Yesterday evening I welcomed the Minister to the House. This is a very important Bill because its main purpose is the protection of the public. The necessity for and the seriousness of that arose from the appalling accident at Chernobyl. That was the first time people appreciated the international nature of radiological dangers and, to some extent, the gravity of such dangers.
Last Sunday in a city called Minsk — I have never been there so I am not very familiar with it but I gather it is the largest city between Warsaw and Moscow — there was a huge demonstration. More than 100,000 people were protesting partly in relation to prices, partly in relation to jobs, partly in relation to democracy but most of all they were protesting about the after effects of Chernobyl. Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, and is quite a distance away from the city of Minsk, which is, in fact, in another part of the Soviet Union, in another State, Byelorussia or White Russia. This State is renowned for its quietness and tranquility and has never previously been involved in the protests we have reading about and hearing about for the past two years. It has been very solid, very quiet, with no protests until last week. The protest last week arose because so many people in that State are now begining to suffer from the effects of the radiological disaster at Chernobyl.
Mr. Gorbachev, for whom we have great admiration for the many things he has done as regards perestroika and freedom in Eastern Europe, is, as we all know, in a lot of difficulty at home, primarily it would seem to us because of the economic chaos in the Soviet Union, with the prices of basic necessities doubling, trebling and quadrupling in a matter of days. One of the main causes of intense dissatisfaction with Gorbachev — something we find so difficult to understand because we see the great things he has done and wonder why in the Soviet Union he apparently now ranks in popularity only with Stalin — is that in a large part of the Ukraine and in this State I have mentioned, White Russia, he has failed to give any reassurances in relation to the cancer and other diseases which are now becoming rampant. Mr. Gorbachev expressed his sympathy but he also indicated that he could do nothing about it. That was one of the main reasons for this huge unprecedented demonstration by the general public in Minsk.
Others viewed it, I know from looking at one of the evening papers yesterday evening in a totally different sense. Dr. Chernoussenko, a Soviet nuclear scientist, has been explaining to the West, and elsewhere, the problems they faced at Chernobyl. Because of the intense degree of radiation there, the various robot machines and so on which in theory should and could be used to clear up contaminated soil would not work. What they did, and this may seem incredible, was that they employed vast numbers of civilians and soldiers who were virtually unprotected from radiology — indeed because of the vast numbers concerned it would have been very difficult to do so in practice — and sent them in with shovels under an instruction to spend a maximum of three minutes in the severely contaminated zone shoveling out what soil they could in that time. Many of those people are begining to show the effects of contamination. Sixty thousand workers have been affected in that manner and yet it was the only way the Soviet authorities could see to attempt to deal with the contamination. They could not just leave it there as it would keep affecting more and more people in the general area, contaminating the air and the dust. The machinery would not work so they sent in these unfortunate soldiers and civilians, who probably did not fully realise the seriousness of what was happening to them. Very large numbers of these people are now going to die. I might mention that the scientist who has been telling colleagues and other people in nuclear medicine and nuclear protection in the West is doing so in a very unemotional and very factual manner. He is a very brave man, because he himself is now very severely affected and will probably not live more than a matter of months. Therefore, it is something very real and very specific. This Bill is very serious and I am glad the Minister and the Government have brought it in. It is absolutely essential.
There have been other accidents. There was possibly an even worse one in the Soviet Union about 15 years ago, close to Central Asia; the Chernobyl accident is perhaps in a sense better known. Let us be clear about why it is better known. It is better known because a radioactive dust cloud was blown across north-western Europe and was detected by the Swedish nuclear monitoring services, but it still had not been announced by the Soviet authorities. Indeed, were it not perhaps for the changes which have taken place in the Soviet Union, they might well have continued to deny it. Indeed, for a very long time they tried to downplay it to the gross ill-effects of, most of all, their own citizens, the men, women and children for many miles around this area who could have been saved from the effects of nuclear contamination and who now, unfortunately, will begin to suffer those effects.
These effects last quite a long time. Last week I was in Japan and, nearly 50 years later, one can still meet people who are suffering from the radiological effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, individuals who were in the area and survived but have been affected either at the time or many years later. I might mention an incidental point, which many people may not realise, Nagasaki was the main area in Japan for Catholics and many Irish priests were among those who had been responsible for the development of Catholicism in Nagasaki. Not only the people who were there at the time were affected. One of the dreadful things is that children and unborn children, were affected, as will subsequent generations. This is appalling.
This Bill is giving protection to the public and it is one which the public perhaps will hear little or nothing about, and I hope that remains the case. It is a very essential Bill. It is particularly essential to us, because there is a very understandable argument, indeed a very understandable logic, in relation to energy. The Minister rightly mentioned the balance between environmental aspects and the provision of energy. A few years ago we were all talking about the necessity for alternative sources of energy. Oil was going to run out, coal was too expensive, hydro-electricity insufficient and the obvious answer was nuclear power and certain countries have gone ahead with this programme—France and the United Kingdom are the obvious countries in this part of the globe.
There are those environmentalists who would argue, with a certain amount of truth, that for the provision of energy nuclear power is far more environmentally friendly than using either oil or coal. This may seem strange, but there is a very strong argument for this form of energy. Coal, of course, is extremely contaminating from an environmental point of view and oil also has its grave defects environmentally. It also may be associated with the sort of things that occurred in the Mediterranean recently, with severe oil spills in the Gulf, and of course, the Alaska oil spill, which can be very contaminating. There are many other examples. We have had them off our own coast also. I think France particularly from an environmental point of view would argue that nuclear power is far preferable and in many ways, if it is controlled, it is cleaner and you do not have the emissions you have from coal fire stations or from the use of oil. Unfortunately, one does have the other side of the coin in that nuclear power is excellent so long as it can be kept safely under control and you can protect the public, as this Bill is intended to do.
The question is whether technology is sufficiently advanced for one to be certain that one can protect the public. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no, we do not have sufficient knowledge, as yet at any rate, for nuclear power stations to be safe. This in turn raises a very grave difficulty for us in that our next door neighbours have been involved for many years in nuclear power stations many of which, as the Minister pointed out, are now outdated, unsafe and would not be tolerated today by those in the nuclear industry. Yet they are literally within a few miles from us, and radiation is no respecter of territorial waters or national boundaries.
Yet we cannot do very much about it. We have protested. We have done what we can in relation to the convention. A very important part of this Bill, of course, is in relation to the nuclear conventions, the exchange of information for protection and so on. I know the Minister has strongly supported these and argued our case and will continue to do so. It is absolutely vital that he should. At least, if we had some early warning, because of the provisions of this Bill we would be able to give a very considerable degree of protection to the public and we would be able to have some influence in trying to see that the nuclear power industry in the United Kingdom and other areas close to us will be given the maximum protection. It is really very unsatisfactory. If there were a serious nuclear leak, we unfortunately would almost certainly be considerably affected by it. Let us hope it never happens.
This Bill is very essential and I hope that when it goes through there will be at least some practice exercises on a fairly wide scale. For very different reasons, in Israel they have had some of these exercises which proved very effective and could have been of considerable value in the recent war had such weapons been used in the war. Now it is not a question of weapons, but in some ways it is almost as bad if you have a nuclear cloud or nuclear dust. One or two practice exercises for hospitals, Garda and various other groups who would be involved would be enormously helpful. Hopefully, they will never ever be needed; but it would be far better to have a few training exercises to see how it all works out in practice rather than to leave it until the day that something happened.
I would like to join in paying tribute to the staff members and other people asociated with the Nuclear Energy Board over the last 20 years. Although they were set up for a very different purpose — and it is very necessary that a new board be established — they gave a very valuable service. Some outstanding scientists and other people were associated with the Nuclear Energy Board and have provided a very good service in a totally different capacity from that originally envisaged. It is very easy at this stage to look at things very differently. It is not all that many years ago since such was our naivety that children going in to be measured for shoes in this city would have an X-ray taken of their foot. This was thought to be a great idea; you could see exactly where the bones were and so on. We have come a long way from there and it is just as well perhaps that we have.
I would also like to follow up the question of openness and disclosure. As I indicated, one of the main reasons for the number who either have died or who, unfortunately, will die because of Chernobyl was because of the reluctance of the authorities to give any information. This had serious effects outside the Soviet Union; but, of course, the worst effects of all were for the unfortunate citizens living in the locality who were reassured that everything was all right and are now in a very horrific manner discovering little by little that things were by no means all right. There should be openness and spread of information.
One of the most damning things — and there was some slight discussion incidentally yesterday of various systems and so on — of the bureaucratic state socialist system is that it is very reluctant to give information, very reluctant to admit any fault or failure. This can have disastrous effects not only economically but in such serious circumstances as this, where the bureaucracy refuses to admit that an accident has occured. When it does admit it, it refuses to accept that the accident is as serious as it is, as in this appalling attitude towards the unfortunate people who are sent in uninstructed, unprotected, literally to give their bodies and their lives in an attempt to rectify something which the State had wrought.
Thank goodness, we live in a part of the world where there is democracy and some degree of freedom of information. We may find it difficult and tedious at times, but at the end of the day it makes a great difference. Certainly, the people who were protesting in their thousands in Minsk last Sunday would have dearly loved to have had the information we got within a few days of the Swedes detecting the nuclear disaster rather than to discover many months later that many of their children were going to die of leukaemia, that others would be stillborn and that still others would be born with gross birth defects.
I might add that it is not entirely the bureaucracies in the Soviet Union who can be slow. In our neighbouring country there was also a certain reluctance, until the Press sniffed it out, to give adequate information regarding Windscale and Seascale.
As the Minister indicated, we have a problem with nuclear waste in the Irish Sea. I know the Minister has made representations about this and it is very important that he should continue to do so. It is a disgraceful situation that the sea off our coast should be one of the most contaminated seas, from a nuclear point of view, in the world. We also heard quite a lot about nuclear powered vessels or nuclear armed vessels, overflights and so on. As the Minister rightly said, that is more a question of foreign affairs and military matters and can be grossly exaggerated. It is matter of regret, not that these very occasional visits take place — it is perfectly reasonable that they should take place — but what I find very unreasonable is that you have nuclear submarines, not simply of the United States but of the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, using the Irish Sea as a sort of freeway to travel up and down. We come across it in a very different sense when the occasional unfortunate fishing trawler and its crew are pulled down. But much more serious is the fact that these submarines are geared for nuclear onslaughts. If we are going to talk about nuclear free zones, a nuclear free Irish Sea would be more useful rather than complaining about the occasional visit once a year or so of some ship from a friendly state.
I would like again to welcome the Bill. It is well organised and very necessary. At the end of the day the matter that we as legislators should be most concerned with is the well-being and protection of the general public. I support the Bill.