

How it functions within the organisation is also very important and it needs a statutory underpinning. Those are issues that we can deal with on Committee Stage.

3:35 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The Bill will enable Ireland to ratify the 2005 amendment. The previous speaker asked the Minister of State why it took so long; nine years is a long time. Ireland is one of only two EU countries yet to ratify it. However, in 2013 more than 60 countries had ratified the amendment and a total of 96 ratifications are required before it enters into force. I have also read that two thirds of the countries need to be signed up before it becomes effective. So although only two EU countries remain to ratify it, it needs another 36 before it enters into force. I ask the Minister of State to comment on that. Even though only two EU countries remain, will we be waiting for the other 34 non-EU countries before it comes into force in Europe?

The overall purpose of the Bill is to comply with international obligations as laid down. In addition, it will enable the dissolution of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, and the transfer all of its functions to the EPA, decided as a part of the Government's programme. The Bill also makes a number of technical amendments to the Radiological Protection Act 1991 regarding licensing and the Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. It also provides for the establishment of contingency plans and quality assurance measures by the RPII, updates fines specified in the 1991 Act and amends the definition of ionising radiation.

As we know there are no nuclear power plants in Ireland but we need to ensure we comply with all international and national best practice relating to nuclear research on other islands. There are many radioactive substances, and certain substances used in medicine, while highly radioactive in some cases, are not nuclear materials. While Ireland is not a nuclear country, we have nuclear and radiological protection legislation in place, as every country has to have, principally in the form of the Radiological Protection Act 1991, as amended.

With both agencies being merged, as the Minister of State has said it will not lose any of its importance. Obviously the funding that was in both agencies will be transferred to the merged agency. The accounts will need to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas within six months and a report from both agencies is to be provided to the Minister within 12 months. We will obviously need to keep an eye out when they are laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas because sometimes things get laid and while we get notification through the Order Paper, it is up to us to keep an eye out.

I acknowledge the work and expertise of the staff of the institute and commend them on what they have been doing in the many years since it was established to protect citizens from the harmful effects of ionising radiation. They have many other responsibilities too numerous to outline in detail. Radiation can occur in the environment, our homes, educational facilities, and industrial and commercial areas. Radiation can be utilised in positive ways, as we know from X-rays and other medical applications which are essential in everyday life. At the same time, it is important that we know and recognise the risks of radiation to the general population and human health. That is why it is most important for State agencies - either individual or merged - to ensure they do their duty. The State agencies are there to licence and monitor the use of radiation in the health sector, industry and commerce, and education.

Part 2 makes provision for the dissolution of the board and as the Minister of State has said a lot about that, I will not go into it again. Section 9 outlines provisions relating to liability for loss arising before the dissolution day which is a very important part from the aspect of the Comptroller and Auditor General. All accounts are to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. In the transfer of staff we always ensure that the rights, duties and obligations will transfer from the individual agency to the merged agency.

The Department published an initial regulatory impact assessment for the aspects of the Bill relating to the ratification of the CPPNMNF - it is nearly easier to say it in its long form. Following publication of the initial RIA, there was a consultation phase. A final RIA was anticipated after responses to the consultation were reviewed. I just looked at the website and there were no submissions received from the public consultation phase and the RIA as drafted was left as it was. This will also benefit Ireland by helping to reduce the risk of criminal or terrorist activity and ensure we all feel safer in travel in homes in our country and in other jurisdictions that we deal with.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has appealed to all members to ratify the amendment as soon as possible. As Ireland has been consistently supportive of any improvements to international nuclear security, by not ratifying the amendment, our position would be contradicted and our international negotiating power in future nuclear safety discussions could be diminished. Other countries will have to look into ratification of the amendment and see how long down the road it will be.

Even though it is not part of the Bill another aspect of environmental protection that is a very important responsibility of the RPII is naturally occurring radon. It is an issue close to my heart. It occurs naturally all around us, but is most prevalent in the south east. I have heard recent reports that indicate we have the highest incidence in Europe. We know there is work to be done on that. I congratulate the RPII on the work it has been doing in educating the public and the tests that were done and working with the local authorities there. I want to ensure and stress that this work will continue when the RPII is amalgamated into the EPA. It is a concern that has been raised with me on many occasions and, as I said, I am also doing some work on it.

I welcome the strategy that was published in February. It is important and it has to be done. I am looking forward to the Minister of State outlining why it took us so long.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to the House. Both the RPII and EPA are established, well-known and autonomous organisations. Senator Keane and I are both members of the Oireachtas committee that heard evidence from various stakeholders including the chairman of the RPII, Professor Reville. There is a need for mergers and amalgamations, but I believe the Government has been overzealous at times, particularly in my own area of interest, the arts, where the amalgamation of the National Library and National Museum are inexplicably bound for merger for no other reason than perceived saving of money. I believe that certain payments are due to a member of the board of a Government organisation, particularly if that person is giving his or her own time and making available his or her expertise to that board.

My sense relating to the RPII and the EPA is the merger is purely for cost reasons. There are technical issues relating to the ratification of a treaty but the aim of the merger seems to be to save around €80,000, which is roughly the cost of the fees of the chairman and directors. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland is based in Dublin but if the Bill is passed and this merger proceeds there will be additional costs because the EPA is based in Wexford. Unless every member of the board based in Wexford is appointed there will be significant mileage costs. Was a cost-benefit analysis carried out on this merger? I can see no reason other than cost behind this merger but the saving is actually minimal.

Members of this House may know I am very concerned about the possible use of nuclear energy in the current global energy crisis. As recently as March 2013, the Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK, Ed Davey, granted a development consent in respect of a 3,268 MW nuclear power plant development at Hinkley Point, Somerset. This is around 150 miles from the densely populated east coast of Ireland. The facility will be as close to many Irish people as to UK residents. For many Irish citizens nuclear power facilities cause serious concerns regarding risk to health, the environment and the economy. Essential industries such as fishing, agriculture, food and tourism are affected.

This House need not be reminded of the long-standing concerns and the documented record of accidents and discharges into the Irish Sea arising from the UK's nuclear facility at Windscale, which was rebranded as Sellafield. Relatively recent disasters at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island also come to mind. Despite these legitimate concerns and the pro-active stance taken by previous Irish administrations on securing access to Sellafield for Irish nuclear specialists, it appears there has been a fundamental failure in consultations between the UK and Ireland on the trans-boundary effect of the Hinkley Point development. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, was in this House when I previously raised this issue as an adjournment matter and he said there had been consultations between the two Governments. However, there is a transboundary screening exercise report and it does not mention an EU member state regarding a possible accidental nuclear discharge. It seems the document is the reason the UK Government decided not to consult with the Irish Government and, more importantly, the Irish public. Glasgow was consulted regarding its geographical relationship with Hinkley Point in Somerset but not Dublin or Wexford.

My point is that the RPII is a very important part of all this. It issued in 2013 a very detailed report on all issues relating to nuclear power and its relationship with Ireland, including the threat of nuclear discharge. Some will argue that there is a one in 33 million chance of a nuclear discharge incident at, say, Wylfa power station in Anglesey, which is only 100 km from the east coast Ireland, but the impact could be huge. People would be advised to stay indoors as much as possible during the passage of the plume, which takes between 24 and 48 hours. There would be food controls and changes in farming practices to ensure long-term radiation doses from contaminated food would not reach levels that could increase cancer risk to the population.

I am not trying to use scare tactics but my argument comes back to the naming of this new organisation. The word "radiological" should be included in its name. The Minister's Department has much experience of creating names for organisations. Keeping the EPA without including the word "radiological" suggests our citizens will not feel protected and informed. It is a branding issue and Senator Keane alluded to the report issued today by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland on radiation doses received by the Irish population. If it had been published by the EPA there would have been a sense of obfuscation and people would have wondered whether it actually addressed the same topic. I will support the amendments on Committee Stage that seek to rename the new organisation as it should be simple to include words such as "radiological protection". Perhaps the EPA could be changed to the environmental and radiological protection agency, ERPA. I seek branding that will give an optical reassurance that the Government is looking after its citizens. I ask the Minister to include the word "radiological" and to examine this matter on Committee and Report Stages.

3:45 pm

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to the House. The two parts of this legislation make sense but I have some points to make. Rationalisation can make sense not only in terms of costs but by bringing organisations together to improve output. I sympathise with the previous speaker on his fears as to whether this legislation could dilute the role of the RPII by merging it with the. However, I am also concerned about the role of the EPA generally and I will speak on that issue later today in other business before the House.

The role of the RPII is very important, especially for people in my part of the country around County Tipperary. The Minister of State will be aware that levels of radon in Tipperary are among the highest in the country. Radon detection is a very important function of the RPII as Ireland experiences up to 250 deaths each year as a result of radon and this rate is higher than average annual road deaths. More money should be spent on this issue to ensure safety and to ensure people in Tipperary and counties around the south east are not exposed to high levels of radon gas. Last week a house in Tipperary experienced radon exposure ten times the acceptable level. Last year some 1,200 homes around the country were tested and it was found that 25 houses experienced radon gas at ten times the acceptable level. Such work would not be possible were it not for the RPII. It is important to ensure that this work continues and that it increases when the RPII merges with the EPA.

The Government's policy on mergers and rationalisations was trumpeted when the Government first began. As I said, many of those mergers and rationalisations were necessary to cut costs and make organisations more effective. It remains to be seen whether the merger of the RPII and the EPA will prove to make the resulting organisation more effective.

Some time ago many of the functions of the EPA were carried out at local authority level.

Many of them were different functions and were not carried out as well as they should have been. We did decide to set up the EPA through legislation in 1992 and we have seen how that has grown and what its role has been. I am prepared to wait and see. Those who complain about the job of the RPII being subsumed and being given less importance have a good point. It is up to the Government and the EPA to prove that it remains relevant and does not lose its identity in the bigger context of the EPA.

The second part of the Bill is extremely important. It brings us into line with most other EU member states. It was lying on the shelf since 2004, as Senator Walsh said.

3:55 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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It was there since 2005.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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We can only be responsible for the time that we have been in government. I commend the Minister of State for bringing this legislation forward and ensuring that we are signatories to this agreement, which moves it along the road for us. Eventually it will be signed and become an effective treaty, whereby we will have better checks and balances for nuclear energy and waste.
People of Senator Mac Conghail’s vintage and my own have been concerned about this since the protest at Carnsore Point. That was a little bit after Senator Walsh’s time. We were concerned that there might be a nuclear energy plant there. In our youth we protested to ensure that it did not happen. There were whispers that a similar plant might appear in Carlow when the sugar factory closed down but that concept died fairly quickly thanks to the common sense on the part of the people of Carlow and the public representatives in the area. It is important that we play our part in ensuring that everything to do with nuclear energy and waste is policed and is kept in proper order so that we do not endanger this country or others. I look forward to both parts of the Bill passing through the House. There are several amendments tabled for Committee Stage and I expect that the Minister of State will address them fully because some of them are good amendments which need to be debated before the legislation is passed.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State and wish him a fair wind as the ship of his political career navigates the waters in the days ahead.
This Bill is very welcome and, as the Minister of State has said, it does several useful and important things, it provides for the merger of the RPII and the EPA, and provides the enabling legislative framework to allow this State ratify the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. It is important that all the states of the EU ratify it before the EU can ratify it. It is necessary to do important work in the protection of nuclear facilities and materials and peaceful domestic use. That may not apply in this country. It also provides for extended cooperation between member states to enable measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, which is a frightening thought and is important for the prevention of terrorism. There are other measures in the Bill, such as the definition of ionising radiation and so on.
Fianna Fáil, with my support, has tabled some amendments. Like others, I have received communication from the RPII. I recall hearing of its good work when in my student days I attended a lecture by its former chief executive officer, CEO, Dr. Tom O’Flaherty, who explained the phenomenon of radon, how it works and the danger it poses. In recent days we have heard from Professor William Reville. Great credit is due to him. Many people know of him through reading his excellent columns in The Irish Times. He does a very important job in making science comprehensible and accessible. That was part of his job in University College Cork. His is a voice of sanity and clarity in bringing issues to the surface.
He is concerned about the name of the new merged entity and the need to make the RPII more visible. The RPII has been calling for statutory underpinning of the new office for radiological protection. Those are very reasonable issues to raise. We must take the source of these recommendations seriously, the RPII and its chairman, Professor Reville. In his briefing he tells us that the board had only minimal success in having its views incorporated into the provisions of the new Bill. It is the Government’s prerogative, backed up by the Civil Service, to prepare legislation and propose it in these Houses but I am nonetheless surprised to learn that the RPII believes its recommendations have had only minimal success.
Others have talked about radon. We heard this morning that Ireland had only slightly increased levels of radiation. When we think of radiation we think of the nuclear fall-out zone but of course most radiation occurs naturally. A total of 7% comes naturally or artificially from food. Some comes from beneficial medical treatments. It is surprising to some that when we discuss lung cancer the focus is on tobacco but approximately 13% of lung cancer cases are caused by radon. There is a synergistic connection between radon gas and the incidence of lung cancer caused by tobacco smoke. Radon is a worrying phenomenon because it occurs naturally coming from the degradation of uranium far below the ground. The differential pressure between indoors and outdoors makes a build-up of noxious radon gas in houses possible.
It is important to underpin the work of the RPII and its successor office within the new merged entity. As Senator Walsh pointed out there is a difference between the two roles. The RPII has worked to protect people from environmental harm while the EPA works to protect the environment from being degraded by human activities. Professor Reville, on behalf of the RPII, tells us that though the union of these entities has been described as a merger it is better characterised as an incorporation or takeover of the RPII by the EPA. I do not think that is complimentary language. When the idea of a merger between the two was first mooted the board of the RPII considered the matter and decided it was not in favour of a merger. There was already sensible cooperation and synergy between the RPII and the EPA. He says he can see no significant advantage in the proposed merger, only disadvantages, even hazards. He asks how the independent scientific advice the RPII is required to provide to Government can continue if it is to be part of a combined organisation. He does rightly acknowledge the prerogative of Government to make arrangements in these matters. Despite misgivings it has worked with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, to facilitate arrangements to ensure the administration of radiological protection will continue.

I would like to know why the RPII is reporting that it has had no more than minimal success. The two key issues it is raising are the need for the name of the new body to reflect the work of the RPII - it is proposing "environmental and radiological protection agency" as a name - and the need for statutory underpinning whereby the office of radiological protection is established in the primary legislation setting up this new body.

I would like to conclude by asking the Minister about the national radon control strategy. It has been reported that the strategy recommends that vendors of houses should be required to provide information about radon levels in buildings to prospective potential purchasers. We have seen that some aspects of the new building regulations are posing unnecessary difficulties for people building or proposing to build houses on their own land using direct labour. The principle behind this proposal is the protection of future purchasers. Can the Minister of State give us an update on whether the vendors of houses are required, or will be required in the future, to provide information about radon levels to potential purchasers of their houses?

4:05 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I hope he will not be fretting too much over the next 24 or 48 hours. I am sure he will get the call. My main knowledge of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, which this Bill proposes to merge with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, comes from its reports on the threat posed by releases of radioactive material from the Sellafield nuclear facility into the Irish Sea. In 2009, after conducting a survey of over 500 people, the RPII issued a report which concluded that levels of radioactivity in the Irish Sea were low and did not represent a significant level of threat. That conflicts with many people's perception that radiation from Sellafield is dangerous and is responsible for cancer. A report produced by the RPII in 2002, after it was given access to the plant and allowed to conduct its own examinations, was far more critical of Sellafield. It concluded that the quantity of radioactive material held in storage tanks was so high that it would represent a severe risk to people at a far distance from the plant if an accident were to happen there.

Despite its acceptance of a study that found no link between the occurrence of Down's syndrome in the Louth area and emissions from Sellafield, in 2001 the RPII insisted that Sellafield remained a danger due to the levels of radioactivity in the Irish Sea and the risk of an accident. It is clear that this State still needs to have the capacity to monitor the levels of radioactivity emanating from Sellafield. I hope this remains the case when the merger of the RPII and the EPA takes place. The need for such capacity was illustrated earlier this year when Sellafield claimed that higher levels of radioactivity around the plant were caused by naturally occurring background radon, rather than anything concerning the operation of the nuclear facility. It is clear from the past that we cannot rely on such self-monitoring and that, therefore, we need our own agency. The RPII has conducted other research into artificial and naturally occurring radioactivity. In 2008, it found that levels of exposure among Irish people were much higher than the global average. While some of that is due to the accident at Chernobyl and the proximity of Sellafield, much of it is connected to high levels of radon in the atmosphere here. The RPII has emphasised that radon continues to be an important concern and that its current work must continue when it is merged with the EPA.

I note that the RPII is opposed to being amalgamated with the EPA. Perhaps the Minister of State might address that point. Its chief concern appears to be that radiological protection will not have the same priority. I understand it is requesting that a reference to its functions should be included in the EPA's name. It also wants the radiological protection office within the EPA to have a statutory basis or footing. I welcome section 12 of the Bill, which provides that all the staff of the RPII will be transferred to the EPA with the same pay and terms of employment. I hope the RPII's concerns regarding the need for a continued focus on the importance of monitoring any radiological threat will be noted. Section 23 states that "radiological protection expertise" will be a consideration in the appointment of directors of the EPA. Perhaps that should be amended to provide that at least one of the five directors of the EPA, as expanded by section 21 of this Bill, will be someone with this kind of expertise and background. The same thing applies to the provision in section 25 for appointments to the EPA advisory committee, which should also contain someone with such expertise.

It appears that an office of radiological protection is to be established within the EPA. The RPII is concerned that the functions of this office might change over the course of time. For that reason, it would like it to be established under this Bill to ensure it will concentrate solely on issues which have been the responsibility of the RPII until now. One of the RPII's priorities has been the monitoring of natural radioactivity caused by radon. It is vital that this work continues, given the high levels of radiation detected here. As I have said, these levels are well above the international average. It is believed that this is in large part as a consequence of radon. Radon is the second highest cause of lung cancer in this country. It causes 250 deaths per year. As the RPII has pointed out, this is higher than the average number of road fatalities but nothing like the same level of importance or preventative programming is being devoted to it. On the basis of its research, the RPII advised homes and places of work on the level of risk and the measures that can be put in place to reduce that risk. It is vital that this research work continues. I would argue strongly in favour of strengthening the references in the Bill to an office dedicated within the EPA to radiological protection.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad he is present. In recent times, we have seen him frequently with the hat he has been wearing. I hope we will see more of him in times to come when he is wearing another hat. He has an interest in science, as we are all aware. I have a real concern that almost every time anybody mentions anything new in science here, somebody says we must not touch it. People argue that we should not have anything to do with genetically modified organisms or hydraulic fracturing, for example. I say that in the presence of Senator Mullen, who is a strong advocate of making sure we do not have fracking even though it has solved many problems around the world. It is being pursued in Europe and the US with very few difficulties. There has been the odd difficulty. We should not knock everything.

The same thing applies to nuclear energy. We should have a discussion on it. We should make sure we discuss it. The only time it is mentioned is when people are talking about Sellafield and the Irish Sea. France, which went nuclear 40 years ago, has no problems in this area now. It is not worried about oil coming from eastern countries like Ukraine and Russia because it does not need to import any oil. There have been no nuclear problems in France.

I mention all of this because I know the Minister of State wears a science hat. I would love to see us becoming much more enthused about science. Given that Dublin was the city of science two years ago, this country should be setting standards and saying, "We have done things here and we can do things in the future".

Why is Ireland the 27th of the 28 EU member states to ratify the 2005 amendment? While I am not blaming any person or any party when I ask that question, it seems that these Houses are very slow to get things done. As someone who comes from a different background, I wonder why it takes so long for things to happen here.

I was delighted to hear Frank Aiken being mentioned this evening. He was a friend of my father. He led the way as Minister for External Affairs, as the position was known at the time. He was the first person to do many things.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I will do my best to reply in as comprehensive a fashion as I can to the various points that have been raised.

It has been suggested that the potential exists for expertise to be lost as a result of this measure. I assure the House that this will not happen. All of the inspectors and scientific and administrative staff of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland will transfer to the Environmental Protection Agency. It is important to state for the record that they will continue in their current roles after the merger.

In addition, arrangements have been made to provide that the chief executive officer of the RPII, Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, will become a fifth director of the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, for a transitional period up to 30 April 2016 to ensure there is no loss of corporate memory and help radiological protection functions bed down in the newly merged organisation. The chairman should be assured on that point.

All staff of the RPII will transfer to the EPA and their statutory terms and conditions of employment, pay and superannuation will be protected. For professional staff, there will be some additional benefits. For example, radiological inspectors will gain additional legal protections while undertaking bona fides duties relating to the radiological protection functions of the agency that they do not currently possesses in the EPA. There will be certain additional statutory terms and conditions under the 1992 Environmental Protection Agency Act which will apply to staff transferring there which will include the requirement to declare any relevant interests they may have and a prohibition on running for local government office while still serving as an RPII staff member.

Everyone agrees on the dangers of nuclear waste and its effect on the environment. We have been implementing a radioactive material source reduction programme over the past several years which has involved several Departments and agencies. The number of sources of relevant radioactive waste has been reduced from some 3,300 to just over 100.

The provision of independent scientific advice on radiological matters will still exist in law. The EPA will be obliged to provide this function. All the necessary expertise will transfer to the EPA to do so.

Will this legislation allow Ireland to ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, CPPNM? The Attorney General’s office has provided comprehensive advice and instructions as to how the amendment to the CPPNM requires to be incorporated into Irish law so that we may ratify it. All of these elements either have been included in existing legislation or will be provided for by the enactment of this Bill. Other aspects to the CPPNM will be given effect after Ireland ratifies it and the amending convention comes into operation.

The irony of Senator Walsh raising the point about this not being ratified between 2005 and 2011 is not lost on me. I accept the point was made in good faith.

4:15 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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It is an official issue. That is why I raised it. I do not expect a Minister to be examining it but officials employed in Departments to be taking these initiatives.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I do not know necessarily agree with that. Ministers have policy responsibility for their Departments. On our watch, we are moving to ratify that. Ireland signed the original amendment in 2005 and we strongly support the convention. The then Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in consultation with the then Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Foreign Affairs, considered there was a possibility of ratifying the treaty without the need for legislation. The Attorney General then advised that legislative changes would be necessary to ratify the amendment, however. Initially, it was proposed to piggyback the CPPNM amendments on legislation from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ratify the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The Department of Justice, however, decided not to proceed with this legislation at that time. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government then commenced the process of drafting a memorandum for government with the general scheme for the legislation at the end of 2012. There was a delay of some months because we were waiting to receive observations on the memorandum. It was decided to draft the legislation to merge the EPA and the RPII because it would not have been appropriate to have two Bills going through the Houses at the same time amending the same legislation. It was decided to combine the merger Bill with that to incorporate the terms of the CPPNM.

I sympathise with Senator Denis Landy’s point on the merger’s impact on the national radon control strategy. I hail from Mallow which has one of the highest incidences of radon in the country. The control strategy was prepared by an interagency group and published in February this year, setting out 48 recommendations with the ultimate aim of reducing the number of radon-related lung cancer cases from 250 per annum. Successful implementation of the strategy will require action from a range of Departments, public bodies and other stakeholders. A co-ordination group, chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, has been established to monitor implementation of the strategy which will report annually on progress. In 2018, at the end of the four years covered by the action plan, it will make recommendations to the Government on what further actions it considers necessary. The comprehensive action plan which is being implemented will not be adversely affected by this merger. I understand Senator Cáit Keane is preparing a Bill to implement the recommendations of the national radon control strategy and has been in contact with the Minister in this respect.

Senator Mac Conghail raised the RPII’s monitoring of UK nuclear power plants. There is a mechanism by which we monitor Sellafield which this legislation will not change. He also referred to other specific nuclear sites and their proximity to Ireland which the Government should also monitor. There are open-ended engagements with the UK Government on all nuclear-related matters which the Department has worked on in recent years. This will continue and the merger of the two bodies will in no way lessen the high level of scrutiny applied to the Sellafield issue. A visit by the Department, EPA and RPII representatives to the Sellafield site is being arranged. Whether it can be expanded to include other sites can be discussed at another stage.

The aim of the Government’s agency rationalisation programme is to reduce the number of State bodies while integrating their roles and responsibilities with those of other existing bodies. There is no intention whatsoever to diminish the functions or role of either agency. Any reasonable assessment of this legislation will acknowledge that. It is envisaged that there would be costs savings of up to €260,000 per annum from 2016 onwards while there are other savings in the intervening period in staff efficiencies of €100,000 per annum. Further workforce planning, including a review of structures, roles and responsibilities, will be completed later this year.

That will further clarify and identify future needs and capacities as well as scope for further efficiencies.

4:25 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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We under pressure for time. My apologies. I know you want to give answers but I have been advised on the time. I will let you finish.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Senator Mullen raised the issue of conveyancing. Conveyancing data to inform purchasers in respect of radon levels is one of the 48 recommendations of the national radon control strategy. As I said earlier, the co-ordination group is monitoring the implementation of the NRCS and it will be making recommendations to Government. I do not have the exact timeframe for that but perhaps we can come back to Senator Mullen on the matter before the end of this legislative process.

I thank the Members for their expressions of good wishes as well.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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Thank you, Minister of State. We wish you all the best.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 10 July 2014.