Response to the Aftermath of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan: Statements

We have all been deeply shocked and saddened by the recent events in Japan, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I am sure the entire House will join me in extending our heartfelt sympathy to the Japanese Government and people at this especially difficult time.

At magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March was one of the ten largest quakes ever recorded anywhere in the world. The strength was such that the residents of Tokyo, some 373 km from the epicentre, felt major tremors. Closer still to the epicentre, the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima were hit by a deadly tsunami with ten-metre high waves that destroyed everything in their path. In the worst hit Miyagi prefecture, houses toppled over or collapsed, killing or burying thousands of people, while the waves washed away entire towns and villages. Extraordinary television images showed a tide of muddy water sweeping cars and houses across open land at high speed.

While Japan has a long history of coping with natural disasters and has one of the best developed systems of civil protection anywhere in the world, the sheer scale of these tragic events left thousands of people dead or missing and many thousands more destitute. More than 500,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, with many of these forced to take refuge in community centres or temporary shelters. Hundreds of thousands more were left without electricity or water.

It is against this backdrop that the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has arisen. In the hours following the earthquake, the Japanese authorities declared a heightened state of alert at the plant. Three of the plant's six reactors were not operating when the earthquake occurred and although the other three shut down automatically, power supplies to the plant were damaged by the tsunami, resulting in the failure of the plant's cooling systems. On 12 March, an explosion occurred at one of the plant's reactors. In the following days, explosions occurred at two other reactors and a fire broke out at a spent fuel storage pond in a fourth reactor.

Work is ongoing to control the situation at the power plant. Sea water is being used to cool the reactor pressure vessels and the spent fuel ponds, while work is ongoing to restore power to the plant. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, has now indicated that the situation at the plant seems to be stabilising, it has warned that the overall situation remains serious. In response to the risks posed by the plant, the Japanese authorities have evacuated the area within 20 km of it and are advising people within a distance of 20 km to 30 km of the plant to stay indoors, keep windows and doors closed and not use ventilation.

There are two aspects to the Department of Foreign Affairs' response to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. The first relates to the consular functions of the Department in providing assistance to Irish citizens overseas. The second relates to the humanitarian assistance offered to Japan through Irish Aid. I will deal with each of these aspects in turn.

Upon learning of the earthquake, the Department of Foreign Affairs opened its crisis centre on Friday and Saturday, 11 and 12 March, to offer assistance and advice to families in Ireland who may have had concerns about relatives in Japan. When the earthquake struck, 12 Irish citizens were in the affected area. The ambassador in Tokyo travelled to Sendai and contacted all the Irish citizens in the region and arranged for their safe passage out of the area. Our ambassador and his staff at the embassy have now accounted for the safety of all of the Irish citizens known to be living or working in the affected areas in Japan. I am greatly relieved that no Irish citizens were injured or suffered serious loss.

The Department, both in Dublin and through our embassy in Tokyo, is continuing to provide assistance to Irish citizens in Japan. The embassy has been in daily contact with Irish citizens in the Tokyo area. The Department continues to advise citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Japan, including Tokyo, and not to travel to affected areas in the north-eastern part of the main, Honshu island of Japan.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the work of the Department's crisis centre and, in particular, the ambassador and staff of the embassy in Tokyo who, under difficult conditions, worked throughout the crisis to ensure the safety and well-being of Irish citizens in Japan.

Aside from the problems experienced at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the overall situation remains difficult, with potential disruptions to the supply of essential goods and services. In light of this, we have encouraged Irish citizens, particularly people with small children, to consider leaving the north east of Japan and the Tokyo region. We have advised people seeking to leave these areas to make a travel reservation as soon as possible. Those Irish citizens who wish to leave are doing so by commercial means, many options for which are available. As of now, we are not aware of any Irish citizen who wishes to leave and has been unable to do so. The embassy in Tokyo is ready to provide assistance to any citizen who requires it. We are continuing to monitor the situation closely. The Department's travel advice for Japan is being kept under review and will be amended as the situation develops.

I will now deal with the second part of our response to the earthquake and tsunami, namely, the provision of assistance to Japan. In the hours following the earthquake and tsunami, the Government placed the Irish Aid rapid response corps on standby to deploy to the areas affected by the disaster. The corps is composed of highly skilled individuals with the type of knowledge and experience that is most required during a humanitarian emergency. In addition, we informed the Japanese authorities that we would be making available our emergency stockpiles from the UN-managed humanitarian depots in Dubai and Subang, Malaysia. These supplies include emergency shelter equipment such as tents, tarpaulins and blankets as well as water and sanitation kits and provide a basic infrastructure to help those who have lost their homes.

Japan is probably the best equipped country in the world to deal with major disasters of this kind. Nevertheless, the fact that it has been obliged to deal with three major emergencies simultaneously — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis — has meant that its response capacity has been pushed to the limit. Therefore, it appealed last week to the European Union and its member states for practical and financial help. The Government immediately responded by providing €1 million to the Japanese Red Cross, which is playing a leading role in the delivery of essential support to the many people left injured or homeless by the disaster. We are also in close contact with the EU's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, ECHO, which is helping to co-ordinate the delivery of the requested European assistance with the Japanese authorities. We are co-ordinating the delivery of relief supplies such as blankets and water tanks from our stocks in Dubai with those of other member states.

The current situation facing rescue workers and those delivering assistance to those most in need remains highly challenging, with a combination of the destruction caused to the country's infrastructure and poor weather conditions making access to the areas affected extremely difficult. The Japanese Government has been working tirelessly to manage an extremely complex situation and has mobilised more than 120,000 troops and emergency services for the relief effort and the clean-up operation. In the longer term, the focus will shift towards addressing the needs of the thousands of people who have been displaced by the disaster, many of whom cannot go home even when services such as water and electricity are eventually restored because their houses were washed away by the tsunami or levelled by the earthquake.

With the World Bank placing the cost to the Japanese economy at a staggering $232 billion, the recovery and reconstruction effort is likely to be long and difficult. However, it is extremely gratifying that the Japanese people are not alone in this moment of tragedy. The Japanese Government has so far received offers of assistance from 128 countries all over the globe, including Ireland. There is no doubt whatsoever that Japan will be capable of rebuilding and recovering from these tragic events, given the strength and determination shown by the Japanese people since the crisis began. We have witnessed an outpouring of spontaneous generosity, with millions demonstrating acts of kindness and solidarity towards their fellow countrymen and women. At the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, one of the most instantly recognisable spots in the city for a foreign visitor, one young worker told a journalist: "I think human beings survive because they help each other". In these difficult times, this strength and spirit is what gives us confidence in Japan's future. In the coming days, we will continue to do everything we can to aid and assist those affected and to ensure the safety of Irish citizens in Japan.

As a Galwayman and as a Deputy from the parish of Caltra, I congratulate Deputy Gilmore on his appointment as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

I thank him for his contribution. The earthquake that struck Japan on 11 March has resulted in the biggest crisis to face the country since the Second World War. I would like to extend my sympathies and those of the Fianna Fáil Party to the people of Japan in what is one of their darkest hours. They have not only endured a devastating earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale but they have also had to contend with a tsunami and a nuclear crisis. The scale of this disaster is difficult to imagine. Reports indicate that more than 21,000 people lost their lives in the disaster and the World Bank said it may cost Japan as much as €145 billion to repair the damage.

One cannot put a price on the human scale of the disaster. There has been a devastating loss of life. At least 50,000 people are homeless and millions are without fuel, food or running water. The scale of the disaster is unprecedented and terrifying. I was shocked that much of the immediate coverage of the crisis was accompanied by reports about its impact on share prices and interest rates. I found such coverage in the wake of the earthquake insensitive, given the scale of the disaster.

As the world has followed events in horror and in sympathy, many of us have been impressed by the quiet stoicism and dignity with which the Japanese have dealt with their plight. According to websites monitoring events, foreign observers have been amazed at the orderliness of the Japanese, even among the homeless. There has been a remarkable lack of looting and of civil disorder. The Japanese people have endured natural disasters previously and they are better equipped than most to deal with such a disaster. However, even they are struggling to deal with the scale of the challenge.

I was glad that the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Sullivan, confirmed yesterday that the expertise and services of our Irish rapid response unit set up in the wake of the Asian tsunami was offered to the Japanese Government following the crisis. I appreciate that our offer was not taken up on this occasion but perhaps, as the crisis continues, these highly trained experts may be deployed where they can make a contribution. I worked with this unit when I served as Minister of State in the Department and we had to deal with other humanitarian crises.

The Irish response to the crisis has been channelled through our membership of the European Union and the UN. Recently the Japanese Government appealed to the EU for assistance and the Government made €1 million available to the fund. Perhaps as the crisis unfolds, the Government will consider making a further contribution to the fund because this would have the full support of the people. The reality is the Japanese have a long road of recovery ahead of them.

An EU civil protection assessment and co-ordination team arrived in Tokyo last Saturday to co-ordinate an operation at EU level, bringing together assistance of the member states. I am not sure what role Ireland has in this effort but perhaps the Minister will refer to this later. Furthermore, the issue is to be raised at the EU Council in Brussels at the end of the week, which is a welcome development. I am a little disappointed that the new Minister has only issued two press releases on the subject since he took office. Given the scale of the disaster I expected that he might have been more vocal on the issue but I appreciate he is reading himself into the brief. Will he comment on this?

The magnitude of the earthquake was equivalent in power to 30,000 Hiroshimas and it generated a wave that wiped out entire towns and cities. As if this was not bad enough, there is now a nuclear crisis. There have been explosions, fires and releases of radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Latest reports indicate it may take some time to stabilise the reactors in the plant. Understandably, this has caused huge concern in Japan and abroad, as there is a long history of cover ups and controversy surrounding nuclear power in Japan. Those living and working near the plant face a terrible dilemma about whether to go or stay. There are reports that those living and working in the vicinity are completely unprepared for such an eventuality. They have not received training on how to avoid radiation or what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency. Almost 250,000 people living within a 20 mile radius of the plant are directly affected in the short term. News reports suggest that no manuals about emergency plans have been provided to local residents, as is standard practice in other countries with nuclear plants such as the US and the UK.

This has raised concerns in Japan regarding the other 54 nuclear reactors and about the location and design of some of the other plants. The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has expressed serious concern about the Fukushima plant. Questions have also been raised about the role of regulation, after it was revealed that last year regulators gave the all clear to a 10-year extension for Fukushima's No. 1 reactor, its oldest, which began operating in 1971. Apparently, faults were found in the plant but the owners were given five years to address the problems. Please God there is no risk to public health but this crisis once again puts the issue of nuclear power on the international agenda. This issue of nuclear power is sensitive in this country given our long history with the Sellafield power plant. Over a 50-year period there were more than 20 serious incidents in Sellafield and successive Governments have campaigned for its closure.

Nuclear power was adopted in Japan due to their lack of natural energy resources and for reasons of security of supply. However, a key component of any nuclear power strategy is transparency and accountability. This crisis may signal the end of the trust the Japanese people placed in nuclear power and it will surely make many Japanese people rethink this strategy. This is Japan's worst nuclear crisis for 25 years. For critics of nuclear power, it has highlighted several problems, particularly the need to acknowledge risks and the need to prepare for worst case scenarios. This crisis has also succeeded in putting the issue of nuclear power on the European agenda. The EU agreed this week that 143 reactors in Europe should be subject to new safety standards and I welcome the inclusion of Sellafield on this list.

Like the Minister, I compliment our ambassador and embassy staff in Tokyo. I acknowledge the efforts of the Ireland Japan Association, which has set up a special fund for those who wish to contribute in a practical way to help those affected by the earthquake disaster. I offer my condolences to the people of Japan on the terrible tragedy they are enduring.

I express deepest sympathy on behalf of myself and Sinn Féin to the people of Japan. It was an event that evoked a genuine outpouring of grief in this country and across the globe. It was dreadful, and we are only beginning to realise now the full extent of the disaster with the numbers of people missing and killed exceeding first estimates. It may be some time before we realise the actual numbers involved, and longer before the communities affected begin to return to normality.

The tragedy caused by the earthquake and the tsunami was exacerbated by the scare over the impact the earthquake had on nuclear power stations in the region. For a while it appeared the environmental disaster might have been exacerbated to a horrific level by an accident at one of the power stations. Thankfully, the initial fears have not been realised, although dangers remain.

While it is not the time or the place to make lengthy political arguments on the back of these awful events, the danger posed by a possible leakage of high levels of radiation from the reactors must be mentioned. It is hoped that danger is not as serious as was first feared but we have already heard reports of radiation contamination of food and the threat that poses to the Japanese people. Some food products have been withdrawn. We are not yet aware of the full impact that leaking radiation may have had on the food supply and on people's well-being. That again highlights the dangers associated with nuclear power. We are fortunate here in that when the building of a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point was given serious consideration in the late 1970s, the popular opposition to it forced the then Government to change its mind. It is clear now that the Irish people made the right choice.

I am conscious that there are always concerns regarding the Sellafield plant in Britain. Now would be the time for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, or the relevant colleagues in Cabinet, to re-engage with the British Government about the long-standing concerns of the Irish people in that regard, and in particular to get an update on the review of its emergency plan. That would be an important occasion to re-engage with them.

Energy supply is a serious issue and one that will arise more frequently in the coming years. That is all the more reason we must examine alternative forms of energy supply globally that will both guarantee that energy needs are met but also provide a safer option to nuclear power. However, this is not the time to dwell too much on that aspect of the terrible events in Japan. Such a debate can wait another day.

One of the positive aspects of the crisis, if there can be any in such circumstances, was the evidence of the manner in which the Japanese people, and the international community, responded to the effects of the earthquake. There was a genuine outpouring of grief that transcended cultures and that manifested itself in practical aid in terms of ensuring that the after effects of the tsunami and the dreadful damage it wreaked were immediately addressed. It demonstrates that there is a positive aspect to international solidarity that transcends the more brutal manner in which it is sometimes manifested in military actions involving the major powers.

In the context of that international solidarity and aid, it is important to refer to the new Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett, who, in his time as Fine Gael's spokesperson for foreign affairs, raised the concept of a citizens' corps that would be ready to be deployed to provide international assistance in the event of a disaster such as that which took place in Japan. He referred to the possibility of people who are unemployed taking part in such a corps. There is a fantastic culture here of people wanting to assist in these circumstances, as we know from all the Irish organisations that assist people overseas. It is an excellent idea. In the aftermath of the disaster, and as we reflect on what happened and offer our sympathy, this might also be the time to pursue that idea.

Such a corps could comprise volunteers who are specialists in various fields who would be ready and prepared to travel immediately to disaster zones to participate in aid missions. There would be scope for medical personnel, civil engineers, members of the fire service and so on who could participate in such a group. As we saw from Japan, the early deployment of experienced search and rescue personnel from overseas played a crucial part in the aftermath of the tsunami and undoubtedly contributed to the saving of many lives that might otherwise have been lost.

I am not certain what branch of Government would be responsible for establishing such a citizen corps. It might be something the Department of Foreign Affairs might examine and set in train the process of establishing such an initiative. It would constitute a real and practical contribution on the part of the people of this country to helping in the event of any future disasters should they occur anywhere on the planet.

While international aid was important, I would also like to pay tribute to the manner in which the Japanese people responded to the disaster. It is a very different culture to our own, although human beings of whatever nationality or culture share the basic common attributes. It is heartening to know that in the midst of such a calamity, the vast majority of people respond in a humane way, even in circumstances where much of the basic structures of civilised society have temporarily broken down.

There is a bleak view of humanity as expressed, for example, in the film "The Road", which was set in the aftermath of a huge disaster, possibly nuclear. That human society is portrayed as being unable to survive such a shock, and people revert to a barbaric state. The response to the Japanese disaster may offer hope that human beings are perhaps better than that, and that society is able to respond to and survive in such circumstances.

I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am sharing time with Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, Catherine Murphy and Mick Wallace.

It is a very sad day for the Japanese people, and it is important that we offer our deepest sympathy and our condolences to them on behalf of the people of Ireland on their major loss. It was an horrific thing to happen to the Japanese people. To lose so many people in this way is a nightmare for all of their families and friends. I offer my deepest sympathy to the Japanese community in Ireland also on their loss. To see images of mass graves is deeply saddening and, once again, the families have to bear the brunt of the hurt and loss.

To make the situation worse, they must deal with the nuclear issue raising its nasty head to add more doom and gloom to their grief. This a very serious issue. The families and the country must deal first with the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami. In addition, they must deal with the restructuring of their country, including the infrastructure and so on, and the hurt and loss of families, and now they are looking over their shoulders at the nuclear issue.

I feel very strongly about this issue because I am very concerned about the devastation that could happen in Japan but also across the world. Nuclear devastation in Japan could have worldwide health repercussions. The nuclear crisis in Japan, with effects occurring in all six reactors on the site in question, is now officially ranked as level 6 and is not yet resolved, if it ever can be resolved. To put that in context, Chernobyl was ranked at level 7. The United States is expecting nuclear contamination to hit that country within two days, and western Europe later. There has been and will be increased seismic activity worldwide, and there are other reactors built in fault zones. Japan's disaster, therefore, will become a world disaster. That is something we must pay a great deal of attention to, particularly in our own country.

In February and March, earthquakes occurred along the ring of fire in Chile, New Zealand and Japan. If this continues, the west coast of North America might take the next hit. Geologists are already predicting that. The washing up of fish and whales on beaches may have to do with electromagnetic disturbances under water, which could cause earthquakes and tsunamis. I say that in regard to an international health issue. Not only is this a crisis for the Japanese people, but it is now becoming a major international crisis for all the countries around the world.

In fairness to the Japanese and their resilience, they were probably one of the most well-prepared in the world in terms of this disaster. They had erected the barriers and their buildings were prepared for earthquakes, yet they got caught as well. It is important that we are aware of that. They had erected huge walls to protect against tsunamis, and in fairness to them a higher number of people could have lost their lives. They had a nuclear back-up system as well but they did not calculate for an earthquake as high as 9 on the Richter scale occurring. Their protective measures were not enough and, once again, an improbable chain of events has happened. It is important that we raise this issue from an international health and safety point of view. It is now at the point where workers will be asked to volunteer for suicide missions and sacrifice themselves to save Japan by going into the deadly radioactive areas to try to fix the problems and get the electricity supply reconnected to run the pumps and so forth. Again, I commend the bravery of the Japanese people, particularly those who are taking those risks in the interests of their country. As this was not foreseen as a possibility, there are no manuals to follow for dealing with six reactors in a meltdown or potential meltdown process.

It is important that these issues are mentioned, but the main focus must be our sympathy and support for the Japanese people, who have suffered a sad loss. I offer my deepest sympathy and support to the Japanese community in Ireland. I am sure many of their families and friends have been deeply affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

This is an appalling tragedy for the people of Japan. They have the sincere sympathies of this House and the Irish people. This is just the latest disaster of epic proportions following those in New Zealand, Pakistan and Haiti. We cannot but admire the heroism and calmness of the Japanese people as they come to terms with what has happened.

People in Ireland, particularly on the eastern seaboard, also face the possibility of nuclear fall-out from Sellafield. There is concern about the safety of aging nuclear power facilities, particularly following what happened in Japan. The Government has agreed to set aside €1.3 million in 2011 to carry out scientific and legal research into the risk posed by the Cumbria plant. There was money allocated to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government last year and reining in any of that money would not make sense.

There should be more discussion of the reports from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. It received approximately €10 million over the past three years but how seriously are we taking its reports? According to the institute, the most significant source of radioactivity in the Irish Sea is liquid discharges resulting from reprocessing operations at Sellafield. These discharges are authorised within prescribed limits by Britain's environment agency but what about our rights? Successive Irish Governments have expressed concerns about Sellafield and have met the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I support the call by Senator Mark Dearey to the Taoiseach to seek an immediate commitment from the British Energy Secretary on these aging reactors.

I had to turn to page 16 ofThe Irish Times world news section to get the latest news. How quickly these stories move from the front pages. There is no mention of Pakistan these days. Japan’s nuclear plant is still emitting radiation but it is not clear from where. I, too, acknowledge the heroic sacrifices of those who are working at the plant and putting their lives at risk every minute of their working day. It is frightening to read of the high levels of radioactivity in food at locations south of Fukushima and in the water supply in Tokyo. All those who gathered at Carnsore Point many years ago to protest against nuclear power must feel totally vindicated. It is also interesting to read about Chancellor Merkel’s U-turn on this matter. The further difficulties for Japan’s industries are also being highlighted. The plant was supposed to be proof against the strongest seismic events but its cooling systems were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami. How can we believe claims of technological impunity?

The buildings in Tokyo were built with the best materials, and there are lessons in that regard. We saw what happened in Haiti and China. To return to the human stories, one cannot look at the photographs today without being reminded of the photographs taken after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese people recovered from that and I have no doubt that they will recover again.

Everybody acknowledges that this was a major natural disaster which caused significant loss of life. That is the most important concern we should have. Second, what must be acknowledged is the heroism being demonstrated not only by those who are risking their lives and health trying to reduce the contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant but also by those who are working at search and rescue in appalling conditions. These include sub-zero temperatures, daily aftershocks and the risk of another significant earthquake.

As the Minister said, if there is a country in the world which has buildings that can withstand earthquakes, it is Japan. Every time an earthquake occurs people refer to Japan as the example of best practice. Every month children in preschools and primary schools participate in drills, and that practice permeates every walk of life. This country was prepared. However, what could not be prepared for was the scale of the earthquake and the damage done by the massive tsunami. Much of the news footage of the tsunami was horrific and early estimates of the damage done run to $200 billion.

Although to date nobody has died as a result of damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant, it is already ranked by nuclear authorities as the second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl, and that is a situation that is contained. The consequences of such a disaster are not immediate. They cannot be easily captured on television screens. There are reports of food contamination and high radiation levels in the oceans, which obviously will have a knock-on effect in the food chain. Problems with the water supply are also beginning to emerge. These are the early problems and the world, particularly Japan, hopes they will be contained.

The economic fall-out has become obvious as well. This is a matter to which we should give a great deal of attention. There is an economic fall-out from the high dependency on nuclear power. The rolling blackouts are unlikely to be temporary and not only will they hinder normal domestic life but they will impact on industrial production. The knock-on effects include, for example, consumers of Japanese goods switching to other markets. The car industry is a case in point. The most serious questions raised relate to long-term matters such as a secure power supply, particularly in a situation of peak oil. The degree of panic in Japan is understandable but it appears to have spread to neighbouring countries, where there is evidence of panic buying of food, iodine tablets and so forth.

While Ireland is not in a part of the world that is prone to earthquakes, radioactive material was found in parts of Ireland following the Chernobyl disaster, which demonstrates the reach of contamination. Nuclear accidents are disasters that do not follow a script. While such plants provide a secure energy source that is relatively cheap over the lifetime of the plant, when there is an accident there is nothing minor about the consequences and nothing cheap about the human, economic and environmental problems. If this awful tragedy produces anything positive, it must be that it will open the debate on nuclear power. We cannot express concerns and condemn others if we are prepared to accept the product by way of a pipeline from other countries to secure our supply. We must pull out all the stops to become a world leader in alternative energy production. That will give this country authority on the issue.

It is heart-rending to watch what is happening in Japan. I had the good fortune to visit the country twice. I went there for the World Cup in 2002 and I liked the country so much I returned a couple of years later. The Japanese are the most incredible people on the planet. I have been reading about the 200 guys who are working in the plant at present to try to save everybody in the surrounding area. They run the risk of losing their lives. It is unbelievable, but that is the type of people they are. They are among the most civilized people on the planet. It was like living on a different planet when I was there. They are amazing people.

It appears that the nuclear problem could have been a great deal worse. It is frightening to consider that the nuclear energy of the Japanese, who prepare for everything probably better than any other people, is not safe. I am old enough to have been at Carnsore Point. It is huge relief we do not have a plant here. There was an earthquake in L'Aquila in Italy two years ago and most of the houses there collapsed because they were not built as well as houses in Japan. However, Italy has many nuclear power stations and it is frightening to consider if the earthquake that occurred in L'Aquila had happened near one of those plants, it could have caused unbelievable devastation.

The Government should play an active role in highlighting that no matter how safe we seek to make nuclear energy, it poses a massive risk to the people of Europe. There is no such thing as safe nuclear power. That has been brought home to us clearly by events in Japan.

The massive earthquake which struck off the coast of Japan on 10 March and the resulting tsunami are stark reminders of the forces nature can unleash and how vulnerable and powerless humanity can be in the face of them. The scale of devastation in northern Japan is enormous. I offer the Government's sympathy on behalf of the Irish people to the Government and people of Japan who have been so badly affected.

In crisis management terms, the Japanese people have faced enormous difficulties, as Deputy Wallace outlined. In addition to the coastal communities swept away by the massive wall of water, resulting in many thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are being accommodated in temporary shelters. There are issues of power and water supply outages, fuel and food shortages, damage to critical infrastructure and transport networks, all making it difficult for relief efforts to function and for the grim task of searching and body recovery to be undertaken. Nonetheless, the manner in which the resources of the Japanese state have been mobilised reflects the degree of preparedness that had been achieved, although the people had hoped never to be struck by the record-breaking earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale.

The extent to which we in this country have a generic emergency management system in place which is understood by all, is capable of effective response and is supported by specific preparedness for anticipated emergency scenarios is one of the Government's priority concerns. Events in Japan show the economic consequences as well as the human, social and environmental costs of natural disasters on this scale. While the scale of challenges nature has thrown at us in recent years cannot be compared with the massive Japanese earthquake, the lesson is that we must do our utmost to be as prepared as possible. While no level of preparedness can necessarily prevent or avoid the impact of severe natural events, we must be confident that we can respond to and manage issues that emerge regardless of the type or scale of the challenge faced. Among other endeavours, this involves a planned inter-agency approach, mobilising all necessary responses at local level, as well as clear communication with the public of what is being done. I will be keeping our arrangements in this regard under review with my Government colleagues in the period ahead.

Added to the difficulty faced by the Japanese authorities and people has been the impact of the earthquake on their nuclear power plants, where the loss of cooling capacity has resulted in explosions and fires in several nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant. Japanese authorities have battled since the earthquake and tsunami to regain control of the damaged facilities and to minimise the impact of the loss of containment and release of radioactive material. They have provided information for and worked with the relevant international bodies including the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, and the World Health Organisation, WHO. The incidents to date have been rated as a five on the seven-point international nuclear and radiological event scale, INES, indicating the serious nature of the events and that the impact is in a wider area than the immediately affected power plant.

The occurrence of this serious nuclear event in Japan has led people and Governments across the world to ask searching questions about safety in the nuclear industry. In Ireland, a non-nuclear state, we prioritise safety over all else in matters of nuclear policy, but we are also concerned about the potential economic consequences arising from releases of radioactive material. Those whose responsibility it is to protect the world's citizens and environment from the consequences of a nuclear accident must never approach this task with complacency.

I welcome, therefore, the timely response from the European Commission to the events in Japan and their implications for the approach to nuclear safety across Europe. Nuclear safety is by its nature an international issue. The Chernobyl accident 25 years ago caused widespread releases of radioactivity across many countries. Thirty years previously, and closer to home, the 1957 fire at Windscale, now Sellafield, in Cumbria also led to the unplanned release of radioactivity. The potential for trans-boundary impacts from a nuclear accident, however unlikely, means that nuclear safety must be a priority consideration for nuclear and non-nuclear states alike.

The planned stress tests of all European nuclear sites announced this week are welcome. In order to play an effective part in improving nuclear safety in Europe, these tests must involve independent experts, be based on a stringent and comprehensive set of criteria, and their findings must translate into action where required to improve safety. The process should be transparent so that the public can be properly and realistically informed. The stress tests should also be informed to the fullest extent possible by what occurred in Japan. It will be some time before a full analysis can be carried out, but it seems clear even now that a combination of factors contributed to the seriousness of the Fukushima event. This underlines the importance of considering nuclear safety from a broad perspective, of identifying not only the possible risks but the possible interactions between those risks, or what is called the "domino effect".

Ireland has long been a strong promoter of nuclear safety internationally. Events in Japan underline how important it is that this perspective be articulated clearly and with conviction. I will work with my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, and other ministerial colleagues to ensure this continues. Our position on nuclear safety is also informed by our proximity to the United Kingdom's large civil nuclear industry and, in particular, to the Sellafield complex whose environmental impact and accident potential have been a source of concern in Ireland for many years. It is our expectation that the Sellafield facility will be stress tested in line with the new arrangements being agreed at European Union level.

Ireland has a bilateral agreement in place with the United Kingdom on the early notification of a nuclear accident or incident of radiological significance and the exchange of information. My Department is in regular contact with the relevant British Government Departments and agencies on nuclear safety and radiological protection matters. I expect to have the opportunity to discuss this strategy with the British Secretary of State, Chris Huhne, at the meeting of EU Environment Ministers this weekend. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, has bilateral arrangements with the regulatory bodies responsible for radiological protection and nuclear safety in the United Kingdom and keeps my Department fully briefed on these matters.

Since the beginning of the emergency in Japan, the relevant authorities in the State have been monitoring the situation, taking account of information available through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union information exchange system. My Department is the lead Department for nuclear scenarios. In accordance with its national emergency plan for nuclear accidents, NEPNA, the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management has convened a national co-ordination group of the relevant Departments and agencies to review the available information and to provide advice, via the Department of Foreign Affairs, for Irish citizens in Japan.

This group met first on Saturday, 12 March and again on Monday, 14 March and Friday, 18 March, and continues to monitor the evolving situation on a daily basis. The national co-ordination group is advised by the relevant specialists in this field from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, Met Éireann, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the public health section of the Health Service Executive. Its best assessment remains that the release of radioactivity in Japan is extremely unlikely to impact on Ireland. Advice and information on the situation has been provided by expert spokespersons from these organisations and is also available on their websites.

The importance of having access to good information and the best scientific advice in this type of situation cannot be overstated. The RPII is an independent public body under the aegis of my Department and was established in 1992 under the Radiological Protection Act 1991. The RPII's role is to ensure Irish people and the environment are adequately protected from the harmful effects of ionising radiation. The RPII does this by providing advice to the public and the Government, monitoring people's exposure to radiation, regulating and licensing those who use radiation sources for our benefit such as health care facilities, providing technical support to Ireland's plan to deal with radiation emergencies, NEPNA, and co-operating with similar bodies internationally and with international bodies including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Commission

The RPII, with support from Met Éireann, local authorities and the Defence Forces, operates a national monitoring network for the detection and measurement of radioactivity in the air and the deposition of contamination on the ground. The network has been updated recently to increase reliability, range of measurements and geographic coverage. It consists of continuous gamma dose rate monitoring systems at 14 sites. These measurements are carried out 24 hours a day and continuously fed back to the RPII with an alarm system for elevated readings. An additional 27 non-automated gamma dose rate measurement sites are operated by the Reserve Defence Forces. The agencies of the State charged with the responsibility to monitor radiation are active and meet regularly.

I assure the House that we will update the Dáil on a regular basis so Members have the fullest possible information so we can be clear the events in Japan, while tragic for the Japanese, do not have consequences for the Irish people.

Almost two weeks ago a massive earthquake struck Japan, followed by a tsunami and a nuclear emergency. This is the worst crisis the country has faced since the Second World War. Having no history of natural disasters, it is difficult for us to imagine the scale of the devastation and destruction. Since the crisis began the number of people who have lost their lives has dramatically increased and Sky News has reported this morning it now totals 24,000 people.

Thousands of people have lost their lives, millions are displaced and there is a lack of food and water. Entire villages were swept away by a wall of water up to ten metres high and the threat of radiation from Fukushima power plant is looming. We are also told that rescue efforts have been hampered by adverse weather conditions. For survivors who have lost their homes and all their belongings this is more hardship to be endured.

The Japanese have a long history of earthquake planning and were better prepared than most but even so, the scale of the challenge they face is enormous. This was, after all, the biggest earthquake in 140 years. Within 24 hours of the disaster, Japan had mobilised 50,000 military and other rescue personnel to spearhead the rescue effort. Its defence forces have also been working night and day, with hundreds of ships, aircraft and vehicles in the devastated areas. Emergency staff from Britain and Australia, who have specialist skills and experience, have been sent to the area to help with the rescue effort.

When the earthquake struck the US already had 38,000 troops stationed in Japan. The American military has committed dozens of aircraft and thousands of marines and sailors to the rescue effort in the past week. This demonstrates how a humanitarian crisis can bring together two countries with very different cultures and experiences.

According to the latest information from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the aftermath and response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami the Government of Japan has received 128 offers of assistance from countries, as well as 33 offers from international organisations. It has accepted relief items from 14 countries and more than 78,000 blankets have been received and then channelled through the Japan Red Cross Society. In total, 890 international search and rescue specialists and 37 rescue dogs, from 20 teams representing 15 countries, have supported the Japanese rescue teams in this disaster response. The majority have now completed their assignments and only four teams remain. It is expected that all teams will finish their missions this week.

The Irish Government has pledged €1 million to the Red Cross effort and Irish Aid has also provided blankets, mattresses and water tanks from our stockpiles in Malaysia and Dubai. The Irish response to the crisis has been led by our embassy official in Tokyo and our crisis centre in Dublin. The European Commission's monitoring and information centre is in the process of receiving and compiling offers of assistance. So far, the MIC has received confirmed offers from 12 EU member states. Perhaps the Minister for Foreign Affairs could confirm if we have offered assistance in this regard. The rapid response unit set up in the wake of the Asian tsunami would I am sure provide excellent support and assistance to the Japanese at this time.

Last week the European Commission dispatched a 15 member EU civil protection team to Tokyo, which is working with the Japanese authorities. One of the most alarming aspects of this crisis is the threat of radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The earthquake and tsunami shattered the plant, allowing radiation leaks that have seeped into vegetables, raw milk, the water supply and even seawater. The situation remains serious, with the authorities still struggling to stabilise the plant and radiation levels are still far too high.

Even if the short-term risk is limited for now, scientists have made comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster when some radioactive particles travelled up the food chain and stayed in the environment for decades. The US Food and Drug Administration has placed an import alert on all milk, dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruits from Fukushima.

The scale of the fall-out and the long-term effects will only be revealed in time. Here nuclear power is a very sensitive and emotive issue. We have campaigned for the closure of Sellafield for many years and we are all too aware about the risks nuclear power presents.

Fianna Fáil supports the Government in terms of providing aid or personnel to Japan at this very difficult time. The Japanese people have endured so much and have so many challenges ahead of them, we cannot but be impressed with the solidarity, endurance and resilience they have shown in the past two weeks. I extend my deepest sympathies to the Japanese people at this very difficult time.

I express my sympathy to those who lost family members in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and to the Japanese people and Government in general. I have family living in Japan; my cousin, Shane Cahill, works in the embassy in Tokyo and my brother and his family live in Japan. Thankfully all are safe and well, although I still have concerns. My brother and his family live in Nagoya, which is quite far from the area of Japan that was affected by the earthquake and from the Fukushima plant but extended family live in Utsunomiya in the Tokyo area so I am concerned about the nuclear plant in Fukushima.

I welcome the work the Department of Foreign Affairs has done on the issue, and the assistance that has been provided to Irish citizens, along with the work that has been done by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to inform people of the risks that arise in Ireland from radioactive leaks in Japan.

The debate on nuclear energy has arisen again following the incident in Japan. There can be a knee-jerk reaction with some people saying this disaster puts an end to the argument. We cannot say that because there are many nuclear plants around the world, with many situated near Ireland, and we cannot just close them down. There are also issues about energy provision in future. We must engage with this debate in a proper and informed way.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Naoto Kan, has stated that he will provide the European Union with as much information as possible regarding the difficulties at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Apparently he had discussions with the President of the European Council yesterday. It is important that information relating to events at Fukushima, the steps being taken there and the dangers of that have arisen be freely available. Such information must be verifiable and trustworthy. I have been watching broadcasts by the NHK television channel in Japan and it is clear there appears to be a certain amount of distrust among people there with regard to their Government and the information it is providing. It is essential that good, transparent information which people can trust be provided. In that context, all efforts must be made by the Japanese Government, the international community and entities such as the European Commission.

It is important that the necessary steps be taken to minimise the dangers which might arise as a result of the leaking of any radioactive materials. The international community must carry out a full investigation of this matter and that investigation must be lead by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA. We must ask whether the difficulties that have arisen at the Fukushima nuclear plant could have been avoided if better procedures had been in place. We must also ask whether we can learn lessons from the problems that have arisen following the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

The IAEA issued a statement in the aftermath of a meeting held by its board of governors earlier in the week. The statement, which was issued by the chairman of the board, refers to information that was exchanged with the authorities in Japan. It says:

It was emphasized during the Board meeting that the international community had a shared responsibility to ensure that the general public were provided accurate and reliable information of such emergencies to alleviate their concerns and that they must be kept aware of how the respective national authorities were responding to those emergencies.

This is a matter of some importance to Ireland and people here must be kept really well informed because this matter could affect us in the future. It is vital, therefore, that we engage with the process that is envisaged. The statement of the IAEA also indicates:

The Board welcomed the Agency's close cooperation, since the beginning of the crisis, with other international organizations and partners, such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization through the IAEA-FAO Joint Division. The Board emphasized also the need for the enhancement of such cooperation.

The need for Member States' continuous commitment to the application of the highest standards of nuclear safety, and to draw conclusions and learn from the Fukushima nuclear accident was also highlighted.

It is extremely important that we should learn from what has happened.

Nuclear energy exists across the globe. We do not have it in Ireland but countries nearby produce it. Ireland is part of the international community and must do its part to learn from this incident. Any improvements necessary to improve safety at nuclear plants throughout the world must be made in order to ensure that the type of problems which arose on this occasion do not recur. In that context, Ireland must, as much as any other country, engage with that process. Just because we do not utilise nuclear energy in this country does not mean we do not have a responsibility to participate in the process that will arise on foot of this matter.

An article in yesterday'sIrish Examiner referred to a number of nuclear plants in California which are located close to fault-lines or in areas which could be affected by tsunamis. It is important, therefore, that in the context of what might happen in the future we should consider what is happening and that we should try not to repeat some of the mistakes which may have been made on this occasion. We must consider the steps that can be taken to ensure that any new nuclear plants to be constructed in Europe be located in safer areas. I welcome the proposal that Sellafield be included in the stress tests the European Union is planning to carry out.

There is a need to consider the use of alternative energy sources. We must also consider whether there are other options relating to nuclear energy which might prove safe in the future. Research in this area must continue. We cannot just state that we have reached the end of the argument with regard to nuclear power. We must engage fully in the discussion in respect of this matter because nuclear power is in use throughout the world. We must ensure that such power is produced in as safe a manner as possible. In addition, we must ensure that the other options which are available are the subject of close examination.

I thank the Members who contributed to the debate on this matter. I assure them that I will convey to the Government of Japan the unanimous sympathy, concern and solidarity that has been expressed in the House in respect of the Japanese people and the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

I thank Deputy Kitt for his good wishes and for what I interpret as his advice that I perhaps need to be somewhat more forthcoming in singing the praises of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Such praise is deserved because the Department responded both quickly and appropriately to the crisis that has arisen. A crisis centre was established in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami and this enabled Irish people who were concerned about their relatives in Japan to make contact, to establish the whereabouts of the latter and to obtain advice. The embassy in Tokyo responded quite rapidly in the context of contacting Irish citizens who are living in Japan. A number of the staff travelled to the affected area in order to bring back people who were stranded there. The embassy is continuing to provide assistance to these individuals.

Ireland was one of the first countries to respond to this disaster by offering aid and assistance to the people of Japan. We have now made a contribution of €1 million to the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross. We are continuing to monitor the position in respect of the incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. As the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government indicated, we are already learning lessons from what has happened in Japan in this regard. In that context, I was particularly heartened by the contribution of Deputy Finian McGrath, who chose not to repeat in the House the baseless criticisms attributed to him in some weekend editions of the newspapers.

We remain in close contact with the Japanese authorities regarding how best we might assist. We are working to identify a partner in Japan to distribute emergency supplies from this country, including 18,000 blankets. The Japanese Government has asked the EU to restrict assistance to funding for the International Society of the Red Cross and to the emergency supplies to which I refer. The European Council will discuss the situation in Japan — including the EU's response to the crisis and the part to be played by the Irish airlift therein — at its meeting to be held in the coming days.

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn referred to an issue that was raised in the past — and in a previous capacity — by the Ceann Comhairle, namely, the possibility of establishing a citizens corps. Irish Aid operates two corps of highly-skilled volunteers who are deployed to humanitarian crises. These individuals include engineers, logisticians and others who possess the skills most required in emergency situations. These corps were developed in co-operation with the UN and other humanitarian agencies. At present, the two corps comprise 155 members.

We have been provided with a telling reminder of the concerns that exist in respect of nuclear energy, nuclear waste, etc. The Government will pursue the issues that have arisen in this regard. We must focus on the fact that the crisis in Japan is ongoing. As Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan stated, coverage of the crisis has been relegated to the inner pages of newspapers. We will, however, continue to work to provide assistance in respect of the crisis. We will also continue to monitor the position in respect of the nuclear issue, particularly in the context of the concerns that exist. In addition, we will ensure that assistance is provided to those Irish citizens in Japan who need it.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.