I welcome the fact that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has come before the House and that the Minister for Foreign Affairs also addressed this issue. I thank the Minister for agreeing to my request to hold this timely debate. I did not seek the debate to criticise the Minister or the Government on the issue of nuclear safety, although there is plenty of room to do so. I sought the debate so this House could unite with the Government and the Minister in presenting the strongest possible case to the British authorities in the face of a greatly increased threat to our people.
I also sought the debate at this time in order that the Taoiseach, who will meet the British Prime Minister tomorrow, would be armed with the united support of our national Parliament when he raises the issue with Mr Blair. I call on the Taoiseach to make full use of his oft-quoted special relationship and friendship with Mr. Blair to impress on him and his Government the strong feelings of the Irish people and their representatives in their sovereign Parliament regarding the dangers that arise from the operation of the Sellafield complex in nearby Cumbria, as well as their fears of the increased dangers arising from the privatisation of this project. The Taoiseach must demand that his friend, Mr. Blair, will begin the process of dismantling, clearing and removing the entire Sellafield complex. He must insist that the consequent dangers and the fears of Irish people are not further exacerbated by the privatisation of any part of this process. The Taoiseach must make it clear to Mr Blair that until Sellafield is removed, it will remain a permanent bone of contention between our otherwise friendly countries. He must stress that tensions between the countries will be heightened by any privatisation of the operation at Sellafield.
I wish to remind the House and the Irish people of the nature and reality of Sellafield. It is a colossal nuclear junkyard where waste from around the world is collected and processed. This process entails a constant dripping of pollution into the Irish Sea and the atmosphere by radioactive pollutants. It was originally built as a military plant to process nuclear waste for the by-product plutonium, which is the raw material for atomic bombs. The plant, which was then called Windscale, and its operation were shrouded in secrecy up to and following the disastrous fire in 1957. That part of the complex remains severely polluted with radioactive material, is still sealed off and may have to remain so forever. There has been a long record of lesser accidents and radioactive releases at the plant and practically all have been handled with deceit and have been covered up by the British authorities.
Reprocessing at Sellafield results in the production of a residual highly radioactive liquid waste. This is stored in 21 massive tanks that are located above ground. The material in question is highly volatile and must be continually cooled to prevent it from overheating and exploding. These tanks are the greatest single threat to the Irish people. If one was to explode, it would be equivalent to 100 Chernobyls. If they all exploded in a chain reaction, the effect or result would be incalculable. I will return to this point later. The British authorities have agreed to vitrify this liquid, that is, turn it into a form of glass, so that it can be stored safely. They have miserably failed to so do and their vitrification plant barely keeps up with the new production of waste.
I will remind Members of what radioactive material does to the human body. Radioactive material destroys human flesh and bones. In large doses, it causes radioactive sickness and death results awfully, but mercifully quickly, in one day to three months. In lesser doses, it does not kill quickly but causes a variety of cancers that lead to a slow and lingering death. For those who become contaminated by radioactive fallout and who survive, the future will be grim. Future generations will be born with a variety of malformations and disabilities. Members who do not believe me should consider the health statistics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where 1 million men, women and children were vaporised, or for Chernobyl.
I stated earlier that the 21 tanks of highly active liquid waste at Sellafield are the greatest single threat to Ireland and its people. These tanks are above ground and require constant cooling to prevent them from exploding. They are highly vulnerable to mismanagement, of which there has been much at Sellafield. They are also vulnerable to attacks by terrorists or to other sabotage. After the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, it is even more important to remove this potential and lethal target.
Studies have been carried out by independent, internationally recognised scientists as to the potential effect of an explosion of one or all of these tanks and their deadly payloads. The effects would be catastrophic and that reality must be spelt out again and again. If one or more of these tanks were to explode, a colossal cloud of radioactive material would rise over Cumbria, less than 100 miles from Dublin and the east coast of Ireland. It would drift at the speed of the prevailing wind away from the site, and there is a 30% chance that it would drift directly towards Dublin. As it moves, the cloud would spread out to cover a wider and wider area. The slower the wind, the wider the spread. Nuclear fallout would kill or contaminate people in the immediate vicinity of the site. It would contaminate the sea and all in and on it as it progressed. Dublin would be hit five to 12 hours after the disaster struck Cumbria. It would be virtually impossible to escape contamination. Hundreds of thousands would be immediately affected. Some would die quickly and many thousands would die a slow and lingering death. The deadly cloud of radioactivity would continue across Ireland, carried by the wind, whether north, south or west. Who knows? Ballybunion or Ballyshannon would be as vulnerable as Ballymun. It would lay a lethal trail of death for people, including men, women and children, rich and poor. It would contaminate the earth, grass, towns, hillsides, valleys and rivers. No animal would be safe.
The deadly radioactive contamination would last for thousands of years. In the case of one variety, it would remain active and deadly for 250,000 years. For the survivors of the disaster, which can be avoided if we force the closure of Sellafield, there would be a grim future. Irish agriculture would be devastated. Our produce would not be fit for human consumption for centuries. Europe's greatest agricultural nation would be reduced to a wasteland. Irish tourism would be destroyed. Apart from the occasional United Nations nuclear inspection team, no one in their right mind would come near our shores. In short, our economy would collapse and there would be a mass exodus from this island. All the iodine tablets, nationwide leaflets and shelters provided by Deputy Jacob would make no difference.
We are now being told that nuclear energy is necessary for civilisation to survive by those who refuse to invest in alternative and renewable sources of energy. The murderous power of nuclear energy was laid bare for everyone to see when the American air force dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As I said earlier, more than 1 million innocent men, women and children were vaporised by these two bombs. The military industrial complex that drove the development of the nuclear technology boomed in the following years. Along with weapons' development, nuclear power stations were foisted on the world by industry and compliant governments. The lies and deception that characterised the operation of Sellafield were an integral part of the nuclear industry from day one. They claimed throughout the 1950s and 1960s that clean free energy was on the horizon. We now have a proliferation of nuclear power stations which produce neither free nor clean produce. These stations produce waste, which can neither be stored safely nor neutralised. It is waste with which science cannot deal.
The current promoters of nuclear power must have thought we had forgotten their lies and that the deadly nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Windscale and Chernobyl had faded from our memories. Sellafield is our legacy from this corrupt and disgraced industry. Now the British Government wants to privatise the operation and decontamination of its nuclear waste. As has been said already, the cost at Sellafield and other sites in the UK is estimated at €100 billion. These are rich pickings.
I want to register my strong objection to such a move. It was bad enough dealing with British Nuclear Fuels which was Government-controlled, but to hand over this sensitive and potentially lethal task to a for-profit-only private sector operator, which will cut corners to make profit, is something the Government and our people cannot afford to consider. Such a move will increase the possibility of the type of disaster I described earlier. I also call on the British Labour Party to speak out against this hostile action against Ireland by its government. At our weekend conference, I availed of the opportunity to meet and speak to the British Labour Party General Secretary and impressed strongly on him the strong feelings of the Irish people on this subject. Even the British Tories, who invented privatisation, have come out against this move by Mr. Blair. Their spokesman, Mr. Alan Duncan, said that to dump 50 years of dubious waste on the private sector, with none of the guarantees that only Government can offer, needs serious public debate before going ahead. Likewise, the GMB and Amicus trade unions condemned the proposal on the basis that safety would be compromised. I offer the Minister and the Taoiseach the support of the Labour Party in their efforts to stop this dangerous decision going ahead. We will be watching carefully how they use this mandate from Dáil Éireann.
The Sellafield complex is an obnoxious industrial dinosaur that poses a serious and ongoing threat to the lives and well-being of Irish people and future generations. Its closure and removal must be a top priority for every Irish Government. I ask why would mankind promote such a Doomsday?