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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Feb 1986

Vol. 111 No. 7

Request under Standing Order 29. - Sellafield Nuclear Plant.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

The matter arising under Standing Order 29 was raised by Senator Lanigan. The time limit is an hour and a half and I suggest that the Minister be allowed 20 minutes to reply, if that is agreed.

We have adopted an unusual procedure this evening in the sense that it is very seldom that we move the Adjournment of the Seanad for matters which are considered to be important. The matter that is under discussion this evening is a matter of grave concern not alone to us in this House, not alone to people in the other House, not alone to people who are alive in Ireland today, but indeed I consider that it is of importance that we have a full debate on the activities of this plant in as much as it might concern the unborn. I am not an expert in the nuclear area; unfortunately, there seems to be very few experts in that area. Again, unfortunately, those who consider themselves to be experts seem to disagree as to the element of danger involved in the organisation and management of a nuclear plant. But whatever our concerns are about the organisation and methodology of the running of a nuclear plant, it appears that Sellafield is badly run, badly organised and is a health hazard, not alone for people in this country but equally for people in England. It would also appear that, unfortunately, one of the only reasons that that plant is kept in production is because of the fact that a large number of people are employed there.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited, who run the plant, seem to feel that because they are major contributors to the social, economic and cultural life of the area surrounding that plant they can do whatever they like and it does not make any difference what happens as a result of what they do. It is interesting to read on the front page of the New Statesman in its edition of 19 September 1984:

The Sellafield connection — BNFL welcomes you to Sellafield. Do not bathe. Do not touch any man made object. Do not breathe too deeply.

It is equally extremely interesting to read that BNFL are very involved in "enviromental protection". BNFL admitted to the membership of the Cumbria Tourist Board that, nestling at the edge of the country's foremost national park amid spectacular scenery, according to the tourist board information, is a unique nuclear attraction for tourists. The chairman of the tourist board was, and still is, Labour Councillor, Tony Hildrop, employed at Sellafield on the advanced gas-cooled reactor. Again not a word of condemnation has been uttered by the tourist board over the November contamination incident and the consequent collapse of the coastal tourist trade.

It is interesting that nobody goes to visit the beaches around Cumbria. We have heard in this country over the last number of years doctors, scientists and interested people suggesting that there may be causation factors in medical problems from the Sellafield project. We have heard of a very high incidence of stillbirth in areas on the east coast of Ireland which could possibly be as a result of the wind drift from Sellafield. We have heard of the possible consequences of deformity in children. We have heard of high instances of radiation in fish and of radioactive levels in the Irish Sea in areas where there is no doubt that Sellafield could be a causation factor. Radioactivity near the plant is reckoned to be higher than in other areas on the west coast of England.

Nobody knows the consequences of radioactivity. We have been advised that the radioactivity levels as a result of the mismanagement of that plant have been high, but no higher than one would get from the natural environment surrounding an area in which there was not a nuclear plant. But, however there is no doubt but that this plant, which has been in operation since the fifties, is outdated and badly run. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind but that we in this House should support the Minister in his efforts to have a full and frank investigation made as to what happens in that plant. We should ensure that there is a full and frank discussion at EC level, not alone about this plant, but about other plants which are out of date, which are badly managed and which are supported by a Government which do not seem to care what happens to either the people in their area or on this side of the Irish Sea.

The official report about the latest Sellafield incident suggests that the wind was coming from the east so that there would have been no damage behind the wind. But of course there would not have been very much damage because the wind was blowing towards Ireland. Any difficulties that would have come about, if there are difficulties, would have come across to Ireland rather than have been a problem in England. There is no regular monitoring. We cannot control the monitoring because Sellafield are giving false information. They have given out false information to the Black committee which reported on that plant. They gave false information last week when they suggested that only two people might have been contaminated and it turned out that at least 11 people were contaminated; and one of them had more than the level of contamination that would be acceptable in a year's radiation factor.

In this House this evening I sincerely hope that we can just add to the voice of the Tánaiste and Minister for Energy and our MEPs who are raising this matter in Europe to ensure that that plant is properly monitored. I would suggest that the plant be closed down. I would suggest that, if we get a proper monitoring body in the EC, it would end up in a total closure. It is easy to be flippant about this matter. It is easy to suggest that it is not a matter of major urgency because it does not effect us today. I have six children and I sincerely hope that not one of them comes into contact with a radioactivity level which is man made. If there is a radioactivity level in this country which is naturally there, there is nothing we can do about it. But we should have some control over the unnatural emission from a plant which is badly managed and in which the management tell lies all along the line. They tell lies not alone to the EC but also to the Black committee. I will quote from a report of a debate in the House of Commons in 1983:

The discharges followed the washing out of the reprocessing plant in the course of annual maintenance. Following a management error in the operation of that plant,

They admit that there is a management error.

radioactive liquids including solvent, and particulate matter of higher than normal activity, were transferred to a sea tank. Attempts were made to transfer the more active material to another storage tank. This was only partially successful and a significant quantity of radioactivity was discharged to the sea.

Since 1983 there have been more significant emissions which have not been properly monitored. I am afraid that I have no further confidence in the management of that plant. Not alone that but I have no confidence in the British Government in their monitoring of the management of that plant. The debate also stated:

Real anger and concern felt by the community in west Cumbria and people much further afield about this incident, which is widely regarded as something that simply should not have calls into question the competence of management at the plant and that public acceptance of the nuclear industry's operations has thus been unnecessarily damaged.

We have all watched films of what can happen if there is a nuclear discharge in an area. We always see, and it has been put across very well by the operators of nuclear plants, that they provide very necessary employment in areas of high unemployment. The reason some of these plants go into these areas is that no other plant would go in there anyway. Therefore they put what is an unnecessary plant, a plant which is unsafe, into an area of high unemployment and they get away with it. I sincerely hope that that is something that we, in this country, would not accept. We are in the wind drift of that plant. We are in the sea drift of that plant and as a result we seem to be the people who will ultimately have to bear the brunt of the problems associated with it, whether these problems are health or otherwise. It is unfortunate that we do not have the results of major studies that are being carried out into cancer, stillbirth and Downs Syndrome problems. The number of problems that are being investigated as a result of the operation of that plant which have not yet been brought back are too numerous to mention.

Apparently not only the French were pursuing Greenpeace. BNFL pursued Greenpeace for contempt of court and as a result Greenpeace were fined £50,000 for producing a report which said that BNFL were producing emissions which were higher than normal. If that is justice I am a Dutchman. When I say Dutchman I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. As far as emission standards from Sellafield are concerned we have nothing but glowing reports, and the glow is all from the radiation which the people who have been in contact with it have felt. Sellafield is likely to be raised in the European Parliament and I hope it is. I think that Sellafield should be closed down. It has been accepted in most areas that it would have been closed down were it not for the high employment content in that area.

I do not want to be over-alarmist. When I walk out the door I do not know whether I breathe air which has a lot of radiation in it. Maybe there is natural radiation in the air outside and if that is so, so be it. I do not want to walk out into an atmosphere which is being polluted artificially by a factory which is being badly managed and which does not have the type of control that anyone would consider to be normal in a factory which has chemical or nuclear possibilities.

One paper stated that a Dundalk doctor is worried by the stillbirth rate. Anybody who watched the programme on stillbirths on RTE some time ago in which a study was done by a group of school children from a particular area around Dundalk on a group of girls who had gone to a school in Dundalk, would realise that there was an abnormally high stillbirth rate among the girls who went to that school during the time of emissions from Sellafield in the late fifties. It stated that what is particularly worrying is that we are still getting a high number of stillbirths among first time pregnancies. One group of 57 had two or more miscarriages and 312 pregnancies between them. Out of that figure they had a total of 163 miscarriages. That is according to Dr. Mary Grehan at a meeting of the Irish College of General Practitioners, and that to me was more startling. If someone had a miscarriage one would hope they would be luckier the next time. The normal rate is only 11 per cent to 26 per cent for a subsequent miscarriage. This group had a figure of 52.2 per cent. There is no generalisation in this. It is suggested that the high stillbirth rate is due to a badly managed nuclear plant.

To allow other speakers to contribute to this debate I do not intend to go any further except to say to the Tánaiste when he goes to speak at either European or British level that that plant should be closed down. He should say that and say it categorically. If it is ever reopened it should reopen with every possible management technique to ensure that no emissions are allowed into the Irish Sea. Even if it means that there will be a higher than normal unemployment level in that area we must ensure that even the remotest possibility of problems in Ireland is eliminated.

First, I wish to commend Senator Lanigan for affording this House the opportunity of debating this most urgent and crucial issue. I am cognisant of the fact that many Senators from all sides of the House wish to contribute on it, and I will keep my own remarks as brief as possible so that the full crossparty feelings of the House on this issue are on the record in support of the Tánaiste's actions in underlining the point to BNFL.

My interest in the whole nuclear industry goes back quite some time to the proposal in the later part of the seventies to establish a nuclear power facility in this country at Carnsore Point, some 12 miles from my own home. That project was heartily welcomed by the people of Wexford in the beginning because it afforded some hope to an area which was at that time beginning to feel the brunt of unemployment. The Wexford council of trade unions and the workers of Wexford looked foward with relish to the jobs that would be the spin-off from that facility. However, as the people of Wexford dug deeper and deeper into the workings of this proposed facility and the sister facilities around the world, we learned slowly and carefully of the dangers that this plant would pose to the Irish people and to the people of Wexford in particular. We organised ourselves and the culmination of the determined will of the people of Wexford and the people of Ireland was that no such facility was ever built, to the eternal credit of this country.

I had the dubious privilege two years ago of visiting Sellafield at the invitation of BNFL to view the marvellous facilities they had there. Certainly, every effort was made by the employees to convince us of the soundness of the facility and those operating it and of the care with which they carried out their duties. However, I for one was not convinced. The delegation involved all three major parties and none of the delegation went away happy from that visit.

The history of Sellafield, formerly Windscale, is a straighforward one. Windscale was originally established not as an integral part of the British energy programme but more an integral part of the British military programme. It was an integral part of the nuclear deterrent that Britain was determined to have in the post-war phase. The whole history of radiation and the dangers of radiation are very recent. The first man-made atomic explosion took place during the Second World War, so the history of man-made radiation is some forty-odd years old. We have learned a lot in that 40 years but every year that passes teaches us more. Every year that passes warns us of the safety standards that we have and requires those in the industry to constantly modify and reduce the acceptable level of radiation to which citizens are exposed. The standards that were in place 30 years ago bear no resemblance to the standards in place now. I believe firmly that the standards that are in place now as acceptable will be modified beyond all reason in the future because there is obviously no level of radiation that is acceptable. This facility across the Irish Sea poses a threat to the entire population of this country.

Sellafield poses a problem when it is working normally. It gives off emissions of radioactive effluent into the Irish Sea making it, many contend, one of the most radioactive polluted seas in the world. But when it has one of its so-called incidents — a euphemism used in the nuclear industry for accidents and for mishaps — obviously the threat to the Irish people is multiplied by an enormous factor. That is the situation in the short term. In the long term the dangers imposed on the Irish and the British people by this facility include disposal of the high level of waste which is currently stored on land within the Sellafield complex. There is no adequate solution to the waste storage problem. Scientists within the nuclear industry have spent year after year devising new strategies for disposing of this high level of waste. The theories they have come up with so far have ranged from encasing it in concrete and dumping it in the sea to encasing it in glass and burying it in geologically stable rock formations on land. Neither is a particularly desirable legacy to leave to future generations. This business is unhealthy, unsafe and a liability for countless generations to come.

From the Irish perspective we have had as I said the Carnsore experience. We have had the benefit of the debate that the Carnsore proposal engendered in Ireland. We know the cost and we have rejected that. We have said as a people, that we will not accept the nuclear option. But like it or not we are faced with the threat of nuclear contamination, not from a facility operated to the benefit of the Irish people but from a facility which gives us no benefit whatsoever. It is wholly and totally unacceptable that the Irish people should be adversely and directly affected by a facility such as this.

Another factor I would like to put on record of the House is the danger posed not only from the operation of the plant itself but because of the associated dangers with this facility. It is one of only two reprocessing facilities in Western Europe. The other one is at Cape de la Hage in France. Other nuclear facilities around the world use Windscale as a dumping ground for their nuclear waste. They are quite happy to pay BNFL who have a very healthy profit margin at the end of the year. They are quite happy to be the nuclear dustbin of the world. The nuclear rubbish passes frequently up and down the Irish coast in vessels on their way to dock at facilities near Cumbria. Standing at Carnsore point, the wouldbe site of the first Irish nuclear facility, one can actually see vessels moving up St. George's Channel, hugging the coast on their way to Cumbria with their deadly cargoes. God help us if there is ever an accident on board one of those vessels, which obviously would be another major source of contamination for the Irish Sea and the Irish coast.

That is the situation. What are we going to do about it as a people? It is a fact that we have been more than tolerant of this facility. Those of us who have been involved in monitoring this issue over many years have never demanded before that the facility should close. We were aware that 11,000 people, a staggering number, are employed in the facility and associated companies from the Cumbrian region. We said that we could not demand that it should close. But now we have reached the stage, with three significant admitted accidents in as many weeks, where we can tolerate no more. I now call for it to be closed. I ask the Tánaiste when he goes to meet his British counterparts not simply to ask for increased information or increased monitoring. We know the damage it is doing. It must close. It must no longer pose a major threat to Irish people, born and unborn. I would ask the Attorney General to advise the Government on what legal redress is open to the Irish people to take action to protect themselves from this menace. I make no apology for calling it that now. The lovely phrase used by the industry itself is that they want to reduce emissions to what they call ALARA, which means as low as reasonably achievable. As far as I am concerned no level is low enough to satisfy me. No level is acceptable to me and I urge and request the Tánaiste, with the support of the Government, to immediately demand the closure of this facility and the removal of this threat, which hangs as a giant nuclear shadow over us all.

May I also welcome the speed with which the Seanad has been allowed to debate this very serious subject and also the unanimity with which the parties this evening have approached it? That is in some way in contrast to what happened in the other House yesterday because this is too serious an issue to make party political points about. It is an issue which affects us all. It is not an issue about which anybody should be in any way frivolous.

We have a common interest with the British Government in what happens at Sellafield and I am not sure that we are right in this House in an outright condemnation of the British Government at this stage because it is in the British Government's interest as well that nothing goes wrong in Sellafield, that there is no leakage of nuclear waste. I hope that in the spirit, if not as part of the institutional structure of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, representations made on this to the British Government are listened to and acted upon. It will be a significant factor to see what response we get on an issue of this sort, which affects us all.

Like the other speakers in this House, I am technically very deficient on matters to do with nuclear energy. We are not, as far as I know, in any immediate danger as a result of what happened yesterday and the series of events, but that is irrelevant because what we are talking about is a principle and we could easily be in immediate danger if something far more serious had happened in Sellafield over the years. Unfortunately, there could be a much greater catastrophe in Sellafield and we are lucky I suspect that the series of relatively minor events have given us a warning and leave us prepared for something much worse that could happen.

That is why it is right that this debate was allowed today, as it is a matter of urgent national interest because of its potential danger. On a very basic level it is a civil right and a civil liberty of every citizen of this country and of Great Britain that we should not be exposed to contamination from nuclear waste. That is why it is important. That is why I think it may be, as was said yesterday in the other House, a matter for the European Commission on Human Rights. It is an infringement of citizens' civil rights that they should be contaminated by nuclear energy against their wishes, leaving them helpless. We know very little because the release of information has been so scarce and misleading but what we do know about Sellafield is that there is something seriously wrong there.

The series of events that have happened are not a total coincidence I suggest. There are too many of them in the last month for us not to know that something is wrong, at least with the safety procedures or with the monitoring in Sellafield and we have a right — and it is no interference with the British Government's position — to ask what is wrong and to demand that it is put right. In practical terms, it is unrealistic for us to say that we demand that Sellafield be closed. In practical terms I suspect that Sellafield will not be closed but we do know that on 5 February radioactive plutonium gas escaped. We do know that 11 men were affected and, as Senator Lanigan said, one to the maximum limits of what a man is allowed to be affected in this position and we do know that BNFL issued a totally misleading statement about it. When we are getting misleading information on a matter as serious as that. We know that there is a cover up going on and it must be investigated.

Yesterday, again, we had a similar situation and I do not believe that any statements from BNFL on yesterday have any credibility any more. Sellafield is, to say the very least, a highly accident prone situation and there is no point in speculating on the theories of what is happening. What we do know is that we will have to demand an investigation to see that the monitoring procedures are right. It is also alarming to have read about a Sunday Times report which said that earlier in the history of nuclear energy a statement was issued, which is now being exposed, which shows that the exposure to radiation was 40 times greater than what was revealed at the time. When we are dealing with such a sensitive issue as this, we know that we have consistently been misled.

I do not know the best solution to this; but I suspect it is not, as has been suggested, that an Irish presence specifically be put in Sellafield. As Senator Lanigan said, this matter is so serious that not just a debate here will bring it to the attention of BNFL, but it should be taken into the European arena. Whether it is debated in the European Parliament or not — and it appears that this item for some reason has been moved down the agenda — I believe there is an unanswerable case for putting in inspectors or a European commission to investigate what is going on.

I speak on this not as a scientist but simply as a citizen of this country getting slightly alarmed at the way things are going. Reference has already been made to the standards by which Sellafield must work, this ALARA principle, which is as low as reasonably achievable. For something as serious as Sellafield to talk about as low as reasonably achievable — what "reasonable" means I do not know and what is reasonable at this stage could be a disaster in ten years' time. If they added "M" to it and made it "alarm" and decided that it should be to allow the least amount of radioactive material, they might be getting much nearer to the point.

When I consider that reports which were given back in 1954 and 1955 were wrong and that the leakages and the radioactivity was 40 times stronger than they actually said, it makes me wonder what exactly is going on in that establishment. When there is radioactive plutonium escaping and workers contaminated and the workers there going on a half day strike, it makes me much more worried than I normally would be, because they are the people inside this plant. They know what is going on. They obviously can see danger to themselves and, therefore, they are taking an active part in making sure that there is some improvement on it.

There are so many contradictions on this that it is hard to know what the real story is. The Dundalk babies were mentioned already, and the suggestion was that this escape did not help them. The Black report said that leukaemia was not caused by Sellafield, so it is very hard to know what exactly is going on. I read in today's edition of the paper that about 250 gallons of contaminated water escaped from a broken drain pipe into an open trench and the authorities at the complex admitted to this. If in some place as serious as that a broken drain pipe can allow radioactive material to escape then we are really at the pits because any of us who have houses of our own would not have drain pipes leaking. We would be embarrassed from a pride point of view alone, but if that statement which is attributed to the authorities is true then it is an absolute disaster. It seems to me like a place that is kept together with strings and pieces of wire, a thing of shreds and patches or a type of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but with far more danger. Regardless of the employment that is given there, we may have a far more serious happening here than unemployment if something goes wrong there. I am not a scientist and do not really know what could go wrong over there but, reading what we have at the moment leaves you wondering quite a lot about what could happen over there.

I will not call on the Minister to do anything because I trust the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach. They are over there today meeting the people involved. I hope they know exactly what is going on there and I will leave it to their judgment. I am glad they are meeting their counterparts in England because this problem is something we may regret very much in ten years' time. We do not know. What is being dumped at the moment may be far too strong and perhaps it will not disappear as it is supposed to. We could be hanging a time bomb around our necks. The stronger the line we take on it the better, because our future could be at stake and certainly the future of our children.

We are talking about this matter at a time when the Seanad is about to debate the Air Pollution Bill which I know is a totally different matter. It is a totally different form of pollution. Nonetheless, not for the first time we can say that pollution of some kind or other is something than concerns all of us. This nuclear plant at Sellafield is causing problems not for the first time. For the second time in two weeks it has again caused real problems and concern for many people.

Senator Browne referred to the most recent leak, that of 20 gallons of contaminated water which escaped, as he said, from a broken drain pipe into an open trench, seemingly all taken very casually. Surely this would not happen on an ordinary farm. It seems to me that that particular event and, indeed, the leakage of the radioactive plutonium gas which escaped into a building of the plant on 5 February, is taken far too easily and casually. Senator Browne referred to the fact that so many hundreds of workers, employees of the plant, decided that they should strike for proper safety regulations. This further highlights the fact that it is a very, very serious matter indeed.

It seems to me that massive untruths, massive coverups, massive doubts have been expressed right across the board in regard to this serious problem.

I cannot understand why the Department of Health in England and British Nuclear Fuels Limited, who are the people who run the plant, are playing down this very important matter. If it is such a serious matter, as we all know it is, why are they continuing to play down the matter? It appears to me very strongly that we are not being told the truth, that the workers are not being told, that people close by are not being fully informed of the real dangers that exist in this area. We have lost total confidence in the full safety regulations of that plant.

Senator Lanigan referred to the Greenpeace people. I can recall them saying some years ago warning that Sellafield was the single most polluted nuclear establishment in the world. That is something we should consider and if it is, certainly very strict safety measures must be taken.

Many people on the east coast of this country are concerned. As we all know, north County Dublin and County Meath area on the east coast are areas renowned for potato growing and for major food products generally. The Irish Sea continues to be a potential time bomb. It should not be, as it seems to be now, in some way a nuclear tiphead for any other nation in the world. Obviously, the EC have a role to play also. The EC are a very responsible forum in regard to this type of problem. We should demand from them a full inquiry into all the safety aspects of Sellafield. The public fears of the people of Ireland and, indeed, of England in regard to the safety precautions must be allayed at all costs.

I am aware that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are in England today. I understand from a radio interview that the Taoiseach said our people were concerned and, of course, he is correct. On the same radio bulletin the British Environment Minister said that the record in Sellafield has been good. Again, there is confusion. There seems to be a playing down by the British of this terrible problem. If the safety standards continue to be defective, then we and the EC must call for the closure of this plant irrespective of the consequences. I am very much aware that there are 11,000 people working there and that is something we must consider. Living in the nuclear age many young people are quite concerned about the whole nuclear problem. I can recall seeing a film approximately one year ago —"D Day"— it was the talk of the country for about a month afterwards. We saw horrific sights on that film. Our young people are more concerned with nuclear problems than with any other.

Like other speakers, I do not profess to be an expert but, if leakages of nuclear waste continue at Sellafield, that must spell out great danger for our planet. It has been said that the plant in Sellafield is badly managed. We know that it can be a health hazard causing problems like cancer, Down's syndrome in children, and so on. It is a potential time bomb. It is a highly accident prone area. If those problems continue, irrespective of the amount of employment it creates in England, our Government and the EC have no other choice than to call for the closure of Sellafield.

The problem we are faced with in this debate is that all of us are expressing the concern that we should rightly express particularly having regard to the widespread concern of people throughout the country irrespective of whether they are living on the east coast or in the centre of the country. All of them feel that if they are in line with the prevailing winds somehow their lives and the lives of their children are endangered. None of us is competent to tell them whether or not this is true. All we can do is use the House of the Oireachtas in support of the Government, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach who are in London today with the Prime Minister. The Minister for State, Deputy Collins is present and I understand that the Tánaiste will reply to the debate. We can only be supportive of them in their actions in trying to ensure that the authorities with responsibility for Sellafield are fully aware of our concern and the concern that has been expressed to us by our constituents. In doing that, none of us wants to create mass hysteria but we have a bounden duty, as legislators, to ensure that when we want to express concern we do it in this House in a reasonable way.

I should like to congratulate Senator Lanigan for having initiated this emergency debate and because of this that I was one of the first to stand today with him in agreeing that the House should avail of the opportunity of expressing this concern.

I am concerned, first of all, because the type of information we have got from the management of this plant has been questioned. The level of information has been questionable and its reliability is also in question. There is no doubt from comparisons with what they said in the beginning and what they said later, even to the Black report, that it must be an indication that even in their minds — and this plant was established in 1952 — there is some doubt as to what information is to be released or not on how valid the information is or the level of damage being done to the environment, the sea, the inhabitants or the workers in the plant. They seem to be unsure. They tell us in a reassuring kind of way that a length of time must elapse between an unplanned incident, as they call it, and the fullest research they want to carry out before they can give us the full information.

I know that when the Tánaiste was Minister for the Environment he set up a United Kingdom/Ireland contact group dealing with nuclear matters in 1984 with Mr. Jenkin. I should like to congratulate him on the initiative. We have now at least an agreement that they will tell us when something goes wrong, even if they still are reassuring us that it was a minor incident — for example, that the spillage was still contained, that it was not in an open pipe but it was within the plant. Senator Howlin has been to Sellafield and the only ones I saw were seven or eight years ago in Sweden. Even then they had a referendum there to close them. They had no problems. Why should we not be concerned with plants that do have problems? At least we are getting the information quickly. Yesterday's incident was communicated to the Government formally within 20 minutes of its happening, which is to be welcomed. At least they are confiding in us. They have an open invitation for us to visit them.

It is because of the age of this plant, going back to the fifties, that we realise much of it needs to be replaced. If in the replacement process this creates further problems about leakage into the sea or emissions into the air or spillages, accidental or otherwise, obviously we have a major environmental problem on our doorstep that we must address and we must support the Government in any steps considered necessary, whether at Anglo-Irish inter-parliamentary level, the European Parliament or whatever else. It is important that all the avenues should be explored to ensure that cognisance is taken by the British of the concern that all of us are now expressing. Many of us live closer to Sellafield than many other people in Britain do. They happen to be on the same land mass. All of us are living in the downstream of it and we are living in the prevailing wind flow from that country. This must be a cause of concern to all of us.

Whether these discussions will lead to the closure, the phasing out or the replacement of part of the plant, I do not know. Nobody knows whether the levels are minute or acceptable. If they build up into a problem or if it accumulates in some way, we do not know. If the people involved in it, cannot give us the information, then some steps will have to be taken to stop it being used as a dumping ground for the reprocessing of everybody else's nuclear waste, which is what is happening now.

Because of the employment situation the British Government might perhaps be slow to do something about it. Possibly we would be, too. The overall implications for all of us are so serious that all of us in this House want to support the Government and the Ministers in any actions that are required to be taken to ensure that, even if it is outside of our jurisdiction, we should bring pressure to bear on them because they have a bounden responsibility to all of us as well as to themselves.

At a time when half of the world's population suffer from varying degrees of hunger and when thousands die every minute through starvation and when at the same time super powers and other powers pursue developments in nuclear power the misuse of which creates such a fear in the public mind, it is only right that this House this evening, in the light of the events in Sellafield that have been portrayed in recent times through the news media and other sources, should express its gravest concern at a classic sample of how far the official authorities will go in concealing from the public what are the real facts of this situation.

We have the level of incompetence and the fact that the authorities, in the face of what has been a public outcry — in Britain in the first instance over a very prolonged period and now developing in this country — at the manner in which this plant is being operated and the fear it creates among the people in England and here. How can we believe that even the facts or the figures in relation to discharges are accurate and are of a proportion not to harm the atmosphere or our seas and create a public health danger? How can we have any accurate assessment of what has happened in the last month or couple of months when only now we are discovering the real facts about what took place 30 years ago? If one was driving an old car which was giving the amount of trouble which this plant has given in the last couple of months, that car would not be road worthy. When one is dealing with a plant, the malmanagement of which could have such lethal consequences for the people of the UK and of this country, it is just hard to imagine that those in authority would conceal from the public the facts about it or would not respond with the technology that is available, with the skills that are available today, in a way which would ensure that these leaks would not take place. Having had that experience on one occasion, one would assume that they would immediately provide whatever Government resources were necessary and whatever skills were required to ensure that this would not be repeated. Yet, we have a procession of events not just one month after another but now we have had three leaks in the course of a few days. Yesterday we had yet a further leak. This is creating a sense of fear in the people here and across the water about the future. We would be wrong not to publicise this and to bring it before the Government. I understand from the news media that the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State have been endeavouring to grapple with this to the best of their ability. It is not something that can be left to the British Government. The consequences of the malmanagement of Sellafield have repercussions which do not reside alone in the United Kingdom; they have consequences which are far-reaching.

Most Senators have re-emphasised the fact that the Black report hid from the public mind very significant facts and that the amount of discharge was as much as 40 times greater than what was disclosed at the time. We have varying medical reports here with regard to stillbirths, miscarriages which are double the normal rate, cancer and leukaemia in young people. All of this may not be in the least attributable to Sellafield; we do not know. We need to have the facts established on the firmest basis. We need to have the best available talent in these disciplines brought together, both from our point of view and from a European point of view, so that the mistakes that have been made, the consequences of which we probably do not know, will now end and will not be repeated in the future.

I shall be brief, but there are some important points which have not been made. Among those is the fact that nuclear power has been one of the historic discoveries and developments of this century. This is both for good and evil. The population in the main are thinking of it more from an evil point of view. However, successive Irish Governments have championed the cause of nuclear disarmament. Frank Aiken spoke of little else year after year for 20 years. The present Government have continued the same policy. I should like to compliment the Tánaiste and the Minister of State for Energy in this regard for their diligence and constant communication with their counterparts in the United Kingdom and also with Commissioner Clinton Davies in Brussels. I cannot think of any other area of policy or trade where there is such close co-operation. This is rightly so.

It is unfortunate if people react to the problems being experienced in the plant in Sellafield. I regret that some Members feel that it should be closed down. Our scientists must redouble their efforts to harness successfully and safely this great invention, which is atomic energy. The weight of development should be directed towards ensuring the use of atomic power for peaceful purposes.

I should like to ask the Tánaiste what the situation is regarding the European Community's JET programme, which, I understand, is based in the United Kingdom. That concerns nuclear fusion rather than the fission that causes all these problems. Ten years ago there was great hope for this development as the answer to the fall-out and the dangers that nuclear energy has caused and the fears that are embedded in people's minds. This has emanated, I suppose, from the bombs that were dropped at the end of the last war.

I compliment the Leader of the Opposition in the House for putting down this motion and giving the House an opportunity of focusing attention on the problem. I hope that the Tánaiste will allay the fears of many people in this regard.

I welcome the opportunity which has been given to us by the Leader of the Opposition in the House to discuss this matter. I welcome this debate. Like my colleague, Senator Ross, I also welcome the unanimity throughout the House on the subject. This is something which transcends any party lines. It is a cause of concern for Irish people, whatever their political opinions may be.

The whole atmosphere surrounding the plant at Sellafield is one of what might be described as "newspeak," if one remembers George Orwell's Ninteen Eighty Four. The people, who run Sellafield think that if they call it something else it will stop being dangerous or it will stop being a threat. It used be called Windscale, and we remember that as a threat. Then Windscale got to be an unpopular name because too many things happened and there were too many threats and so on. So, low and behold, the name was changed to Sellafield and Sellafield is a new, clean and untouched name where there is no danger at all. Therefore, we are led to believe that everything is all right. Now, more and more, we get things happening at Sellafield. Perhaps any day now we may find that Sellafield has ceased to be; that the “Ministry of Truth” has moved in on Sellafield as well and we will have it called something else entirely and we start all over again.

The attention of the House has been drawn by a previous speaker to the use of the word "incident" to cover these things which happen. An "incident" is a harmless sort of thing which might happen to a bishop. This is not an incident. These are negligent errors that are happening in the management of Sellafield. They are not just accidents; these are things that should not happen. Whether they are highly dangerous to us or whether they are not, most of us are not qualified to say. Nevertheless, anyone who is interested in safety in industry would be trying to prevent this kind of negligent error. Therefore, we have to blame the management in Sellafield and, at a distance, the British Government, who allow Sellafield to go on, for the recurrence of these negligent errors.

The difficulty about this is that we do not know how dangerous it is. Perhaps it is not dangerous and perhaps it is; but we cannot be sure. We have been fed over the years false or questionable information about what is happening. In the last few days we have had the announcement that only two workers were affected and then there was an admission that perhaps it was 11 and that one man, unfortunately, had a near-overdose of radiation and had to be removed from any radiation in future. How can we trust what is being said to us when it changes from day to day? Perhaps our fears are groundless. It is difficult to feel that this is so. Once we start interfering with our environment and the surroundings of the earth, with the air and the sea, we cannot tell what chain of events we are starting off and where that chain of events will end.

This was one of the things that motivated the people Senator Howlin was referring to who campaigned against the establishment of a nuclear power station in Carnsore Point. Perhaps we were in a way lucky that the demand for electricity in this country did not increase as rapidly as was anticipated and therefore, the need for Carnsore Point receded and the need for this kind of plant ceased to be such an important matter. Therefore, we were let off the hook. We have a good tradition in this country, from Mr. Aiken as Minister for Foreign Affairs onwards to perhaps people like Veronica Kelly who have been imprisoned abroad for protests against nuclear arms and the dangers of nuclear power to the world,

We must keep up this tradition and put forward our protest not only as the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the Minister have done in negotiations with the British but also at European level where we need a whole system for dealing with all sorts of pollution of our environment ranging from the acid rain that is destroying the Black Forest to the nuclear escapes at Sellafield, to all sort of different misuses of the environment that we have been given to live in. I would ask the Tánaiste to try not only to bring home to the British what difficulties and dangers we may be facing about this problem but also to put forward, in conjunction with the European Parliment, a whole plan for co-operation within Europe on this issue and on the ensuring of safety in the use of nuclear power throughout all the countries of the European Community.

I welcome the opportunity of replying to this debate here in the Seanad. At the outset, I should seek to clarify the Government's position, as both the Taoiseach and myself have been doing for the last number of days, in relation to recent events and occurrences at Sellafield and indeed recent disclosures in relation to past events. The Government is opposed to any radioactive discharge from Sellafield to the Irish Sea and have called for these discharges to be minimised and to be eliminated as soon as possible. This position has been stated at every opportunity in contact with the British authorities and at all appropriate international fora.

The House is well aware of the Government's concern at the recent incidents at Sellafield, and of the statement by the Taoiseach in the Dáil yesterday that he intended raising the matter with the British Prime Minister in London, which he did this afternoon.

I consider that the safety record at Sellafield has been less than satisfactory and the frequency of recent accidents poses the possibility of the occurrence of an accident in the future which could have consequences for the country. This concern is heightened by the recent revelation in The Sunday Times of 16 February regarding the errors in the information on radioactive discharges supplied to the Black inquiry. I am also aware of the increasing public concern at the continued operation of the plant. This concern must also be shared by the British public.

At a meeting of the Ireland-UK Contact Group on 14 February last, officials of my Department conveyed our grave concern at the recent incidents at Sellafield and our annoyance at the inadequate notification procedures. In the case of the uranium and plutonium incidents the British authorities assured my officials that the radiological emission to the environment of these incidents were insignificant. Full information about the Drigg fire incident was not available at the meeting. However the British authorites state that it appeared to have no off-site implications. A prompt notification procedure was agreed at the meeting and notification of the most recent incident yesterday was practically immediate.

I am informed that in yesterday's incident, which involved a break in a drainpipe, 250 gallons of water containing low level radioactivity was discharged into a purpose-built containment trench. I am also informed that initial monitoring by BNFL showed little potential hazard to the workforce and that it had no off-site significance. The pipe in question was speedily repaired. However, I am awaiting full and final reports on each of the four recent incidents.

At another level our Department of health has set up a steering committee to examine the incidence of childhood leukaemia since 1970 and of Down's Syndrome in the under 25's. The committee will also undertake a critical examination of the Black report.

It is worth recording that the Nuclear Energy Board is engaged in a continuous monitoring programme which monitors radioactivity levels in fish, seawater, seaweed and sediment taken from the Irish Sea. Independent research programmes are also undertaken by the environmental radioactivity laboratories of University College, Dublin, and Trinity College, Dublin. The results of these monitoring programmes have clearly shown that contamination has occurred in the Irish Sea as a result of discharges from Sellafield. However, the radiation dose to the Irish population resulting from Sellafield is very small and would be, on average, less than 1 per cent of the limits advised by the International Commission for Radiological Protection and by the European community.

A joint Irish-Spanish research cruise is planned for this year to monitor levels and distribution of caesium 134 and caesium 137 in the area bounded by the north-east Atlantic dumpsite, the south-west coast of Ireland and the north-east coast of Spain. This will include an examination of the extent to which discharges from Sellafield and Cap de la Hague have now penetrated these more southerly waters.

What happens if there is now contamination as a result of the caesium levels in the sea from both these plants? What is the point in coming along in ten years' time and saying that there are problems because of the caesium level. Dumping should be stopped now.

My attitude and the Government's attitude in relation to all dumping off the south-west coast have been very clear and we have not changed our attitude. That has been the Government's position quite consistently for the last number of years — to bring about the halting of dumping in the Atlantic. We still hold that position.

I agree totally on that.

The Nuclear Energy Board, with the assistance of the meteorological service of the Department of Communications, also monitors radioactivity levels in air, rainfall and drinking water samples. I am assured by the Nuclear Energy Board that the level of artificially produced radioactivity in the atmosphere and in the environment are low and do not constitute a health hazard to the Irish public.

The monitoring system operated by the Nuclear Energy Board has been adequate to determine the level of radioactivity which has occurrred to date. However, in the light of these recent incidents I propose to have the monitoring procedures reviewed in consultation with the NEB, with a view to establishing whether monitoring requires any modification. I will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we will continue to be in a position to accurately measure future radioactivity levels. I might also add that the Nuclear Energy Board published a report in 1984 on their monitoring programme, copies of which are available in the Library. A more recent report will be published shortly and will also be available in the Library.

In November 1983 a British TV programme claimed that there was an excess of young people with leukemia and other cancers in the neighbourhood of Sellafield. A public inquiry was set up and its report, known as the Black report, concluded that the evidence available did not establish a link between the cancer and Sellafield.

However, the Black report did make certain recommendations regarding further studies to be carried out. The Black report also recommended review of the discharge authorisations and a reduction of routine discharges from the plant. The UK Department of the Environment is in the process of carrying out a review of these discharge authorisations. My Department will be consulted during this review. It is expected that the new authorisations will be introduced later this year.

The Sunday Times reported on 16 February, that a nuclear scientist, Dr. Jakeman, formerly employed at Sellafield has now revealed that the figures given to the Black inquiry on radioactive discharges in the 1950s were inaccurate. The article states that BNFL have now admitted that the levels were actually 40 times greater than stated to the Black inquiry. It is also reported that the chairman of the inquiry, Sir Douglas Black, has commented that he considers that he will not be altering his conclusions. It has been confirmed with the UK DHSS that The Sunday Times report is substantially correct.

As I stated earlier, further studies are currently being undertaken by the UK authorities on the basis of the Black report recommendations. These include an increase in the number of children originally studied and on re-analysis of data by the Northern Children's Cancer Registry. A UK Department of Health Committee will re-assess that part of the Black report which is concerned with discharges in the light of recent disclosures by BNFL that the figures provided to the Black Advisory Group were apparently up to 40 times too low. This health committee will advise within six months as to whether the revised discharge figures should effect any change in Black's conclusions.

Most people in this House, and the public, will obviously be concerned at what future action can and will be taken. As the House is aware, the Taoiseach has raised our concerns at a meeting which he had with the British Prime Minister today when he conveyed to her that the number of incidents, notwithstanding that they may be described as being of negligible radiological significance, has caused a loss of confidence in Ireland in the safety of the reprocessing of nuclear material at Sellafield. In the light of all this, he urged the Prime Minister that there should be a thorough review of safety procedures at the Sellafield plant.

In recent years this Government, through the contact group established with the UK, and by other means, has taken steps designed to ensure that we would be kept well abreast of all developments at Sellafield. But because of our dissatisfaction with the information we have been given, it is our intention to seek a full meeting of officials of all relevant Departments and bodies in the UK and the Republic. We consider that this would contribute to greater cohesion in and prompt receipt of the information being made available. We see this as a necessary improvement to the working of the contact group established by Irish and UK Ministers in 1984.

Several articles of the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), to which of course we belong, give the Commission several rights with regard to the control and monitoring of radioactive emissions from nuclear installations in member states. The Government will be examining in detail how the treaty can be applied in relation to Sellafield to press for greater control by the Community. Ministerial discussion in Brussels on the subject will be sought with a view to establishment of a Community inspection force to monitor activities such as those at Sellafield.

For my own part, I have been in contact today with Commissioner Clinton Davies with a view to having an early meeting to discuss the joint approach by ourselves and by the Commission. I must say, for the record of this House, that his approach is one of total co-operation because he recognises the Irish interest in the activities at Sellafield. Some questions have been asked in relation to the BNFL expansion programme. Perhaps one should clarify what is involved. There are two elements. Firstly there is the question of THORP. BNFL plan to have in operation by the 1990's a new thermal oxide reprocessing plant — THORP — costing £1,300 million, which will process uranium oxide fuel from advanced gas cooled reactors and other oxide fuels. Magnox power stations are no longer being built and the Magnox reprocessing plant at Sellafield will therefore cease operation at the end of the century. While we are assured by the British authorities that the THORP plant is not likely to increase discharges, under the procedures of article 37 of the EURATOM Treaty, the European Commission, advised by a group of experts from member states, has the opportunity to give an opinion on the implications for neighbouring member states of proposed nuclear developments. We have stated at Commission level that we were particularly concerned at the development of the THORP project and wish to be kept informed of all aspects of its development. We have also indicated to the Commission that greater attention and urgency should be given to the problem of radioactive waste.

In relation to the second aspect of their development, there are measures to reduce discharges. Their programme includes measures designed to effect significant reductions in radioactive discharges at Sellafield. £350 million is being spent on a new complex, to be known as Pond 5, incorporating new technology designed to reduce discharge levels from the storage of the spent fuel before it goes to a chemical plant on the site for processing. This is at present being commissioned. There is £200 million for a new vitrification plant which will turn radioactive waste left after reprocessing into inert glass bricks, and £130 million for a new water treatment plant, which is now in operation and which will reduce routine radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea. One hundred and fifty million pounds is being spent for a floc precipitation plant, to be operational by 1991, which will reduce discharges of long-lived alpha radiation; and a further water treatment plant in the form of a salt evaporator to reduce the volume of liquid radioactive waste.

May I ask the Tánaiste, in view of the enormous amount of money proposed to be spent, is that not an indication that the present system of monitoring is totally and utterly inadequate? You have talked about figures in excess of £700 million and these are figures given, I presume by BNFL——

I am not sure if I can deal with business in this House in a question and answer situation.

Not normally.

That is not necessarily the correct conclusion. Not being a scientist myself or claiming any great knowledge in that area, I would have to say that the whole understanding of the nuclear area is developing on a constant basis. With that development and with the sophistication of the nuclear industry new plant is also being commissioned to cope with the new developments. In fact in any other plant, irrespective of risks at the plant and incidents at the plant, there would be a continual updating of equipment and large expenditure would be taking place. In effect, I cannot support the conclusion reached by the Senator. I think that it is in an overall long term development of the industry that these expenditures are going to be undertaken anyway.

The figures are from BNFL.

Those figures are from the BNFL——


The Tánaiste without interruption.

——and would be, I am sure, supported by the British authorities. Some people have called for the straight closure of the plant. I have to say, as I said last evening, that closure of the plant is not as simple as it seems. Firstly, there is already an amount of highly radioactive materials stored at present at Sellafield even if further reprocessing is not carried out. We would not rule out the possibility of closure in due course; but, if satisfactory standards of safety are seen to be operating and if we can have confidence in the safe operation of the plant without fear of endangering the Irish public, the operation of the plant could not be opposed. However, the total elimination of all discharges from Sellafield, through the use of the best available technology, will continue to be the Government's policy.

I understand that within the past hour or so the British authorities have announced that it has appointed a team of 12 inspectors who will immediately commence an investigation into Sellafield. I further understand that this work will take in the region of six months to complete. I must say that I welcome this move by the British Government. We will obviously have to await further details and the terms of reference of the investigation team before we would make any further comment other than to welcome this move which, I assume, in part is in direct response to the firm representations we have been making because of the concern which there has been in this country for quite a long time and a concern which has, indeed, been highlighted through the lack of confidence in the safety of the plant in the last number of days.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 February 1986.