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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Nov 1990

Vol. 402 No. 6

Private Members' Business. - Marine Institute Bill, 1989 [Seanad]: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 18:
In page 4, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following subsection:
"(3) The Institute shall have particular responsibilities—
(a) to research the effects on the marine environment of the discharge of radioactive wastes from any source into the Irish Sea, the operation of nuclear generation and reprocessing plants near the Irish Sea and the transportation of nuclear wastes through the Irish Sea.
(b) to monitor the discharge of radioactive wastes from any source into the Irish Sea, the operation of nuclear generation and re-processing plants near the Irish Sea and the transportation of nuclear wastes through the Irish Sea, and
(c) to participate in European initiatives in relation to these functions.".
—(Deputy Gilmore.)

The Minister of State reported progress.

Limerick West): I see no reason for accepting this amendment. What is enshrined in the legislation is sufficient to accommodate what is proposed in the amendment which I oppose.

The Minister has indicated that he is not prepared to accept the amendment. We tried to accommodate all aspects of Deputy Gilmore's amendment in our amendment No. 6. We suggested that the institute be responsible for the fishing industry and merchant marine. It would appear now that the Minister, despite all our protestations, is not prepared to consider the dangers of the dumping of nuclear waste in the Irish Sea. That is a sad reflection on the Bill. That was one of the most important amendments to the Bill. I have outlined the dangers and the institute is the right vehicle to monitor and act on them. Will the Minister indicate if he is prepared to take it on board for Report Stage? However, he is adamant that he is not prepared to accept it and I am sure Deputy Gilmore will have something else to say.

Will Deputy Gilmore indicate if he is anxious that I put the question on his amendment or is there some further contribution he would like to make?

First, I wish to thank the Chair for his generosity in not putting the amendment in my absence. I did not realise we had reached that stage of finality on it. There are two things about the Minister's contribution I would like to take up. The first is that he stated that the intention in the amendment was already dealt with in the Bill. That line of argument has come up a few times today on amendments those of us on this side of the House are trying to advance. The Minister seems to give the impression that they are in some way accommodated in the Bill but clearly that is not the case. I am seeking to give the Marine Institute a specific function. Quite honestly it is as valid to give the Marine Institute a specific function to examine the implications of Sellafield, and other nuclear installations adjacent to the Irish Sea, as it is to give the institute responsibility to organise seminars and lectures which merits a paragraph in the Bill.

The second line of argument which disturbs me somewhat is that it is not really the responsibility of the Minister for the Marine but of the Minister for Energy. Clearly, Sellafield has an impact on the Irish Sea. It is not simply a question of nuclear energy being an issue of concern to the Irish Government. Surely, the Department of the Marine, and the Minister, have responsibility for the Irish Sea and the implications of nuclear waste discharges into the Irish Sea. Is the Minister for the Marine telling us that he does not feel he has a responsibility in this area? There was reference also to the Nuclear Energy Board being the appropriate body to carry out the research but my understanding is that the Nuclear Energy Board will be wound up under the terms of the Radiological Protection Bill. Therefore, there is not much point in asking a body about to be wound up under the terms of another Bill, to do the research I am seeking.

The kind of research on and attention to Sellafield I am seeking is specifically related to marine matters. There has been evidence over the years of radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea. We want to know — and we do not know — the full extent of radioactive pollution of the Irish Sea. It has been described by no less a body than the House of Commons environment committee as the most radioactive sea in the world. That committee can tell us it is the most radioactive sea in the world because they, and the British authorities, have carried out some research on it but the Irish authorities have carried out little or no research on it.

I attended a conference last July on the implications of Sellafield. We were shown maps which indicated the levels of radioactivity on the west coast of Britain and on the coastline of Northern Ireland but there was little or no evidence of radioactivity on the eastern coastline of the Republic of Ireland. That was not because for some reason, like St. Patrick and the saints, radioactivity would not dare touch our coast but simply because we have not established the extent of it. The unfortunate reality is that nobody has established the extent of radioactivity on the Irish coastline. Concerns have been expressed about the implications of radioactivity for fish in the Irish Sea not only in the interests of fish consumers but also in the interests of the fishing community. It is incumbent on the Department of the Marine to see to it that proper research is carried out in that area.

There is a new threat that some of the nuclear waste from Sellafield may be buried in containers in the Irish Sea. We are told they have stopped discharging nuclear waste into the Irish Sea but the big debate in Britain at present is what will they do with the waste after the reprocessing takes place. That issue has not been resolved. There are grave fears that that waste will be disposed of in one form or another in the Irish Sea. We need to have a body with specific responsibility. It is not enough to say that it is the responsibility of the Nuclear Energy Board or the Minister for Energy. The Irish Sea is the responsibility of the Minister for the Marine. I am asking that the Marine Institute, which is essentially a research and development body, be given specific responsibility by the Oireachtas to examine the extent of radioactive pollution, the extent of the threat and to assemble the kind of information which the Irish Attorney General would need if he was going to take a case to Europe. The people on the Government side are as quick as anybody else to call on the British authorities to close down Sellafield but unlike the Walls of Jericho, Sellafield is not going to come tumbling down just because Government Ministers blow their trumpets at it. Indeed the whole issue has probably moved on from that and the question now is what will happen with the reprocessing plant which is due to come into operation in 1992.

This is far too serious an issue for the Minister to say that it is accounted for in the general terms of reference which are being given to the institute under the Bill or that it is being done by the Nuclear Energy Board, who are about to be abolished, the Minister for Energy or somebody else. Does the Minister for the Marine have responsibility for what happens in the Irish Sea or does he not? I believe he has. He should take that responsibility seriously in regard to the threat that Sellafield and other nuclear installations pose for the Irish Sea and give this specific responsibility to the Marine Institute.

The Minister may not have given much consideration to this issue before this debate. I would much prefer him to further reflect on the seriousness of it rather than put this amendment to a vote here this evening. If he is prepared to commit himself to such further reflection obviously I will not put my amendment to a vote. I would be much happier if the Minister would give an undertaking to come back here on Report Stage with at least some concession on this important issue.

I am amazed at the Ministers response to this very important amendment. The facts are that Sellafield and the reprocessing plant which will be in operation by 1992 across the water from us will be the single most serious threat to our environment. These plants will be located in another jurisdiction over which we have no direct control. However the Irish Sea straddles the area between the two countries and I believe the Minister for the Marine has responsibility not only for inland waters but for all the waters around this island. For the Minister to suggest here this evening that it would be inappropriate for him to give the power to the Marine Institute to get involved in any research in this area is just passing the buck and is very unacceptable in the circumstances.

We know the threats that can arise from Sellafield, and which have arisen, and we are not too sure about what will happen in the future. We know that we do not have the scientific analysis and information available to us to enable the Irish Government to put a strong case to the British Government on this issue. It is not enough for a Minister to lodge a protest about the activities in Sellafield to his counterpart in England or to lodge an objection in Europe if he cannot strongly substantiate that case by scientific evidence. The type of evidence available to us at present is extremely limited. It is unacceptable for the Minister to suggest that this is a matter for the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Energy Board. The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Energy, is in the process of disbanding the Nuclear Energy Board.

This Bill proposes the setting up of a marine institute which would be an ideal and suitable body to do the type of work necessary in this area. It is fundamental and very important to us and to people generally that we know what is going on, that information is made available to us so that we can put forward arguments in regard to activities which should not occur. It is vitally important that we are aware of the type of transport used to dispose of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea, that we have accurate details about the amount of waste disposed of, who transports the waste, where it is transported from, the type of vessels in which it is transported and where it is finally disposed of.

We are extremely concerned about the disposal of radioactive waste in the Irish Sea at present but we are not in a position to monitor this activity or get any indication as to what is happening to this waste. This waste will have lethal consequences for Irish people not just in the immediate future but for centuries to come. The seriousness of this problem must be recognised by the Minister and his Department. He cannot shift the responsibility to the Minister for Energy. The Irish Sea is the responsibility of the Minister for the Marine and he must take responsibility for anything that happens in those waters. He must take action and put in place the necessary machinery so that he can establish what the exact position is.

It is both amazing and unacceptable for the Minister to come in here and suggest that the Minister for Energy should take responsibility for this matter. What is the Minister's attitude to waste which may be lying on the floor of the Irish Sea at present? We do not know what waste has been dumped into the Irish Sea, what the extent of any such waste is, or what way the currents are carrying it. The dumping of this waste is totally unacceptable and is extremely serious not just from the point of view of the marine environment but also from the point of view of the physical health of Irish people in the long term.

It is imperative that the Minister for the Marine takes this matter on board. This is an ideal opportunity for him to give clout to the Marine Institute so that they can carry out the necessary research, monitor various activities and be in a position to present the necessary data and information on nuclear activity, nuclear waste, reprocessing and the dumping of these substances in the Irish Sea.

I appeal to the Minister here tonight to reconsider his attitude to this amendment. This is a very serious matter which needs additional consideration. Like Deputy Gilmore, I ask the Minister to reconsider this issue between now and Report Stage to see what action he can take within his Department in terms of including it within the terms of reference of the Marine Institute. I do not think we can wash our hands of this issue in this House tonight. Neither can the Minister wash his hands of it and say it is a matter for another Minister; it is a matter for the Minister for the Marine.

Limerick West): I am afraid I will have to repeat what I have already said as the Deputies opposite have chosen to ignore my previous statement. Radioactivity in the Irish Sea is monitored with the assistance of my Department. The Deputy seems to want me to spell out in detail what the functions of the institute will be. This is never done in any legislation and I do not propose to do so in the case of this legislation either because it would run into pages. If I were to spell out their functions in detail what would happen if it was decided to include a different function in the years ahead? Therefore, the details cannot be spelled out or itemised.

The points raised in Deputy Gilmore's amendment are already included in the legislation. Section 1, the definition section, states that "marine" means of, in, near, concerned with or belonging to the sea and tidal waters, inhabiting, found or got from the sea or from non-tidal waters. It also states that "research and development" includes research into all pure and applied sciences, including economics and social sciences, investigations, tests, experiments, analyses and other studies and the application of science and technology to innovation and development. It will be seen that anything outlined in the amendment is included in the Bill and if I were to accept the amendment it would not add to or enhance the Bill in any way. If I were not satisfied on this point, I would already have accepted the amendment. There is nothing to preclude the institute from carrying out research in any of the areas outlined in the amendment.

The institute can monitor the discharge of radioactive waste from any source into the Irish Sea. They have full powers in that matter. There is no point in spelling out in detail the functions of the institute. All we can do is give broad headlines.

The Minister is really exaggerating. We are not asking that every individual activity of the institute should be spelled out in the legislation. However, it is in order for the Legislature to identify the areas in which the Marine Institute ought to be engaged. During the Second Stage debate there were many speeches about the priorities and the areas which need to be researched by the Marine Institute. There is nothing unreasonable in the Oireachtas identifying a priority of a group of priorities for the Marine Institute. We have a terrible habit in this country of being high on rhetoric on many issues but do nothing about them. Everything from the restoration of the Irish language to closing Sellafield is game for high-minded speech but when it comes to doing something about it there is a reluctance on the part of the Government.

The time of this House is often been taken up with questions, debates and speeches about Sellafield. Every couple of months we discover that there have been new cases of leaks. The whole history of Sellafield has been one of British Nuclear Fuels denying that leaks or discharges have taken place and then, in the face of irrefutable evidence, having to concede it. Every time news of this breaks, another Minister calls on the British Government to close Sellafield. Government backbenchers excel themselves telling us how strongly they feel about Sellafield. I know many of them genuinely hold these views.

Will the Irish Government take Britain to the European Court over Sellafield, as was suggested by the Minister for Energy and his colleagues when they were in Opposition? I have raised this question at Question Time and the answer I have received is that after the Attorney General has considered the matter they have not enough evidence to do so. Why is there not enough evidence? If bodies like Greenpeace can assemble evidence, if CORE, the group based in Cumbria opposed to Sellafield, can assemble evidence, if consultants like John Large and his colleagues can assemble evidence, why is it that the Irish Government do not seem to want to assemble the evidence?

I do not want to be openly critical of the Nuclear Energy Board but it is an open secret that due to lack of resources and other problems they simply have not been able to do the degree of monitoring and examination on the required scale, Can one imagine any other state in the world faced with the kind of threat that Sellafield poses to this country that would not, as a matter of Government policy, set about finding out the extent of the problem? Here we have the Minister for the Marine, the Government Minister responsible for the Irish Sea, effectively saying it is somebody else's responsibility but that, of course his Department test for radioactivity in the Irish Sea. It is time the Government took this issue a lot more seriously than heretofore.

I am seeking a specific responsibility for the Marine Institute. There are pages of general functions which the institute can perform, provided it gets the authority from the Minister, but we are very unsure about the specifics. We know it will have some kind of controlling role over existing agencies, a co-ordinating role and so on. The general public and certainly the members of this House, would agree that this is an issue that needs to be addressed a lot more seriously, yet the Minister for the Marine effectively walks away from it. That is not good enough. It is time the Government did something about this worsening problem.

We know that contracts have been entered into by Sellafield to deal with nuclear waste from other countries. Some of those contracts have been entered into with countries who were not prepared to reprocess nuclear waste themselves. Attempts were made to have some nuclear waste from Germany reprocessed in France and it was refused. All this nuclear waste will now go to Sellafield, travelling through the Irish Sea. There are a number of problems in which the Department of the Marine have a valid interest. Radioactivity in the sea is one problem; then there is the problem for fish and the problem along the coastline on beaches. There is the problem related to fishing and the possible consequences of an accident occurring. These are areas that must be addressed, areas in which hard evidence needs to be assembled by the Marine Institute. It was for those reasons I tabled this amendment so that that information could be assembled, so that the Government would be in the best possible position to advance a case whether in Europe or directly with the British Government and indeed let the Irish public know the full extent of the Sellafield problem as it affects them.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.