Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Discussion

The committee is now in public session. I advise members to switch off their mobile phones.

We will now consider the provisions of the Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 with representatives from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII. I welcome the following witnesses to the meeting: Professor William Reville, chairman and Mr. James Fitzmaurice, board member of the RPII. I thank them for their attendance here this afternoon.

I wish to advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l ) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continues to do so, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statement and any other documentation the witnesses provide to the committee may be published on the committee's website after the meeting concludes.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

As witnesses are aware the Dáil Select Sub-committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government will take Committee Stage of this Bill next Tuesday. The Bill provides for the dissolution of the RPII and the transfer of its functions, staff and assets to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. It also provides for the incorporation of the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material agreed in 2005. Today's meeting is a good opportunity for Members of the Dáil and Seanad to engage with the institute and to hear its expert opinion of the provisions of the Bill prior to its Committee Stage. I now call on the RPII to make its opening statement.

Professor William Reville

I thank the Chairman for inviting us here to talk about this Bill.

I am the chairman of the board of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII. I am accompanied by my fellow board member, Mr. James Fitzmaurice. I thank the committee for inviting us here to talk about the Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014, which provides for the merger of the RPII and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. I find it heartening to participate in an exercise that involves the rational examination of legislation. If the arguments we present are deemed to be of merit, I hope the Oireachtas will agree to make some amendments to the Bill.

The board of the RPII is deeply puzzled about why the Government is insisting on a merger. When this idea was first mooted several years ago, the possible advantages of it were considered in detail. The board of the RPII could identify few, if any, advantages of such a merger. It was able to identify many disadvantages, however. For that reason, it recommended to the Minister in 2011 that a merger of this nature should not happen. The matter was further considered in 2012 when a critical review of the potential of the amalgamation of the two bodies was produced by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The review identified few, if any, advantages but many disadvantages and recommended that the merger should not take place. We all thought that was the end of the matter until the Department of Public Expenditure announced out of the blue that the merger should happen quickly. This was not expected by us. We can identify no real advantages of this proposal. Instead, we suggest that many disadvantages, dangers and hazards are associated with this merger. Perhaps we can elaborate on them during the question and answer session.

While this is commonly referred to as a merger, that is not an accurate description of what is happening. In fact, the RPII is being taken over by the EPA. The RPII is to be dissolved and all of its functions are to be incorporated into the EPA. We understand that many people would naturally think that a marriage between two organisations that are involved in dealing with the environment could be a good thing. That is a misunderstanding of what is happening here. While both organisations deal with environmental matters, the actual roles and functions of the RPII and the EPA are quite different. By and large, the RPII is involved in protecting people against radiation hazards in their environment, whereas the EPA is involved in protecting the environment from being damaged by human activities. As these two types of work are different, they require different approaches. They are viewed in a different light by the stakeholders involved with the RPII and the EPA, respectively. The ideal situation is actually the situation we have now, in which these two environmental functions are separated into two distinct national bodies. This situation obtains in many, if not most, European countries. It is a disadvantage, rather than an advantage, to merge the two organisations. The situation as we have it works well. The RPII works well and I assume the EPA works well. I have heard no criticism of the EPA. The merger of the two organisations offends the basic principle of common sense that "if it ain't broke don't fix it". There is nothing broken about the situation as it is. It is actually the optimum situation.

Having said all of that, of course the board of the RPII recognises the prerogative of the Government to organise these matters as it deems fit. We have many misgivings about the merger - we do not think it is a good idea for radiological protection - but if it is to happen, the only consideration of the RPII board will be to ensure it is arranged in a way that will allow radiological protection to continue to be administered at the high level of quality that obtains at present. I have to admit the Department was not deaf to the representations we made as the Bill was being drafted. Some of the provisions in the Bill were included on foot of the board's encouragement or prompting. Unfortunately, we failed to persuade the Department that some matters we consider very important - the name of the new organisation and the basis on which the arm of the new organisation that will deal with radiation will be established - should be incorporated into the Bill.

The proposed name for the merged organisation is the "Environmental Protection Agency". We think the decision not to include a reference to "radiation" in the name is a bad thing. At the moment, an independent institute - the RPII - deals on a national basis with the organisation of radiological protection. It is known and respected internationally. Of course the people of Ireland and our stakeholders know all about it. That is to disappear. It is proposed that there will be no reference at all to "radiation" in the name of the new organisation. If this proposal is implemented, radiation advice and regulations, etc., will issue from the EPA. I appreciate that it is proposed to set up a new office - the office of radiological protection - within the EPA. When Michael Murphy or someone else is reading out the news about a matter of national importance - for example, the public might badly need to hear some advice about a radiation cloud that is overhead - the announcement will begin with a phrase like "the EPA this morning declared".

The loss of the existing branding in the name of the merged institution will be bad for the profile of radiological protection, which is currently very healthy. It was never stronger than it is now, having been built up patiently by the RPII over 25 years. It is well known internationally. I do not doubt that if this branding is wiped out, it will have a bad effect on the profile of radiological protection in this country. If this area is covered one day by a national institute with its own name - the RPII - but that institute ceases to exist the next day, it is common sense to suggest that this will be perceived as a diminution in the importance accorded to radiological protection. If this merger is to proceed, we would like the name of the proposed new institute to be amended to include a reference to "radiation". This could be done very simply. The name "Environmental Protection Agency" could be changed to "Environmental and Radiological Protection Agency" or some equivalent name.

The Bill proposes that radiological protection in the new body will be administered by a new office to be created within the EPA and to be called the office of radiological protection. If this merger happens, it will be a huge change for the RPII. It will be part of a body that has a completely different culture and an executive board. Our board is non-executive. It will be a shock to the RPII to be part of the new body. It will take a number of years for it to settle down.

The culture of the EPA is that its individual offices are quite flexible. Under the eye of the CEO of the EPA, functions assigned to different offices can change. I have heard noises already that what will be established as the office of radiological protection could change after a year or so. It will take several years for the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to bed down properly and it is important that there would be no chopping and changing during that period. To ensure that is the case, we would like the office of radiological protection to be established in legislation. That does not mean it could never be changed but it would not be changed quickly. A good period should be allowed to elapse before any chopping and changing would occur within the EPA.

Those are two amendments the board would like to see if the merger is going ahead, in order to give a good chance that radiological protection will proceed into the future with the same level of efficiency and expertise that it has at present.

I thank Mr. Reville for attending and giving us his views on the proposed legislation. What way is the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland funded at the moment and what is the annual budget of the RPII?

Professor William Reville

If Deputy Corcoran Kennedy does not mind I will pass the question over to Mr. Fitzmaurice as he is on the audit committee.

Mr. James Fitzmaurice

It is a mixture of licence fees, which are paid by stakeholders, and also Government subvention. The budget is approximately €4 million in total.

Mr. Reville mentioned that there are hazards involved in merging the institute with the EPA. Could he expand a little on what he perceives as the hazards of the merger?

Professor William Reville

At the moment the Radiological Protection Institute has direct access to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and advises the Government directly on all matters to do with radiation. From time to time, some of those issues are controversial matters that have a high emotional impact with the public. I refer, for example, to the accident at Chernobyl and the fallout that arrived in this country a week later. More recently there was the accident at Fukushima and the fallout that came here. On an ongoing basis we have the UK nuclear industry and possible accidents and events happening there. The public is very interested and concerned about those matters.

At the moment the RPII reports directly to the Government on such matters and gives independent scientific advice. That is recognised and we have a high level of trust with the public which was built up slowly and patiently over the years. It was not always there. If the new merged situation obtains, the office of radiological protection, ORP, will not have direct access to the Government. It will be an office within the EPA. The EPA is a much bigger organisation than the RPII with many other considerations and irons in the fire. I do not mean to suggest anything ominous but whatever advice comes from the ORP in the new EPA will be filtered before it goes to Government. There could well be considerations and modifications. All sorts of different pressures could come to bear in the bigger organisation that do not obtain at the moment within the single, independent Radiological Protection Institute. It would not necessarily be the case that the Government would get the same quality and independence of advice in the new merged situation.

Surely there would not be any concern if the information is coming from the office of radiological protection and the expertise is within the office. Is Mr. Reville suggesting that someone is going to filter the information and not give accurate information to the Minister? That is wildly speculative.

Professor William Reville

Yes, that is speculation We are not talking about the past. It is nature. I am speculating. What I am saying is that at the moment the institute has direct access to the Government but in the new situation that will not be the case. The ORP will go through the CEO of the EPA. I was careful to point out that I do not read anything ominous into that. It is just that the new situation will be far more complex and will be subjected to all sorts of variables that do not obtain at the moment. There can be all sorts of pressures and opinions floating around. I do not refer to uncontentious matters such as radon. I refer to nuclear matters. There are bodies in society that are ideologically opposed to the nuclear industry and they make arguments that something is very dangerous that scientifically does not seem to be very dangerous. All of those things are floating about. Advice on such matters is not straightforward and can be subject to political considerations.

Mr. Reville mentioned the EPA’s flexible policy in a negative manner. What does he mean by that?

Professor William Reville

No, I do not mean what I said in a negative manner. The flexibility suits the EPA and works well for the organisation. It has four offices at the moment dealing with different parts of the environment but it can chop and change the responsibilities and work and swap between the offices if it sees fit. That is not intrinsically a bad thing but I would not like to see the office of radiological protection interfered with in such a manner for at least several years after it is set up in the EPA. In order to bed it down properly I would prefer to see it established in legislation because that would put on a lot of inertia, and if pressure came on to chop and change it, that would not be easily or quickly done. I would prefer to see it embedded in legislation. Why would it not be? It is qualitatively different from everything else the EPA does. It is a whole institute that is now being put into the EPA. Why would it not merit “radiation” in the name of the new merged institute? Apart from any other consideration, it seems to be very unfair that it would not be the case. It would be bad for the morale of the Radiological Protection Institute to be erased in such a manner.

What about other countries? Is the radiological protection institute in the UK a separate entity or is it part of a bigger health protection body?

Professor William Reville

It varies from country to country. A majority have a situation similar to this country where there is an RPII-like institute dealing with radiation. If the country has a nuclear industry it will also deal with the radiological aspects of said industry. The general environment work will be dealt with in a separate institute. That is a common model in Europe. It is not universal but it is common. I think that is the logical way to do it.

I have a question for Mr. Reville, as a matter of interest, which I hope you permit, Chair, as it is slightly off the topic. We have had much discussion on the various types of renewable energy and low-carbon energy. Does Mr. Reville believe nuclear energy would be an advantage to us as a nation or is that outside his remit?

Professor William Reville

This is a personal opinion because the Radiological Protection Institute has no official position either for or against nuclear energy. Its brief is simply the protection of the public and professionals against the hazards of ionising radiation, whether that comes from a nuclear source or a non-nuclear source. My personal opinion is that a nuclear station would be of great benefit to the country.

In view of the climate change problem, the nuclear industry would be a great asset. It does not emit carbon dioxide warming gas and it is very well understood. There have been some accidents and while the modern design of the nuclear plant is not entirely foolproof, it is close to it. The hazards from accidents associated with the modern nuclear plant are extremely low now. I agree there are still some problems with the long-term storage of waste, but there are solutions to that as well. I have no interest in the nuclear industry per se, but in view of the climate change problem, it is a way to generate electricity and it is very efficient compared with the renewables and we understand the technology 100%. It is extremely well understood. We could push a button and get all our electricity from nuclear energy without too many problems and that source does not emit warming gases.

Strictly speaking, I must call Deputy Stanley next.

I thank Mr. William Reville and Mr. James Fitzmaurice for coming in. I have read their document. The point Mr. Reville covered in his response to a question from Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's is one the issues of concern to me. I refer to how the RPII would fit within the EPA and the fact that the witnesses want that legislated for to protect the identity of the RPII within the EPA.

For the purpose of the meeting, I ask Deputy Corcoran Kennedy to take the Chair. Is that agreed ? Agreed.

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy took the Chair.

The other point Mr. Reville raised was the incorporation of the name of the RPII in some form into the name of the EPA to reflect that it is a merger of the two as opposed to the RPII being subsumed into the EPA and to have the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland on a statutory footing in primary legislation. I realise from where they are coming on that and Mr. Reville set out the argument for that quite well. On a personal level, I must disagree with his last answer but that is not what we are here to discuss today. In the context of the matter before us, what is the number of staff in the RPII? I do not know if Mr. Reville is aware of the number of staff in the EPA and it would be helpful if he had that figure. Is there a concern that if the RPII is merged, amalgamated or subsumed into the EPA, the expertise and grades within the RPII will diminish over a period of time and the effectiveness of the office in terms of its level of expertise and competence will dissipate?

Mr. James Fitzmaurice

I will respond to that question. The EPA is about eight times the size of the RPII. There are 43 staff in the RPII and 340 in the EPA and they are based in Wexford and in Dublin. The loss of staff or expertise is always a possibility in a devolved organisation and probably not as a great in a specialist organisation.

Can we have one discussion only, please. Mr. Fitzmaurice has the floor.

Mr. James Fitzmaurice

There is probably not as great a chance of loss in a specialist organisation that deals with one element. In its purest sense, the RPII's primary function is to protect people from the environment and the EPA's primary function is to protect the environment from people. While both organisations deal with the environment, they come from diametrically opposed viewpoints. It is possible that there could be a conflict of interest on the scientific end within the organisation.

I interrupt Mr. Fitzmaurice as I note a vote has been called in the Seanad. The two Senators might like to pose their questions briefly before they have to leave for the vote.

We will have to leave within three minutes. I may not be able to wait for the reply but I will get it in written format. I have read the submission and I apologise for not being here for the presentation. On the two most important aspects that the witnesses have mentioned, the change of name and incorporating the name of the RPII into the EPA, my first reaction to that on reading the submission was that the function of the EPA is broader than protecting the environment from people. Its function is to promote sustainable development to protect all of the environment which includes the people working together in a cohesive force for the protection of all for sustainable development. Therefore, it incorporates all of that. I was delighted to note in the new legislation that the RPII will have a separate office within the EPA, which would give it a stand-alone function. We do not see many bodies in a merger granted that status, rather they are submerged and merged into one umbrella body. The provision for what is deemed a new office, that of the office of radiological protection, should allay some of the fears the witnesses enunciated. It provides that there will be a dedicated office and it will carry forward the body's aims and objectives, and I congratulate the body on the work it has done. What will that office be doing if it not doing the work that the witnesses are doing? The matter of names and administration is secondary to the work. What is important is that the aims and objectives of the witnesses' work is carried on in that new office and that is the purpose for which it will be in place. As a new office it will also have new work to do. I hope that will allay some of the witnesses' fears. The witnesses mentioned two matters and the most important of those is the name of the merged body and basis of the proposed new relationship that will administer radiological protection. It is in all of our interests, those of the EPA and everybody outside the EPA on this planet that the work of the RPII continues because it for our protection and it is in the interests of everybody. I do not think anybody will take their eye off the ball.

Does Senator Mac Conghail wish to pose a question?

No, I am going to stay. When Mr. Fitzmaurice has responded to Deputy Stanley's questions I will then ask mine.

I ask Mr. Fitzmaurice to resume his response to Deputy Stanley's questions.

Mr. James Fitzmaurice

We see this merger going ahead. It is not the case that it will not go ahead at this stage. On the background to it, the board of the RPII examined the possible benefits and savings, if any, that might accrue through such a merger and we found there to be little or none. There is a possibility that a saving on the cost of the board of €60,000 a year could be made and that would be about it, but that would be eaten up with expenses of travelling to Wexford. It is estimated there are no real savings to be gained and that it will cost €800,000, or perhaps more, to effect the merger. The question that must be asked is that if a body is performing extremely well, doing its job, has a very high reputational value within the country with the stakeholders and internationally and it is not a good fit with another body ideologically, why go ahead with it? We recognise the budgetary constraints of the Government and that it is trying to do away with many of what have been classified as quangos but in this case it is a matter of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in so far as we do not see any gain. There is no gain for the public in Ireland or for the scientific community and there are only dangers.

If the merger is to go ahead despite that, we are trying to ensure a few amendments are made to the legislation that would at least make sure that the radiological aspect of the organisation is recognised. We propose that the letter "R" be put into the title of the EPA such that it would be the "ERPA" and that the office of the radiological protection would be recognised on a statutory basis. We do not consider those proposals a huge ask and they would give recognition to all the stakeholders at home and internationally that we still have a view of the importance of radiological protection. Currently, the RPII deals with the issue of ionising radiation, radiation from radon and medical devices.

According to the Minister, the new body will be tasked with non-ionising radiation sources which will include radio masts and pylons. This will be an area where credibility will be paramount. The public will want to believe that what is being said is scientifically correct and by a body with credibility. The RPII, Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, has credibility in this field. To diminish that credibility in any shape or form does not make sense.

We have concerns about the proposals concerning the name, particularly after the RPII’s UK counterpart was subsumed into a larger body and different aspects of its work were divvied out. There is a much better argument to merge the RPII with the HSE, Health Service Executive, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency. The HSE is about protecting people from illness and damage. That is what the RPII is doing. It has a medical element to it.

I better put on the record that I am very much against nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. There are other areas around climate change where we could resolve this issue.

What does the RPII believe are the advantages to a merger from the Government’s point of view? Professor William Reville was re-appointed in January 2012 by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Were there any discussions or conditions attached about the possible merger or dissolution of RPII? If so, would that have given Professor Reville an opportunity to make his views known to the Minister? What was the Minister’s response then?

I take it the delegation is speaking on behalf of the board of the RPII and that a clear majority share the views we have heard today. It is unclear from the Bill as to the role of the chief executive officer of the RPII. Is it the case that the chief executive officer becomes a director from the period of dissolution to 30 April 2016? Is there a certain expertise at senior executive level to be lost with the possible merger with the EPA?

The RPII published a major document on the proposed new nuclear power plants in the UK. I attended a briefing here when it was launched a while ago. My concern with the possible merger is the RPII’s role to provide advice to the Government on matters relating to radiological safety. When the UK Government decided to proceed with the construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, there was no formal consultation process, particularly on the transboundary effect in that the Hinkley site is only 150 miles from Dublin. The Minister claimed he had consultations with UK Ministers on this. What role did the RPII play in that consultation process? What is its view on a transboundary screening exercise being done in advance of a decision being taken to build another nuclear power station at Hinkley?

Professor William Reville

I was appointed from 1 January 2012 to the RPII. At the time, it was assumed the merger was not on the cards. In 2011, the board had sent a detailed report to the Minister on its evaluation of any advantages or outcomes from a merger. It was all very clear and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government was convinced that no one was identifying any significant advantages to a merger.

Was that given in writing?

Professor William Reville

The Department carried out a critical review of the potential for the amalgamation of the EPA and the RPII which was completed in 2012. In its findings, it stated:

The Department has carried out an analysis of the proposed merger of EPA and RPII using the guiding principles out lined in the memo for Government referred to in Secretary General Watt’s letter [dated 28 March, 2012]. It is our view that the relatively modest financial benefit of merging the two organisations (potential maximum savings of €80,000 per annum) is far outweighed by the administrative costs, inherent reputational risks and legislative complexities of such a merger.

There is a risk that a merger in this instance would not contribute to the leaner and more focussed public service desired by the Government, but risk a blurring of each body’s considerable national and international responsibilities.

That was the Department’s considered view. I have heard no argument from anybody identifying any clear advantage to the merger. That is why I began my presentation stating that our board is mightily puzzled as to why this merger is being insisted on. The net income will be that where there are two bodies, there will only be one.

Do all members of the board get fees of about €10,000 each?

Professor William Reville

No, the chair gets approximately €12,000 while ordinary board members get approximately €4,500.

Mr. James Fitzmaurice

It is actually €7,000.

Professor William Reville

Is it? There are 12 members on the board so this comes to €80,000, the same as the figure of savings stated in the assessment. This would be mopped up by expenses of travelling to Wexford. A new advisory committee to advise the new office of radiological protection in the EPA would be established and its expenses would also mop up these potential savings.

I do not know the Government’s reasons for the merger. No one has ever come up with a reason, except making one organisation where there are two. Maybe it is like the followers of Pythagoras in Ancient Greece who were fascinated by numbers. They reckoned the secret to the whole universe was based on numbers and, accordingly, worshipped them. In this case, it seems to be the worship of the number "One" rather than the number "Two". I do not understand the reasons for it.

In principle, there would be no danger of losing expertise in the new body. Our chief executive officer, if the merger happens, will transfer to be the head of the new office of radiological protection. Her contract has been extended through to 2016.

We lobbied for this in order to bed down the new office properly. Dr. Ann McGarry, our chief executive officer, has extensive experience and is extremely capable. We would have been very worried if her contract had been allowed to run out in 2014. The intention had been that it would only be extended for a year and there was a further delay so if the merger happened she could have been in the EPA only ten months before the question of who would be CEO was up in the air again. We were very worried about this and the Department agreed to extend her tenure for a longer period. Other senior members and all staff will transfer to the new organisation so there is no reason to suspect that the office of radiological protection, ORP, in the new body will be depleted in terms of scientific expertise. I do not know what will happen but I see no reason for fear.

On a regular and routine basis the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, consults with the UK authorities and is reasonably satisfied with the level of information from the other side. I cannot address specific questions on what happened at Hinkley Point in detail. As far as I am aware the ongoing consultations with the UK authorities are satisfactory and this contrasts with the situation years ago when they were loth to give information. The atmosphere has changed and things are more transparent now.

We are talking about savings of only €100,000 but then there is the additional cost of board members travelling to Wexford on top-dollar mileage rates. I have heard no reasonable reason from the Government as to why this merger should happen and the RPII should be dissolved. This is happening in all Departments, including the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. This nonsensical merger is happening in order to cut board fees rather than for an ideological or administrative advantage. My concern is that the RPII's expertise will be watered down in terms of its public advocacy on nuclear energy issues. Some of us may disagree on those issues but they should be kept in the public realm and there should be education on the topic.

Would either of the witnesses like to make any more comments?

Professor William Reville

I thank the committee for inviting us and allowing us to present our case. I am impressed with the mechanisms in place to ensure a Bill that comes before the Houses for scrutiny is not regarded as a fait accompli. Bills are scrutinised here and we hope that if the merger goes ahead the two amendments we seek will be implemented. We hope the Oireachtas will be persuaded by our argument and recommend the requests we make relating to the new organisation's name and the statutory basis for the new office of radiological protection. These matters should be recommended to the Government so it will incorporate the changes in the Bill.

That concludes our consideration of the topic for this session. I thank the witnesses for assisting us.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.15 p.m. until 2.15 p.m. on Tuesday, 24 June 2014.