Dáil Éireann - Volume 454 - 22 June, 1995

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Transport of Nuclear Weapons.

22. Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for the Marine the action, if any, he intends to take in view of the transportation of nuclear weapons through the Irish Sea, sailing very close to the Irish coastline exposing Irish people to a serious nuclear threat; and if he will protest in the strongest terms possible to the British Government in this regard. [11508/95]

Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gilmore): It is a firm objective of Government policy to bring about a situation whereby it will no longer be possible for nuclear material and nuclear weapons to be transported through the Irish Sea. We are pursuing this objective through all avenues available to us. It will be appreciated that [1892] these matters are regulated by international obligations. In order to achieve our objective we need to get the support of other contracting parties to these conventions.

On the specific matter of the transportation of nuclear weapons we have taken a very strong line. We have written to the UK authorities informing them that the recent reports on the movements of nuclear weapons by the military through the Irish Sea are a matter of serious public concern in Ireland and that such movements present difficulties for the Irish Government. The initial response from the UK is that they no longer deploy nuclear weapons on board Her Majesty's ships but that such weapons may be transported by sea. They further state that shipments do not take place outside UK territorial waters, that safety is of paramount importance wherever nuclear weapons are concerned and that it is long-standing policy of UK Governments neither to confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons at particular times and locations.

Warships, naval auxiliaries or other ships owned and operated by a state and used solely on that state's non-commercial service are normally exempt from international conventions regulating marine transport, maritime safety and protection of the marine environment. However, contracting states to those conventions are asked to ensure that exempted ships act in a manner consistent, a far as is reasonable and practicable, with the international conventions.

Under existing international law warships have a right of innocent passage without notification through the territorial waters of any state. Entry of foreign warships into Irish ports is a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Pending enactment of future international law it is Government policy to refuse entry if the vessel is carrying nuclear weapons or the visit is part of a naval exercise.

My concerns on the movement of nuclear weapons through the Irish Sea are threefold. The transport of such materials through the Irish Sea which is [1893] a narrow, semi enclosed sea with densely populated areas in its environs, poses a threat to the safety of people living in these areas and to the marine environment generally. The extent and nature of the risks posed by such transport demand advance notification of the transiting of ships carrying nuclear weapons or other hazardous materials so that early warning systems can be put in place to deal with possible marine emergencies in the event of an accident or collision. The increasing traffic in the Irish Sea shipping lane is also a concern because of the increased possibility of accidents.

I have taken a number of steps in this matter. In keeping with the objective to ensure the highest standards of safety of life at sea, safety of navigation and protection of the marine environment the Department has been participating actively in ongoing discussions on these topics at international level. In 1993 the International Maritime Organisation adopted the Code for the Safe Carriage of Irradiated Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium an High-Level Radioactive Wastes in Flasks on Board Ships (the INF Code). The code regulates the construction, equipment and operation of ships engaged in the carriage of such substances.

The Department has consistently argued that a range of complementary measures must be incorported in the code. These measures include route planning, notification, restriction and exclusion of certain routes and emergency response plan. Our efforts in this respect, for which we have support from other small coastal states, will continue. The subject is on the agenda of the upcoming meeting of the marine environment protection committee, a sub-committee of the International Maritime Organisation.

More recently the Department participated in International Maritime Organisation discussions on the introduction of mandatory reporting and ships' routing systems for vessels carrying hazardous cargoes. The former will come into force internationally on 1 [1894] January 1996; the later on 1 January 1997.

As I said our proposed strategy is to bring about a situation whereby it will be no longer possible for nuclear materials and nuclear weapons to be transported through the Irish Sea.

Mr. D. Ahern: Question No. 46 in my name is similar to this question but it refers to nuclear waste. Is the Minister aware that warheads were transported on the Kinterberry through the Irish Sea? Those warheads previously were moved on land but on this occasion they were transported by sea. Was the Minister's Department notified in this regard? If we are told in advance is there any way we can monitor this activity and, in the event we are not told, how can it be monitored?

To return to my Question No. 46 on nuclear waste, what has been the result of the task force's deliberations on Sellafield-THORP? I understand from the reply to my recent parliamentary question that the task force met on two occasions but has it come to any conclusion on the transport of nuclear waste through the Irish Sea to a place such as Sellafield? What progress has the task force made?

Mr. Gilmore: It was my intention to reply separately to the Deputy's question. On the question of the transport of warheads on the Kinterberry, the subject of Deputy Sargent's question, my Department was not notified of the intention to transport nuclear warheads through the Irish Sea, neither was the Irish Marine Emergency Service nor, as far as I am aware, any other Department of State. We contacted the UK authorities and made it clear that we were opposed to such movement, that it caused particular public concern in Ireland and posed a number of difficulties for the Irish Government.

The movement of materials through seas is governed by international conventions. We have commenced the process whereby it is our intention through [1895] the International Maritime Organisation to seek routing procedures which would exclude the Irish Sea as a sea through which either nuclear warheads, nuclear waste or nuclear material of any kind may be transported. We are pursuing that matter through the International Maritime Organisation.

The Government has established an interdepartmental committee to co-ordinate the efforts of the various Departments which have an involvement in the Sellafield issue. As Deputy Dermot Ahern is aware, that involves the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications, the Radiological Protection Institute, the Departments of Foreign Affairs, the Environment and the Marine. The committee has met and has made its report to Government. It is continuing to meet to co-ordinate the efforts by the various Departments in pursuit of Government policy on the issue of Sellafield.

Mr. D. Ahern: Does the Minister accept that those with their hands on the levers of power in Britain have treated this country in a cavalier fashion? I repeat the remark I made on the commissioning of THORP the day after the signing of the Joint Declaration. Would the Minister accept that the British Government has again treated this State in a cavalier fashion in that it did not notify us as a friendly neighbouring State of the fact that very hazardous material was being transported through the Irish Sea?

Why was the British Ambassador not contacted by our Government to let her and the Government of which she is a representative know of the extreme disquiet of this nation at the way we have been treated in this regard? Given that I asked this of the Taoiseach the other day but he declined to answer, will the Minister say what progress has been made as to the setting up of an intergovernmental conference on the Irish Sea, something we on this side of the House would agree with? It seems nothing is being done in that regard. [1896] That is particularly regrettable given that this material was transported up the Irish Sea in the past couple of weeks.

Mr. Gilmore: The Government is extremely unhappy that we were not notified of the movement of this material. When we contacted the UK authorities they told us it is not their practice to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board ships at sea. The movement of ships through the sea is governed by international convention, and the approach we are taking is to use those international conventions to seek a regime whereby the Irish Sea will be excluded from the movement of nuclear materials. That will take some time and effort and will require the support of other contracting parties to the various conventions. We have also sought to have the INF code included in two EU directives which, in relation to shipments, would require advance notification of the movement of materials which are governed by the INF code which would include nuclear waste.

On the question of an intergovernmental conference, there is an intergovernmental co-ordinating group which was established by the Governments of the two countries, the Departments of the Environment and the Marine on this side and the Department of the Environment on the UK side, which has been conducting a study on the Irish Sea. It has produced two reports already and its final report is due to be published shortly. It is our intention to use that report as the basis for the future management of the Irish Sea.

Mr. D. Ahern: I asked about the calling in of the British Ambassador. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment.

Mr. Gilmore: The British Ambassador was not called in but a very strong protest was made by us in regard to this matter.

Mr. D. Ahern: What was the [1897] response? Was any undertaking given that it would not happen again?

Mr. Gilmore: I responded to that in the earlier part of my reply. I will repeat it if I may. The initial response from the UK is that they no longer deploy nuclear weapons on board Her Majesty's ships but that such weapons may be transported by sea, they further state that shipments do not take place outside UK territorial waters, that safety is of paramount importance wherever nuclear weapons are concerned and that it is long-standing policy of UK Governments neither to confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons at particular times and locations.

Mr. D. Ahern: We do not matter.