Seanad Éireann - Volume 158 - 03 March, 1999
Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: Motion.
Mrs. Doyle Mrs. Doyle
Mrs. Doyle: I move:
That, in view of the diplomatic opportunity that has arisen to reduce global nuclear risks following Germany's new policy on nuclear fuel reprocessing, Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to act as a facilitator and to call together the stakeholders – Germany, France, Britain and Russia (CIS) – to explore and negotiate the cessation of reprocessing and its replacement with a nuclear cleanup programme, in the interest of international security, public health and the environment.
Ireland is a major diplomatic player in reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons and has longstanding concerns about nuclear fuel reprocessing at Sellafield. I support the view that we should now consider a new diplomatic opportunity to reduce global nuclear risks. The opportunity was created in mid-January when the German Government announced its plan to end the reprocessing of Germany's spent nuclear fuel in France and Britain after December 1999. That announcement triggered angry protests and legal threats from the French and British Governments and their reprocessing companies COGEMA and British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Two weeks later, in response to these threats and pressure from the German nuclear industry, Chancellor Schröder modified Germany's position. Germany remains committed to ending reprocessing but over some longer period.
German reprocessing contracts are said to be worth US$5.3 billion to COGEMA and US$2 billion to BNFL. Cancellation of the German contracts would be a major economic blow to COGEMA and BNFL and could end their reprocessing operations. The economic viability of those operations has already been questioned and reprocessing is highly controversial for other reasons. Thus, France and Britain have at best obtained a reprieve for an unpopular activity with an unpromising future.
Viewed from a broader perspective the new diplomatic situation holds the potential for what has been described by Dr. Gordon Thompson from the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Massachusetts as a grand bargain that would benefit Britain, France and Germany, both reprocessing companies and many other parties around the world. Ireland could play an important facilitating role. This is the point of our motion tonight. I ask the Minister of State to initiate Ireland's role as a facilitator in the diplomatic opportunity that has opened up before us because of the German position on reprocessing.
In the grand bargain described by Dr. Gordon Thompson, Germany, France and Britain would agree to stop reprocessing, to initiate a vigorous programme of nuclear clean-up in Russia and elsewhere, and would involve other nations in the bargain. These actions would enhance international security and provide lucrative new busi ness for COGEMA and BNFL. Rather than take on these commercial interests and demand that they stop nuclear reprocessing which is in our interest we are offering them an alternative commercial outlet to justify our request that they stop nuclear reprocessing.
Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is a chemical process that separates plutonium from the fuel. Initially reprocessing's sole purpose was to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Later, reprocessing became a commercial activity, separating plutonium that was intended as a fuel for fast breeder reactors. In the 1980s it became apparent that the breeder reactor programmes had collapsed and that reprocessing no longer had a purpose. It continued because of institutional inertia and is producing many tonnes of separated plutonium that has no economic use. Britain's Royal Society expressed concern in a 1998 report about the nuclear proliferation and public health risks posed by the world's growing stock of separated plutonium.
While reprocessing has been a major part of their business, COGEMA and BNFL have also acquired capabilities in managing radioactive wastes and decommissioning nuclear facilities. These capabilities provide a basis for future business that does not pose a risk to the environment, public health or international security. Indeed, the application of these capabilities in Russia could make a major positive contribution to international security.
Russia is experiencing a political and economic transition that has brought hardship and insecurity to most of its citizens. This transition could threaten international security in several ways, of which two deserve special mention. First, budget shortages and social disruption in Russia could lead to diversion of nuclear weapons materials, technology or expertise from the many nuclear facilities that were established during the Cold War. Second, poverty, economic disorder and national humiliation could feed a reactionary body politic with militaristic tendencies. Rich industrialised nations have a major interest in preventing such outcomes in Russia and the CIS states.
The United States, western Europe and Japan responded to the nuclear diversion problem by sponsoring programmes in Russia that dismantle nuclear weapons, redirect weapon scientists to alternative employment and reduce the risk that nuclear weapons, materials or technology will be diverted. These programmes, and related programmes focused on chemical and biological weapons and have enjoyed some success. President Clinton proposes to increase America's spending in this area to a total of $4.2 billion over the next five years. Yet, many observers believe that a greater effort and a new approach are needed. A particular concern is that the existing programmes have done little to establish self-sustaining commercial enterprises in Russia.
Investments targeted to the nuclear cities and other selected locations might establish a nucleus  of commerce that could spread to other parts of Russia. The United States sponsors a small programme to promote commercial enterprises in Russia's nuclear cities. This programme has long-term promise, but a substantial influx of investment and expertise is needed to prime the pump of commerce in Russia's nuclear cities. Such an influx could be provided by a vigorous programme of nuclear clean-up, implemented through partnerships between Western and Russian companies that are a spin-off from Russia's nuclear sector. The term “nuclear clean-up” refers to the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and the consolidation and storage of radioactive waste that has accumulated over the decades, especially from reprocessing. COGEMA and BNFL are among the world's leading companies in nuclear clean-up work.
Nuclear clean-up is needed in every country that has nuclear technology, but especially where reprocessing has been conducted. Thus, it is fitting that a halt to reprocessing, which we have long since called for in relation to the activities on the Sellafield site, should be linked to a new, vigorous programme of nuclear clean-up. A large part of this programme would occur in Russia whose nuclear facilities have created high levels of radioactive contamination, but accelerated clean-up would occur also in Britain, France and elsewhere. Wherever the work is done, it should be implemented through partnerships between Western and Russian companies. The benefits that would flow to Russia would be matched by Russian obligations to cease their own reprocessing, to properly account for their nuclear materials, to be open and to promote commercial enterprise. At the political level, this arrangement would provide the Russian people with a global role they could be proud of, enhancing international security and protecting the environment.
Some Western sponsored work on nuclear clean-up is now being done in Russia. Britain and France have taken steps to clean up their radioactive contamination. Each year the United States spends approximately $6 billion cleaning up its nuclear weapons complexes. The new programme of nuclear clean-up I propose would dramatically increase the scale of clean-up work in Russia and accelerate clean-up in Britain and France. The programme would be financed, first, from the cost savings that would occur from the end to reprocessing; second, from investments by development banks and Western Governments who would see the programme as a new conduit for promoting economic development in Russia; third, as a part of other programmes that seek to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials, technology and expertise from Russian facilities; fourth, from public funds and a levy on the nuclear industry, in recognition of this generation's responsibility to reduce the burden of radioactive contamination that is handed on to future generations and, fifth, from the redirection of Western funds that would otherwise support  the upgrading of nuclear reactors in the East, an effort whose achievements have been questioned on many occasions.
The proposed grand bargain is simple in concept – reprocessing would stop and a new programme of nuclear clean-up would begin. Execution of the bargain would require considerable planning and negotiation. The negotiations would proceed more smoothly if the parties agreed to set aside issues which are not essential to the bargain and would delay agreement. Three issues of this kind deserve mention: the use of nuclear energy as an electricity source; the burial of radioactive wastes and the disposal of existing stocks of separated plutonium, whether of military or civilian origin. Each of these issues is controversial and divisive, but could be set aside during negotiation of the grand bargain to ensure progress.
The British, French, German and Russian Governments would be central participants in this bargain, but other players would also have central roles. Several western European countries and Japan have reprocessing contracts with BNFL and COGEMA, and would have to accept an end to reprocessing. Japan also performs reprocessing in its own facilities. An end to that reprocessing would be a desirable complement to the proposed grand bargain. The United States does not reprocess, but is a major sponsor of nuclear-related programmes in Russia, and would, therefore, have a central role. Western countries and the international development banks would be major funders of the proposed nuclear clean-up programme. BNFL, COGEMA and other Western nuclear companies would have a major role in executing the clean-up programme, as would a variety of organisations and government agencies in Russia. Governments of smaller countries not directly involved in the bargain, especially Ireland, could play an important role as facilitators of the bargain. Finally, the international community of environmental organisations could play an essential role ensuring that the final bargain is sound and enjoys broad-based support from the public.
In conclusion, Germany's new policy on reprocessing has forced a long overdue reconsideration of the merits of this activity. Britain and France may be able to delay a halt to reprocessing for a few years, but the interests of both nations and their reprocessing companies COGEMA and BNFL would be better served if they participated enthusiastically in the proposed grand bargain which would give them an alternative commercial and economic outlet. A united Europe, working with other partners, could make this bargain an important instrument for enhancing international security, public health and the environment. Ireland, under the guidance of the Minister, could play a crucial early role by convening groups of stakeholders to explore and negotiate the bargain.
 I am indebted to Dr. Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies for his expertise and interest in this particular area.
Mr. O'Dowd Mr. O'Dowd
Mr. O'Dowd: I second the motion and agree with Senator Doyle. The issue of reprocessing and the nuclear industry in general, particularly in western Europe, is of great significance to everyone. I have documentation from Greenpeace and other environmental groups. The STAD group in County Louth have been very active in calling for changes in the nuclear industry. The group, on behalf of the State, has taken a case to the High Court and Supreme Court to gain the right to challenge the British nuclear industry directly in this country. I pay tribute to Senator Doyle who attended a number of conferences in County Louth in connection with the nuclear industry when she was a Minister of State. In her last speech in Drogheda she mentioned that Ireland is an agricultural country and that if our seas and land are contaminated by long-term pollution from Sellafield it could affect our agricultural produce. Given the view of Ireland as a clean and green land and with an intensive agricultural system, it is incumbent on us to insist that the nuclear industry tidies up its act and that the pollution which has been taking place for over half a century ceases. A Greenpeace document reads:
For nearly half a century, Sellafield has been poisoning the Irish Sea with radioactive contamination. Sellafield pumps some 8 million litres of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea each day. The discharges contain up to 40 different radioactive isotopes . . . some of which will remain dangerous contaminants for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years. Sellafield's massive liquid and aerial discharges make the site a potential nuclear accident and Ireland is “down wind”.
That paragraph epitomises the problem we have. I understand there is a Government amendment to the motion. I have not seen it, but I am surprised there is one.
Mrs. A. Doyle Mrs. A. Doyle
Mrs. A. Doyle: We are accepting it. It is innocuous.
Mr. O'Dowd Mr. O'Dowd
Mr. O'Dowd: I will take the Senator's word that it is innocuous.
Mrs. A. Doyle Mrs. A. Doyle
Mrs. A. Doyle: It says the same thing as the motion, though in a different way. That is politics.
Mr. O'Dowd Mr. O'Dowd
Mr. O'Dowd: It is important that Government and Opposition co-operate on a very important issue such as this. Ireland is well placed to act on this matter and successive Governments have been very active in putting our case forward. Senator Doyle's proposal that Ireland take a central role in this area, and we should be at the cutting edge of bringing about change among nations that send their nuclear waste to be reprocessed in the United Kingdom. The recent political change  in Germany has brought about a significant departure in German Government policy. However, I am not quite clear if there has been some pull back on that; what seemed to be the end of reprocessing in Germany was postponed for political reasons. Nevertheless, it shows that there is a mood of change among some parties in Europe. It is up to us as a neutral, non-nuclear country to get into the middle of that argument and to be the agent for change that is needed.
One argument put strongly by BNFL to me about their activities in Sellafield in Cumbria is the fact that there are thousands of people employed there. Their economic commitment to the area, and the massive emphasis on that industry in the UK make it imperative to them, as they see it, to continue. However – and this is where decommissioning the Dounreay plant in Scotland comes into play – the reality is that decommissioning that plant would mean employment for people for hundreds of years. It would create as much employment to decommission Sellafield as currently exists there. The employment argument is one we should use back at BNFL. The only thing that will change BNFL's mind is public opinion from other European countries and the pressure we can bring to bear on them. If the economic argument is made for Dounreay that decommissioning will not affect long-term employment in the region, there is no reason BNFL should not close Sellafield and continue for the hundreds of years necessary to maintain that site. That covers the employment aspect of the argument. If Germany can be persuaded to campaign actively for the end of reprocessing and the end of uranium shipments to the UK, that would be part of our case.
I know the Minister of State has been very active in this area and has taken our points on board. I look forward to the debate on this very important motion. As Senator Doyle said, it is important that we play a core role in this matter.
Mr. L. Fitzgerald Mr. L. Fitzgerald
Mr. L. Fitzgerald: I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “in view of” and substitute the following:
“the changes occurring in the nuclear industry worldwide, Seanad Éireann:
(a)encourages the Government to continue its campaign against Sellafield and nuclear reprocessing and
(b)calls on the Government to support a nuclear clean-up programme which would enhance international security, public health and the environment.”.
As Senator Doyle said, there is perhaps not much difference between the motion and the amendment. However, there is a significant difference to which I, the Minister of State and other Government Senators will wish to advert.
I welcome this debate as I did not have an opportunity to contribute to related debates on this matter before Christmas. There is no doubt  that this is a controversial industry. It poses huge risks, is shrouded in secrecy and poses huge risks to humanity and the environment. The experiences of the industry worldwide, particularly in Chernobyl, and the unenviable situation in Sellafield closer to home, make it imperative that we continue our campaign to close Sellafield and support a nuclear clean-up programme to promote and enhance international security, public health and the environment.
I pay tribute to the efforts and initiatives taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, the meetings he has had with his counterparts in Britain, the exchange of papers with those counterparts and the encouragement he has given both to bodies like the Radiological Protection Institute and to his own officials in their dealings with Britain. Those actions are an effort to achieve our objectives, and I know he has the full support of both Houses as well as the active support of the Taoiseach and the Government.
It is only fair to say that successive Governments and the Minister of State's immediate predecessor have been equally active in trying to oppose the expansion of the nuclear industry. They have constantly sought to have Sellafield closed; that is the position of all political parties, and it has the full endorsement of the public. There is unanimity in relation to most aspects of the nuclear industry.
It is true that there are changes in attitudes to the nuclear industry around the world. There is a greater and growing awareness of the real risk of nuclear power as well as an analysis of the long-term economic value of nuclear power as a source of energy. The German experience has been referred to by the Opposition. Germany has decided to phase out exports of spent fuel to the UK and France. However, the situation in Germany is not as simple as that and to be fair Opposition speakers have said as much. There are internal differences between the majority SDP and the minority Green coalition partners as to the approach to be taken. That must be considered seriously. In addition, the German Government is in negotiations with the German nuclear industry with a view to the ultimate phasing out of nuclear power in Germany. That is very significant, but it should be emphasised that these negotiations are going on at present. As an interested party who wishes to promote discussion, we should be aware that nuclear power meets 30 per cent of Germany's current energy needs. Some people might say “So what?”, but for tactical reasons we should bear this in mind.
The most recent announcement from the German Environment Minister, who is a Green, came on 23 February 1999 and confirmed that the proposed change in nuclear policy would be at a slower pace than anticipated. In these circumstances it would be diplomatically more prudent for countries like Ireland to permit Germany to work out and progress through its internal diffi culties before calling for a meeting of the stakeholders.
There is great potential here and significant winds of change are blowing. However, it would be tactically wrong to move in too soon, as that could do more harm than good. Despite these difficulties we must continue to avail of all opportunities at international fora and with our British counterparts to pursue our campaign against Sellafield and nuclear reprocessing. We must also take every possible initiative to support a nuclear clean-up programme and I know the Minister is doing that.
One of many concerns about Sellafield is the concentration of a range of activities on the site, including the continued use of Magnox reactors beyond their intended life, the safety of which the Minister and the Government rightly do not accept; the accumulation of huge levels of spent fuel on the site, posing serious risk; the backlog of high levels of liquid nuclear waste in storage tanks, which the British assert is safe, but I know neither the Minister nor any Government would accept that assertion; the transport to and from the plant of dangerous materials such as plutonium and radioactive waste and the discharge of radioactive materials into the Irish Sea, which is unacceptable and poses a serious health risk to marine life and consumers thereof. All these activities have implications for Ireland and the concentration of so many activities on one site undoubtedly increases the risk of major accidents. In such circumstances there are obvious international duties and obligations which the British should take into account.
The history of the industry has been cloaked in secrecy and I am delighted that Irish Ministers, including Deputy Jacob, have been to the fore in opening up and obtaining information on the industry. I compliment him for the many meetings he has had at ministerial level, which I mentioned earlier; there have also been meetings between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister. We must pursue a policy of opening up all aspects of the industry to the highest levels of independent scientific inspection, scrutiny and monitoring and this must be our priority in the short to medium term. The national interest of Ireland and all other affected countries warrants nothing less.
The OSPAR ministerial meeting, convened under the OSPAR Convention, was held last July in Lisbon and was an important milestone on the road to greater transparency and accountability. One decision signed up to by the Ministers, including the UK Minister, was the virtual elimination of radiological discharges into the marine environment by 2020. This is a significant development in our campaign against Sellafield and I commend the Minister for his huge input into it, and for the enormous efforts he made to advance the strategy which led to the signing of the agreement.
It is most disappointing but not altogether surprising that, some months later, the UK environ mental agency attempted to evade some of the obligations and duties to which it agreed. I was glad our Minister immediately attacked this shift in position and demanded that these duties and obligations be adhered to, and I am confident that the other signatories to the agreement will be encouraged to demand that the British live up to their responsibilities. To allow them to opt out would be to render meaningless the adherence to such agreements.
In terms of international fora for the promotion of nuclear safety, the coming into force of the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and Radioactive Waste Management are welcome. Both conventions include a peer review process and require member countries to consult neighbouring countries. One of the most aggravating and unacceptable aspects of the development of the nuclear industry is that countries engaged in it solely for selfish economic interest with no regard to the risks posed to neighbouring states, the world at large, humanity and the environment.
Our ultimate objective must be to dismantle the nuclear industry but it is unrealistic to expect we will do that in the short term. In the immediate term, the waste vitrification process at Sellafield should be accelerated and no excuses should be accepted. Magnox reactors must be closed down and discharges into the Irish Sea stopped by 2020 – there can be no derogation from that. I know the Minister, with the full support of the Government and other signatories, will insist that deadline is met.
Mr. Jacob Mr. Jacob
Minister of State at the Department of Public Enterprise (Mr. Jacob): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion tabled by Senator Doyle. This is the third time within a short period that this House has debated nuclear matters. This is welcome and reflects the concerns of Members and their constituents about nuclear safety. The three previous speakers come from the east coast, as do I. While the Government appreciates the spirit in which the motion was tabled, it does not consider its approach to be appropriate. We have, therefore, proposed an amendment to the motion, which I commend to the House.
The House will be aware of the new German Government's announcement last autumn that the nuclear share of its energy supply will be gradually reduced and finally replaced. The achievement of this new policy continues to be the subject of discussions in Germany. In particular, discussions have taken place with the French and British Governments and representatives of the German nuclear industry with regard to that country's spent fuel reprocessing contracts with Britain and France. I understand that in January this year it was agreed at talks between the German Government and industry that reprocessing of Germany's nuclear waste by France and Britain would continue for the time being until suitable alternatives are found.
 Given the evolving situation in Germany, the Irish Government does not feel that the approach suggested in the original motion is correct. The approach adopted by the Irish Government needs to be realistic and should be based on our best assessment of what is likely to achieve success.
The Government fully supports the suggestion that reprocessing should cease and be replaced by nuclear clean-up activities. The nuclear reprocessing companies in Britain and France would appear to have the expertise to undertake such work and, as I understand it, are already involved in such operations. It does not necessarily follow, however, that their participation in a major clean-up programme would be coupled with abandonment of their own reprocessing activities. Such companies may see these activities as an expansion of their existing reprocessing activities.
Germany's decision to begin to phase out nuclear energy is highly significant and the Government has closely monitored the debate there. Over the years, successive Irish Governments have campaigned against nuclear-related activities, particularly with regard to Sellafield. Leaving aside Germany, recent developments, to which I will refer later, suggest that Ireland's diplomatic strategy – which focuses on bilateral contacts with the UK Government as well as approaches at the relevant EU and International fora – is the one best suited to furthering our interests. The Taoiseach indicated recently in the Dáil that, when a suitable opportunity arose, he would raise with Chancellor Schröder the developments in Germany regarding the shipment of Germany's spent fuel to Sellafield.
At this point I will discuss how the nuclear industry has shaped Ireland's current nuclear safety policy. Ireland recognises that over half of its EU partners and many of the major western and eastern industrial nations have opted to use nuclear power for electricity generation. Nuclear power generation commenced in the OECD in the late 1950's when the first reactor began operations at Calder Hall in the UK. Today, nuclear power provides nearly 25 per cent of the electricity supply in OECD countries. The average annual growth rate of nuclear generation in the sixties was about 40 per cent. However, this growth rate slowed to 27 per cent in the seventies, 12 per cent in the eighties, and 3 per cent in the nineties.
The Windscale – now Sellafield – fire and the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl shook Government and public confidence in nuclear energy and brought home to the world nuclear power's potential risk to health and the environment. These incidents also served to highlight public concerns associated with the activities related to nuclear power such as the disposal of nuclear waste; the decommissioning of old plants; spent nuclear fuel reprocessing; the growing stockpile of plutonium and uranium resulting from nuclear reprocessing operations, which adds to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation; the international transport of spent fuel and high  level waste and discharges of radioactive materials into the marine environment.
Ireland is firmly opposed to nuclear energy and has objected to any expansion of the nuclear industry. Over the years the expansion of the Sellafield complex and its nuclear activities have been a cause of concern to Irish Governments. These concerns relate mainly to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield, the storage in liquid form at Sellafield of high level radioactive waste, the ageing Magnox reactors and the ongoing question of radioactive discharges from Sellafield into the aerial and marine environments.
There has been consistent opposition by successive Irish Governments to reprocessing at Sellafield. Reprocessing extracts uranium and plutonium from spent fuel for re-use. In 1993 the Government objected strongly to the proposed establishment of the THORP plant. The Government's view at the time, a view it still holds, was that there were no economic or security benefits arising from the THORP operation which would justify its establishment or outweigh the likely risks to public health and the environment.
Ireland has serious objections to nuclear reprocessing. Reprocessing generates gaseous and liquid radioactive discharges which contaminate the environment and the Irish Sea. The production of plutonium creates an unnecessary risk that this material would be diverted for nuclear weapons production or terrorist activity. There are also safety problems associated with the storage of high level radioactive waste in liquid form, which is a derivative of reprocessing. Nuclear utilities around the world are gradually coming to reject reprocessing as evidenced by the recent decision of the Belgian Government to suspend reprocessing contracts with the La Hague plant in France which were to come into effect next year and also by developments in Germany.
A large part of the original rationale of the nuclear industry in general for reprocessing spent fuel was that plutonium was needed in order to provide the fuel for future fast breeder reactors. However, most of the world's fast breeder research programmes have since collapsed and the expected plutonium demand has not materialised. As a result, the reprocessing industry is separating more plutonium than the nuclear power industry is able to absorb. Sellafield now has a stockpile of plutonium which presents a potential risk to existing and future generations. The existence of such a large stock-pile demonstrates how ill-advised it is to persist with reprocessing.
In common with other like-minded nuclear countries, Ireland actively participates in those international organisations which can shape an improved international safety culture in the use of nuclear power. We believe that the states which have opted for the use of nuclear power have an obligation to ensure that the highest standards of safety and radiological protection are  employed. The Government is committed to giving absolute priority to the promotion of an effective international nuclear safety culture with wide adherence by nuclear states, operators and national regulatory bodies.
In recent years, Ireland has played an active role in the negotiation and conclusion of three new international conventions which will enhance nuclear safety worldwide and which represent the significant international commitment which Ireland and other non-nuclear states have been trying to establish for many years. Ireland was one of the first signatories to the International Convention on Nuclear Safety which was drawn up under the auspices of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. The convention became effective for Ireland on the date of its entry into force in October 1996.
The aim of the Convention on Nuclear Safety is to ensure that all land based civil nuclear installations are safe, well regulated and environmentally sound, to promote a high level of nuclear safety worldwide and to strengthen international co-operation in the field of nuclear safety. We see this convention as a major breakthrough in fostering a global nuclear safety culture and providing a forum for extensive information exchange on nuclear safety matters.
In 1997, Ireland was again among the first signatories to a new Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. This convention places new and extensive obligations on contracting parties such as provisions relating to general safety requirements, siting, design, construction and operation of facilities and the disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste. The convention establishes a “peer review” process similar to that applicable to the Nuclear Safety Convention. A significant feature of the new convention, one which Ireland was active in negotiating, relates to the inclusion within its scope of reprocessing facilities such as those at Sellafield. From an Irish perspective, it will be possible to address public concerns about UK reprocessing facilities, in particular the THORP plant at Sellafield, during peer review meetings.
Another welcome and important development at the international level and something which has a direct bearing on the nuclear fuel reprocessing industry, was the adoption by Ministers at the Oslo and Paris Commission meeting, convened under the OSPAR Convention last July, of a Strategy on Radioactive Substances. This strategy commits the contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention to the virtual elimination of radioactive discharges into the marine environment by the year 2020 and to bring forward plans by the year 2000 on how they propose to meet the objectives of the strategy, which is extremely important. The adoption of the strategy was a vindication by the OSPAR Ministers, including the UK Ministers, of the legitimate concerns expressed by Ireland and certain other countries, particularly Denmark and Norway,  about the effect of such discharges on public health and the environment. Ireland was to the forefront during the development of this strategy in calling for a cessation of these discharges. The strategy is a most positive development in Ireland's campaign against Sellafield and in some quarters, has been interpreted as sounding the death knell for the THORP reprocessing plant.
The adoption of the international conventions to which I referred and the OSPAR strategy are indicative of the emerging recognition, particularly over the last ten years, of the concerns of Governments about the safety, health and environmental implications associated with nuclear-driven energy and its by-products. These initiatives have in no small way been brought about by a concerted diplomatic strategy adopted by Ireland and other countries which, in turn, has brought about an enhancement of the regulatory framework governing the industry and more rigorous international safety standards. They have also engendered an awareness on the part of the Government of changes in the public psyche to which Senators O'Dowd and Avril Doyle referred.
I would like to mention a number of initiatives in the nuclear non-proliferation field which have been strongly supported by Ireland. I refer to the signing in 1996 of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the signing in 1998 of the Protocol to the 1973 Nuclear Safeguards Agreement. The test ban treaty prohibits states from carrying out or participating in the carrying out of a nuclear weapons test explosion or any other nuclear explosion on their territory. The Protocol to the Nuclear Safeguards Agreement is aimed at strengthening the existing agreement to ensure that nuclear materials intended for peaceful purposes are not diverted for military application. Ireland intends to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible to ratify both of these instruments.
Ireland also makes known its concerns at EU level about the nuclear industry and the safety of nuclear facilities. Ireland has consistently taken the line that EU programmes of assistance for third countries, such as the central and eastern European countries and those of the former Soviet Union, should be safely orientated and should not result in any net expansion of the nuclear industry in those countries. Accordingly, the Government is glad to support any nuclear clean-up programmes which would enhance international security, public health and the environment.
In my contribution to the Seanad debate on Sellafield on 10 December last, I detailed the Government's concerns about Sellafield and how they have been made known, both directly to the UK and in the international and EU fora. The Government is fully committed to its campaign against Sellafield and the cessation of all activities there remains a priority. I have been in frequent contact with the relevant UK Ministers to highlight Ireland's concerns and only last Thursday I  had a further meeting with the UK Minister for the Environment, Mr. Michael Meacher, MP. At that meeting I concentrated my efforts on future restrictions of radioactive discharges from Sellafield and my objections to the proposed establishment of the MOX plant.
Governments have never been silent on matters relating to nuclear safety, especially with regard to the UK facilities, and this Government is no different. It is fully committed to its diplomatic campaign to ensure that the risk from Sellafield is minimised and ultimately eliminated.
I am anxious that we pursue our nuclear safety objectives in a realistic fashion, taking account of our best judgment of the likely outcome of any diplomatic initiatives we adopt. Implicit in our approach is the Government's wish to see an end to reprocessing because of the potential hazards involved in this activity. We are also anxious to contribute in any way we can to the promotion of improved safety standards and environmental protection globally. Any initiatives to this end, such as the EU PHARE and TACIS programmes aimed at the central and eastern European countries and the states of the former Soviet Union are actively supported by the Government.
Labhrás Ó Murchú Labhrás Ó Murchú
Labhrás Ó Murchú: The main thrust of the motion and the amendment is much the same. Successive Governments have rightly taken a strong stand against Sellafield. This should continue and there should be a united front on behalf of our people when health and safety considerations, to the extent we are now aware, are at issue, in addition to the environmental dangers.
The UK Commission on Environmental Protection recommended that there would be no further development of the nuclear industry because of the hidden dangers and because there was no safe method of ensuring the containment of nuclear waste for the indefinite future. It is especially regrettable that the British Government did not react to the report of its commission at that time and that over 20 years have been allowed to elapse in the meantime.
Any Irish person being honest about this issue would have to say that the discharges from Sellafield into the Irish Sea are similar, indeed even worse, to setting up a minefield. A friendly nation should not do that to another friendly nation. It is no less than an act of aggression. It is no longer a matter of conjecture or debate what nuclear waste can do to people. There are enough examples in the area of health from various parts of the country to underline this and to confirm that people have suffered. The worst feature of this is that the danger is not immediately apparent. It could be ten, 15 or 20 years before the symptoms show. There is also the grave danger of passing on the effects to future generations.
I welcome the great work by the Minister and the Government, especially with regard to OSPA, the Oslo-Paris Convention, last July. At least it is progress to be able to say that it has been agreed by all Ministers, including UK Ministers, that all  discharges would virtually finish. However, the time span of 20 years is very long to contemplate when one considers the dangers involved.
If economic advantages, which is what Sellafield is about, are placed against the lives and health of people, there is no contest. While I appreciate it is not just a matter of the Government or the Minister demanding a response from the UK Government, we must continue to enlist international support. Such support has been enlisted when areas were threatened by famine, aggression, etc.
Perhaps part of our difficulty is in presenting the precise nature of our problem. It is no longer a theoretical problem, nor is it a problem that any person, academic, professional or lay, believes remains to be solved. We know precisely what is now involved for Ireland. While nobody wishes to create ill will or animosity between our two countries, especially when relationships are so good, more is involved in this instance because there comes a time when a firm stand must be taken, not just on behalf of this generation but for future generations.
Some would suggest that the UK's acceptance that Ireland has a legitimate interest in Sellafield is progress; it is one step in the right direction. However, we need to put pressure on other countries who have used the facilities at Sellafield. In this regard I especially welcome what has happened in Germany; to some extent this was because of the make-up of the coalition Government. The Green Party has made it a priority issue. There is internal political friction, and even though there is an agreed programme of Government in Germany, its implementation is creating difficulties. It is not easy for the German Government to pull the plug in this instance because it has to consult with the nuclear industry.
While all these steps are difficult they must be taken. In the meantime I am expressing outrage from an Irish point of view because, whatever the niceties of Government and the need to bolster economies, there is something much greater at risk for us.
There is also the long-term aspect. Nobody can genuinely say what the future holds regarding the deposit of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea, or anywhere else. The Chernobyl accident sent alarm bells ringing throughout the world. We wondered about the direction of the wind and what it would bring with it.
While there may not be a nuclear accident, there is an ongoing accident with the waste that has already been deposited. We are told it will take thousands of years before it is neutralised, indeed I do not know anybody who can say if it will ever be neutralised. The Irish people will always view it as a potential graveyard.
I accept a clean-up operation is essential. However, the danger is that if people can point to its successes and advantages they may use it as an argument for keeping in place existing reprocessing plants and waste disposal units. We must  be careful here because very big bucks are involved. I doubt if the UK authorities will loosen their grip on this in the near future.
There is a great strength in PR. As well as political negotiations with other friendly states, it would be worth our while to engage in a professional public relations exercise. Nothing could produce a better result than for the people of the UK to put pressure on their Administration. Many of them are naive and ignorant of the dangers. If a debate is held on whether jobs should be created because it could damage the environment, 50 per cent of people will say the environment must be sacrificed because jobs are needed. However, it is not as easy to deal with the nuclear issue in that way. We must educate people in Britain that the danger is greater than job losses and that they must be concerned about the long-term implications.
While I support the amendment, I do not oppose the intention behind the motion. I would like to think we will work together because we feel passionately about this subject. I compliment the Minister and the Government for pursuing this issue. I ask the Minister to take her eye off the year 2020 and to concentrate on the present.
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Mr. Walsh: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Seanad ar ócáid na díospóireachta ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo.
In a previous debate on this issue I mentioned the need for a safety risk assessment, which is the method used to eliminate the frequency and consequences of severe accidents at nuclear installations. I understand a safety assessment was carried out for the UK regulating body but it has not been published. BNFL claimed it was not within its remit to do so. I ask the Minister to use his influence to ensure it is published because the more information in the public domain the better the chances that facilities will be operated safely. It will also create awareness of the risks involved in such installations.
During that debate we also talked about testing the major nuclear accident emergency plan, particularly in light of the year 2000 computer problem. Perhaps the Minister could clarify if that will be done this year. This is important because the fallout from nuclear accidents is horrendous and almost too great to contemplate. Our response to the accident at Chernobyl was inadequate. We should learn valuable lessons from that. While it was a long distance from us, climatic conditions meant we could have been affected more than many countries closer to where the accident occurred.
Ireland has a long and honourable record of involvement in this area. The Minister has taken a keen interest in it and I urge him to continue to use his influence and international standing.
The opportunity to reduce nuclear risks was created in mid-January when the German Government announced its plan to end the reprocessing of Germany's spent nuclear fuel in France  and Britain after December 1999. That announcement triggered angry protests and legal threats from the French and British Governments and their reprocessing companies, COGEMA and British Nuclear Fuels Limited. Two weeks later, in response to these threats and pressure from the German nuclear industry, Chancellor Schröder modified Germany's position. Germany remains committed to ending reprocessing but over a longer period.
German reprocessing contracts are said to be worth $5.3 billion to COGEMA and $2 billion to BNFL. Cancellation of the German contracts would be a major blow to these companies and could end their reprocessing operations. The economic viability of those operations has already been questioned and reprocessing is highly controversial for other reasons. France and Britain have obtained a reprieve for an unpopular activity with an unpromising future.
While reprocessing has been a major part of their business, COGEMA and BNFL have also acquired capabilities in managing radioactive wastes and decommissioning nuclear facilities. These capabilities provide a basis for future business that does not pose a risk to the environment, public health or international security. The application of these capabilities in Russia could make a major positive contribution to international security.
Russia is experiencing a political and economic transition that has brought hardship and insecurity to most of its citizens. This transition could threaten international security in several ways, of which two deserve special mention. First, budget shortages and social disruption in Russia could lead to diversion of nuclear weapons materials, technology or expertise from the many nuclear facilities established during the Cold War. Second, poverty, disorder and national humiliation could feed a reactionary political movement with militaristic tendencies. Rich, industrialised nations have a major interest in protecting such outcomes.
Nuclear clean-up is needed in every country which has used nuclear technology, but especially where reprocessing has been conducted. It is fitting, therefore, that a halt to reprocessing should be linked to a new vigorous programme of nuclear clean-up. A large part of this programme would occur in Russia, whose nuclear facilities have created high levels of radioactive contamination, but accelerated clean-up would also occur in Britain, France and elsewhere. Wherever the work is done, it should be implemented through partnerships between western and Russian companies. The benefits that would flow to Russia would be matched by Russian obligations to cease their own reprocessing, to properly account for their nuclear materials, to be open and to promote commercial enterprise. At the political level, this arrangement would provide the Russian people with a global role of which they could be proud – enhancing international security and protecting the environment.
 Much of the material I used for this debate was written by Mr. Gordon Thompson of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Massachusetts. He has put forward a proposal for a grand bargain which would involve a number of parties coming together to take a global interest in tackling this problem. The British, French, German and Russian Governments would be central participants, but other actors would also have central roles. Several western European countries and Japan have reprocessing contracts with BNFL and COGEMA and would have to accept an end to reprocessing. Japan also performs reprocessing in its own facilities and an end to that reprocessing would be a desirable complement to the grand bargain. The United States does not reprocess but is a major sponsor of nuclear related programmes in Russia and would therefore have a central role.
Western countries and the international development banks would be the major funders of the proposed nuclear clean-up programme. BNFL, COGEMA and other western nuclear companies would have a major role in executing the clean-up programme, as would a variety of organisations and Government agencies in Russia. The international community of environmental organisations could play an essential role in ensuring that the final bargain is sound and enjoys broad based support from the public.
There is all party support for tackling this major environmental problem and risk to world safety. The Minister must be complimented for his interest and efforts in this area. This House urges him to continue his efforts and wishes him well in his endeavours.
Mrs. A. Doyle Mrs. A. Doyle
Mrs. A. Doyle: I thank the Minister and Senators for their contributions this evening. As the Minister said, this is the third time in a few months that we have discussed nuclear matters. This reflects the concerns of most of the electorate and citizens, particularly along the east coast. Calm, reflective and dispassionate debate in peace time is the way to try to progress issues on an all-party basis. There is little, if any, difference between the parties on this issue although there might be different emphases from time to time.
I urge the Minister of State, who has not accepted the motion, to at least not close his mind to the possibility of Ireland having a diplomatic role in a proposed grand bargain at some stage in the future. If I understand the reason for the amendment, the Minister of State believes it would be unwise to interfere at this stage in the German debate on the end of nuclear reprocessing. I do not see an Irish diplomatic role in getting the main players in this area around a table or in facilitating a forum discussion on this issue as an interference. We have no economic interest in the future or otherwise of nuclear reprocessing. Our interest is purely environmental. As such it might be easier for Ireland to bring all parties around the table and to nudge a dis cussion towards a conclusion than it would be for the EU, which comprises countries which have strong economic interests in commercial activities at reprocessing plants.
The proposed redirection of the interests of COGEMA and BNFL towards a structured clean-up programme, particularly in Russia and eastern Europe but also in EU nuclear states, would compensate commercially for the loss of income or downturn in economic activity resulting from a cessation of reprocessing. It is that marriage between the cessation of reprocessing and an increase in commercial clean up activities that is at the heart of the motion before the House.
Dr. Gordon Thompson, who originated the concept of the grand bargain, will address the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport in the near future at a date to be agreed. Until he has heard Dr. Thompson, I ask the Minister of State to keep his mind open to the proposal of a diplomatic initiative from Ireland with regard to getting all the actors in nuclear reprocessing around the table. Dr. Thompson is an expert on this matter and can discuss it in greater detail than I.
The concept that Ireland can play a role as a diplomatic facilitator appeals to me. Ireland has no economic vested interest. Our interests and concerns regarding Sellafield are well known so we have a genuine reason to be present. However, we will not lose money as a result of any proposals which might be made. That gives Ireland a certain legitimacy. Some other European countries would have equal legitimacy in making the same case. However, it is important that the Minister of State keeps his mind open until he hears the case made by Dr. Thompson.
While it is not relevant to tonight's debate, it would be useful to hear the Minister of State's comments on Y2K compliance at nuclear plants in Europe and eastern Europe. This country has a great interest in that issue, as was seen from the impact of the Chernobyl incident. If there were a major problem at the millennium date changeover in terms of the computer compatibility of nuclear plants, there could be serious fallout in every sense – diplomatically and radiocatively – in terms of public health, agriculture, tourism and the marine sector. I am anxious to know what inquiries Ireland is making as to how these countries are ensuring that their plants are Y2K compliant. We have a legitimate right to know that they are prepared.
I cannot agree with Senator Liam Fitzgerald that we should leave Germany to sort out its own problems, which was the substance of his comments. He did not appear to agree with the thrust of my remarks and was supporting the line which had been developed rationally in the Minister of State's speech. It is not necessary to worry about interfering. I do not envisage Ireland telling the nuclear industry that it can or cannot reprocess. I  envisage Ireland undertaking a facilitating role in bringing the parties around the table.
Mr. L. Fitzgerald Mr. L. Fitzgerald
Mr. L. Fitzgerald: That was not what I said; I was talking about tactics.
Mrs. A. Doyle Mrs. A. Doyle
Mrs. A. Doyle: The German Government has a particular dynamic at present due to its coalition arrangement. The initial announcement that it would end reprocessing was followed within two or three weeks by an amendment that it would do so over a longer time scale. We cannot wait indefinitely. Many interests in Germany would support Ireland or another country that had no nuclear economic interest getting the parties around the table to move the expertise in COGEMA and BNFL from reprocessing activities towards clean-up activities.
This is an opportunity for Ireland to put its toe in the water, as it were, and get the main players around the table to seek common ground in moving forward. That is what I seek, not an interference in the German Government's policy on its nuclear industry and reprocessing, which is none of our business.
Senator O'Dowd pointed out that the economic defence will always be offered if Ireland makes a case for closing down Sellafield or THORP. These facilities are defended on the basis of jobs. The advantage of the case made in the motion is that the jobs would remain but they would be in cleaning up nuclear activity rather than in reprocessing. There would not be a great fallout in terms of employment in the economy if the reprocessing facility were to be closed down. Would that a reprocessing facility could be closed down but the economic defence always gets in the way.
Jobs need not be shed and devastation need not be caused in rural economies in Cumbria and elsewhere. The labour need only be redirected towards decommissioning and the clean-up operation. This equally applies to the Dounreay plant in Scotland. There could be as many jobs in decommissioning as in reprocessing, particularly if it were done commercially on an international scale. The expertise is available locally from COGEMA and BNFL. That expertise could be exported for a major nuclear clean-up, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia. The economic defence that a local area could be devastated by the cessation of reprocessing could be countered with the terms of the motion before the House.
The Minister of State rightly referred to the opportunity for peer review particularly under the two nuclear safety conventions. I am not sure that peer review involves OSPAR, but I am subject to correction. Ireland could put a toe in water during those peer reviews, one of which is due around April. Will the Minister of State consider pushing the concept of bringing all parties around the table regardless of whether Ireland or another non-nuclear nation facilitates it? The important point is to encourage all parties to trade the econ omics of nuclear reprocessing for the economics of nuclear clean-up.
That would be in our interest and would be an easier case to sell, particularly with regard to Sellafield. We have legitimate concerns about the operations of BNFL and the British nuclear programme vis-à-vis Irish self-determination in terms of the health and safety of our people and environment.
I thank Senator Walsh for supporting the points I made regarding the views of Dr. Gordon Thompson. I also thank the other Senators who participated in the debate. There is general support on this issue. The political game requires that the motion be amended but there is no major opposition to it so I will not call a vote. There should be all party agreement in how we approach this issue. From a British point of view – or from any other point of view – it should not be seen that it can divide and conquer the Government and Opposition in this country. It is not a party political issue here. We should stand together in terms of our anti-Sellafield views.
The Minister should keep an open mind to the possibility of a diplomatic initiative presented by the change of policy on nuclear reprocessing in Germany. We should offer ourselves as facilitators to get the main players around the table to exchange the economic activity involved in nuclear reprocessing for a nuclear clean up.
Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.
Mr. Farrell Mr. Farrell
Acting Chairman (Mr. Farrell): When is it proposed to sit again?
Mr. Chambers Mr. Chambers
Mr. Chambers: Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.
Seanad Éireann 158 Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: Motion.