Other Questions. - Radioactive Waste.

Dermot Ahern


19 Mr. D. Ahern asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications if his attention has been drawn to a recent report concerning monitoring of levels of the radioactive isotope technetium 99 in foodstuffs and seaweeds in the Irish Sea as a result of the commissioning of THORP and EARP; the plans, if any, he has to raise this issue with the authorities in the United Kingdom; the plans, if any, he has to raise this issue at European Commission and Council of Ministers level in order to ensure that remedial action is instituted forthwith; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1093/97]

Trevor Sargent


25 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications whether the attention of the Government has been drawn to the fact that it has been, and remains the stated policy of British Nuclear Fuels Limited to discharge radioactive waste into the Irish Sea in an experimental fashion in order to study the effect of so doing; the pertinent jurisdiction sought by British Nuclear Fuels Limited to carry out such experiments in Irish coastal waters and shores; whether any permission was sought by British Nuclear Fuels Limited to carry out such experiments in Irish coastal areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23795/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 25 together.

I refer the Deputies to my answers to Questions Nos. 580 and 583 of 22 January 1997. I am not aware of radioactive waste being discharged into the Irish Sea in an experimental fashion. However, routine discharges by BNFL are authorised by the United Kingdom's Environment Agency and are permitted under its relevant national legislation.

Revised discharge authorisations for the Sellafield site, agreed in 1993 by the UK's Inspector of Pollution and the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, came into effect in 1994 and provided for the operation of the new THORP reprocessing plant and the enhanced actinide removal plant known as EARP. As a result of the coming on stream of these plants steep increases in the level of radioactive technetium 99 in the Irish Sea have been detected.

Arising from this, I wrote to the relevant UK Ministers expressing my concerns and requested that they use powers available to them to order the immediate and complete cessation of the discharge of technetium 99 from Sellafield into the Irish Sea. In addition, I have also written to the European Commissioner responsible for nuclear safety, Ritt Bjerregaard.

The necessary preparations have been made to have the question of radioactive discharges from Sellafield raised again at a meeting later this year of the Commission for the Protection of the Environment of the North East Atlantic established under the Paris and Oslo Conventions dealing with the prevention of marine pollution.

Ireland has also requested the Oslo-Paris Commission and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to undertake a thorough technical review and assessment of both the reprocessing and non-reprocessing options for spent fuel management as well as their impact on radioactive discharges into the marine environment. To this end, Ireland has made a voluntary financial contribution to the NEA to fund such a study.

At a meeting with the British Ambassador in my office last Friday, I expressly requested that the concerns of the Government and public in general on radioactive discharges from Sellafield into the Irish Sea be conveyed directly to the British Government. I assure the House that I will persist in vigorously pressing the Government's case against Sellafield.

I thank the Minister of State for acceding to my exhortations in the House last week when I asked him to put the fears of the public on this side of the Irish Sea to the British Ambassador. As regards technetium 99, does he accept the figures show a 14 times higher level of this radiation than the limit set by the EU after the Chernobyl incident? This was the limit set by the EU for an accident. Does he accept that the commissioning of EARP has led to the increase in this regard and that there is no provision to take technetium 99 or, indeed, krypton 85 out of THORP? This is a matter of considerable concern to those living on the east coast and those involved in the fishing industry.

Did the Government have an input to the request by Sellafield for authorisation for increased discharges into the Irish Sea? Will the Minister of State outline the action he proposes to take in relation to technetium 99? Some nuclear apologists say it is not a dangerous radiation, although expert advice is available which suggests it is detrimental to public health.

I should expand on the information the Deputy gave to the House. Levels of technetium 99 detected in lobsters and some other shellfish produced near the Cumbrian coast have been found to contain 16 times more radioactivity than the European Union limit——

It is going up each day.

——of 1,250 becquerels per kilogramme for radioactivity in food. I apologise to the Deputy for giving him wrong information as I believe I said 14 times on a previous occasion but it was not my intention to mislead him. This intervention level is designed to apply in the case of the aftermath of a nuclear accident. I assume that would be a higher level than would normally be expected.

The Deputy may be aware of a report published in October 1996 by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland entitled Radioactivity Monitoring of the Irish Marine Environment, 1993-1995. The report indicates that the dose from artificial radioactivity to a heavy consumer of fish and shellfish at our north eastern ports was small — two microsievert in 1995. To put the above dose in perspective, it may be compared with the does to the Irish population of 3,000 microsievert derived from natural and artificial sources.

The report also states that the levels of radioactive contamination of the Irish Sea do not justify misgivings on health grounds about eating fish from the Irish Sea, swimming or engaging in any other activity in or near the sea along the east coast. Such findings, however, do not affect the Government's continued opposition to any radioactive contamination of the Irish Sea caused by Sellafield, nor is it saying that fish landed or caught off the Cumbrian coast would be safe to eat. The fish measured by the RPII were landed by Irish fishermen in Irish ports. It is not talking about the fish to which the Deputy referred with levels 16 times higher than that recommended for human consumption.

Given the huge increase in the level of technetium found in lobsters on the British side of the Irish Sea, does the Minister of State accept there has been a significant increase on the Irish side? This was made clear by the RPII in its investigations. Does he accept that the further commissioning of THORP will increase discharges not only into the sea, but into the air around these two islands and that this will potentially damage our health? That is why he and the Government should renew their efforts as regards THORP and support the case taken by the four County Louth litigants.

I have a difficulty in that some of the points raised relate to a later question and I should not stray into that area.

We will not get to them.

I confirm the Deputy's point that the RPII has found alarming increases in the level of technetium 99 along the Irish coast in the Irish Sea. The levels are still below those which would give rise to health concerns, but they would give rise to concern from the point of view that they are constantly increasing. The Deputy asked me the position concerning the latest application by BNFL. As he is no doubt aware, BNFL recently applied to the UK Environment Agency for a variation of the existing aerial and liquid discharge authorisations from Sellafield. The UK Environment Agency which regulates the granting of discharge authorisations is expected to take some time to examine the BNFL application. When it has formed a view on the application, it will be obliged to engage in a formal consultation process with designated parties. However, the Government would be entitled to, and will, make its views known. The consultation process is likely to commence this month and all parties would have eight weeks to present their views. It has been suggested that it could be May or June before a final decision is made by the environment agency. My Department has already written to it outlining Ireland's concerns in relation to BNFL's application and reserving the right of the Irish Government to submit further comments when the environment agency issues the draft authorisation for public consultation. I am determining the most effective course of action to articulate Ireland's concerns in this matter.