Dáil Éireann - Volume 461 - 08 February, 1996
Adjournment Debate. - Sellafield Nuclear Plant.
Ms F. Fitzgerald Ms F. Fitzgerald
 Ms F. Fitzgerald: Sellafield's nuclear operations were shut down yesterday, not as a result of a policy decision and a recognition by the British Government of the serious concerns of this country and of its own citizens about its operation but by the Arctic weather which has gripped Britain. I will look forward to the day, and it will come, when a Member of this House can welcome the permanent closure of Sellafield.
Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant is just over 100 miles to the east of this country. Its safety record is poor and poses a serious and continuing threat to the health and safety of Irish people. The site contains four ageing Magnox reactors built in 1956 and they have exceeded their expected design by 20 years.
The most recent incident at Sellafield is the third such incident at British nuclear plants about which the Government has been notified this year. The most recent incident was just a few days ago. Is the Minister satisfied with the quality and quantity of information being made available to him by the British authorities and the UK Government on these recent incidents? If not, what action can the Minister take, at the very least, to have high quality information available on which he can assess the seriousness of the threat posed by these incidents? Will the Minister outline the range of legal actions which the Government intends to take to force this issue on to the agenda at international and European level in order to raise standards in the plant and ensure as much transparency as possible? What steps have been taken to seek to amend and update the EURATOM treaties to take account of the concerns of non-nuclear jurisdictions sharing land or maritime borders which countries operating nuclear power and reprocessing plants to include stringent regulations for decommissioning nuclear facilities?
Recently, THORP reprocessing plant was opened on the site thus increasing  the traffic of radioactive waste on the Irish Sea. This, allied to the recent revelation of the dumping of radioactive waste in the Beaufort Dyke between the north east coast of Ireland and Scotland, raises serious questions about the safety of our seas.
I congratulate the Minister on his action on Nirex Ltd., and the Government's submission at the recent hearing. The possibility of an underground nuclear dump being built virtually on the edge of the Irish Sea raises the most disturbing questions. The transboundary effects of a whole range of these developments is one with which we have to be seriously concerned as we are talking about our children's health. I recognise that the Government task force is one of the most comprehensive and co-ordinated initiatives taken by a Government to date to redress the problems caused by Sellafield and the task it faces cannot be underestimated. It will be a long and slow battle to have our concerns taken seriously, given the fact that if this threat was to be removed, it involves persuading one of the world's major industrial nations to forego a quarter of its energy source. It is right that we are concerned and raise questions at the highest level. It is unacceptable that these series of incidents are taking place. I believe that many people in the UK share the concerns I have outlined today.
The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear station almost ten years ago has left an indelible mark on the world. The memory of Chernobyl demonstrates the potential transboundary impact of a major nuclear accident. Chernobyl had many minor accidents before the big one. The consequences of a major incident at Sellafield would be horrific. The risk to health, the risk of environmental contamination and the risks of accidents mean that we must be continually vigilant and active on this question. Will the Minister ensure this issue is a major part of the agenda during our EU Presidency during the latter part of this year.
Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Stagg) Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Stagg)
 Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Stagg): I thank Deputy Fitzgerald for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The incident to which the Deputy refers occurred in the vitrification plant at the Sellafield complex on 2 February 1996. Under the relevant UK nuclear incident procedures, the operators, British Nuclear Fuels, notified the relevant regulatory authorities. In accordance with existing bilateral reporting arrangements, my Department was notified of the incident that afternoon by the UK Department of the Environment. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland was immediately contacted to assess the radiological and health implications of the incident for Ireland, if any.
Based on the information received, the RPII have advised me that the incident had no radiological or health implications for Ireland. There was no release of radioactivity to the environment, however some radioactive material was found within the vitrification plant. This plant is not a nuclear reactor or a reprocessing facility. It is a facility that converts high level liquid radioactive waste into a dry form which is then vitrified in glass. This in turn is stored in stainless steel containers in a purpose built above-ground storage system.
As a precautionary measure the staff involved in the incident were moved to another part of the plant until the situation had been checked and declared stable. I have been informed that all detection and safety procedures worked satisfactorily. Until the International Atomic Energy Agency's eight-point international nuclear event scale, the incident has been classified as level one, that is, an anomaly.
I would stress that this is an initial rating and when the incident has been fully investigated by the regulatory authorities it may possibly be assigned a lower or zero rating. I have asked the British authorities for a report of its on-going investigations into the cause of this latest incident.
 While this particular incident had no environmental implications for Ireland, I want to stress that all such incidents are matters of grave concern to me. This latest incident is yet another addition to the growing list of incidents in British nuclear power stations and it highlights once more the on-going and unacceptable nuclear risk that Ireland faces from Britain's nuclear industry.
In 1995 we were notified of 16 incidents by the British authorities. To date in 1996, my Department has been notified by the British authorities of three incidents — at Heysham in Lancashire, Wylfa in Anglesea and this latest one at Sellafield in Cumbria, all located on the west coast of Britain. The proximity of these installations to the east coast of Ireland and to centres of population here only serves to increase the anxiety felt by the Irish public about each successive incident.
Last Monday, I met with the British Ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, in my office and I expressed my grave concern about this and other recent incidents and about other aspects of the British nuclear industry, including in particular the ongoing pollution of the Irish Sea which is unacceptable; the NIREX proposals for an underground nuclear dump near the Sellafield complex; the continued existence of Magnox reactors which are past their sell-by date and ought to be decommissioned; and my concerns about the safety implications of privatising the British nuclear industry.
I stressed that the Government was firmly opposed to any expansion of the nuclear industry in Britain and in that context I repeated my welcome for the recent decision not to proceed with the commissioning of two new nuclear reactors. I sincerely hope that that decision signifies the beginning of the end of the nuclear industry in Britain. I also raised with the Ambassador the issue of the quality and quantity of information flowing from the UK authorities to Ireland. We have agreed that we will seek to improve the flow of information through the Ireland-UK contact group.
 I am realistic enough to know that the nuclear industry will not close down overnight. It pays a significant role in Britain in terms of power generation and employment. However, the time is now ripe for the British authorities to turn their attention to developing an energy strategy for the future that excludes nuclear power.
In the meantime, this Government remains committed to using every available opportunity, in all appropriate fora, to voice its concerns about the safety aspects of the nuclear industry, to press for the highest possible safety standards to be maintained and to strive to prevent and eliminate radioactive discharges into the marine environment.
The House will be aware of my recent attendance at a planning inquiry in Cumbria into an application by UK Nirex Ltd. to site a rock characterisation facility or rock laboratory near Sellafield.
I took the unprecedented step of personally attending this inquiry in order to emphasise publicly to the British authorities the extent and depth of my concern, and that of the Government and, indeed, of all the Irish people, about the NIREX proposal. I told the public inquiry that I objected to the facility because I saw it as a first step, and indeed a significant pre-commitment, to an eventual underground nuclear waste facility virtually on the edge of the Irish Sea.
Copies of all my full submission to that inquiry are available in the Dáil Library. I have also written directly to the EU Commissioner with responsibility for the environment, to the UK Secretary of State for the Environment and the UK Minister for Energy about the waste facility.
The task force of Ministers which was set up last year has developed a co-ordinated strategy to progress the Government's policy in relation to Sellafield as set out in the Government's policy agreement. A blueprint for action was drawn up to implement the various proposals on Sellafield and the Irish Sea  and action on each commitment is proceeding.
One of the commitments is to reassess legal opinion on the possibility of taking a court case over Sellafield. This is currently being considered by the Attorney General who has been asked to examine all legal possibilities open to the Government to take a case against Sellafield. At the recent public inquiry in Cumbria concerning my objections into the NIREX rock laboratory I set out a number of legal submissions which provide options which we might pursue in other fora if the NIREX appeal is successful. It would be unwise to expand at this time on the detail of these.
Recently in the Supreme Court, counsel for the State supported four Dundalk residents in their action against an appeal by BNFL over the decision of the High Court last year which established the jurisdiction of the Irish courts to hear the substantive case against BNFL.
Although the Government and the Attorney General are named as co-defendants in the substantive case our support of them in the appeal process clearly illustrates the Government's commitment to do all in its power to eliminate the threat posed by Sellafield and THORP.
My Department is also making available to the Dundalk plaintiffs, on a voluntary basis, its files and documentation concerning Sellafield and other related aspects relevant to the Dundalk plaintiffs' substantive case.
In a separate move, a diplomatic offensive is being undertaken by Irish embassies in countries that send or are contemplating sending nuclear waste to the THORP plant at Sellafield for reprocessing with a view to dissuading them from doing so.
The Deputy has raised the matter of the EURATOM Treaty. The Government's policy agreement, A Government of Renewal, set out the Government's commitment to seeking and amendment and updating of Euratom. This is being pursued in the context of the intergovernmental conference which  will consider amendments to the treaties.
In June, 1994, a reflection group was established by the European Council with the aim of preparing for the intergovernmental conference to be held in 1996. The reflection group presented its report to the EU Heads of State and Government in December 1995 and Ireland succeeded in having a reference to strengthening the health and safety provisions of the Euratom Treaty included in the report.
Any amendment to the Euratom treaty will require the unanimous agreement of all member states. Such unanimity will be difficult to achieve given the opposition of certain member states to any review of Euratom and given the significant dependence of almost half the member states on the use of nuclear power for electricity generation and security of energy supply. Also, while Ireland has rejected the nuclear option, some member states see it as a cheap and environmentally friendly way of generating electricity, particularly in the context of CO2 abatement strategy.
Notwithstanding the obvious institutional and substantive difficulties facing us in seeking to have the Euratom treaty amended, I will continue the effort to have the Government's concerns about the safety of nuclear power taken seriously by our European Union partners with a view to having improvements to the health and safety provisions of Euratom debated by the intergovernmental conference. I will also continue to take all practical steps in relevant international fora to highlight our concerns. These positive steps are clear evidence of my commitment to action, and not just words, against Sellafield and the British nuclear industry which have implications for the Irish people.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Joe Jacob
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Kenneally was selected to raise a matter on the Adjournment. I understand, however, that the Deputy is unavoidably absent. He wishes to extend his  apologies to the House, the Minister and the Department concerned.
Dáil Éireann 461 Adjournment Debate. Sellafield Nuclear Plant.