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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 6 Feb 1997

Vol. 149 No. 21

Sellafield Nuclear Processing Plant: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann notes with grave concern:

—the latest contamination of 6 workers at the BNFL Nuclear Processing Plant at Sellafield;

—the consistent number of reports which continue to question the safety of a new nuclear dump built by Nirex Ltd. at Sellafield; and continues to call on the Government to lobby the British Government to have Sellafield closed down.

I thank the Seanad for once again focusing attention on the environmental risks to Ireland arising from the activities of the nuclear industry, particularly Sellafield. As the Seanad will be aware, I am meeting with the UK Ambassador, Ms Veronica Sutherland, in my office tomorrow to discuss all aspects of the UK nuclear industry. Needless to say, the two topics highlighted in the Seanad's motion will be at the top of the agenda.

First, let me turn to the recent nuclear incidents at the Sellafield complex. The Seanad may be aware that on Sunday, 2 February 1997, an incident occurred at the Magnox reprocessing plant at Sellafield in which six workers were contaminated. Initial tests indicate that they were found to have suffered minor personal contamination. The extent of contamination in the vicinity of the work area has yet to be determined and the UK nuclear installations inspectorate are investigating the matter.

However, within the space of 24 hours there was a further incident at the Sellafield complex. Initial reports suggest that elevated levels of activity were detected in a storm water collection tank on the night of 3 February 1997. The radioactivity has been traced to a spillage of active liquid resulting in contamination of a roadway, gutters and building environments. BNFL have taken measures to prevent any further spread of contamination and have segregated the affected area pending cleaning operations.

Based on the information available to date, the RPII has said that neither incident is of radiological safety significance to Ireland. I have instructed my Department officials and the RPII to seek full details on both of the incidents.

BNFL's comment that these incidents are an "unfortunate coincidence" suggest they are oblivious to the fact that such incidents further undermine public confidence in the safe management and operation of the nuclear facilities at Sellafield.

I turn now to the matter of Nirex. In January 1996, at a public planning inquiry in Cumbria, I set out the Irish Government's objections to the underground laboratory at Sellafield currently being proposed by Nirex. I will set out briefly the major points made during the Irish Government's submission to the inquiry.

We contended there had been an absence of a fully open and transparent site selection process with independent review. The refusal by Nirex to release full information on alternative site options and processes militated against an effective assessment of potential environmental impact, which would make it impossible to understand the environmental basis on which the choice of location or project was made. We considered that the environmental statement submitted by Nirex should have addressed all repository options and alternative disposal processes. We believed the case being made by Nirex for Sellafield as the site for a dump was advanced, not primarily on safety considerations, but on cost and transport advantages and on the assumption that the local community in Cumbria might be more receptive to such a facility. These core arguments made at the inquiry still stand.

The UK nuclear industry has been operating for many decades. All the benefits of the electricity production and industrial activity which derive from it have accrued to the UK. At the same time the threat of hazard from UK nuclear reactors and waste inventories affects neighbouring countries who do not share these benefits. We therefore have the absolute right to insist that the UK bear the cost of keeping this hazardous waste totally contained and isolated from our shared environment. Insistence on this approach is not an excessive, irrational aspiration but a reasonable and technically feasible requirement that can be achieved with current engineering technology. To realise this, the repository must be an actively managed storage facility with continuous assessment, inspection and retrieveability on an indefinite basis.

There has been a spate of media publicity relating to information which has emerged concerning the scientific and economic arguments about this project. I welcome the debate which this has engendered and regard it as playing a positive role in furthering opposition to the proposal. First, there was the leaked memorandum by UK Nirex's director of science, which exposed Nirex's considerable doubts about the project's scientific basis. The real value and significance of this memo to us is the clear picture it gives of grave doubts and lack of confident professionalism at the heart of Nirex's scientific division. The memorandum suggests that the scientific division of Nirex have deep uncertainty about being able to make and sustain a scientific case in support of the safety case for a repository on the Sellafield site.

Second, two reports concerning problems facing a radioactive waste disposal facility at Sellafield—one edited by R.S. Haszeldine and D.K. Smythe and the other by Gordon MacKerron and Mike Sadmicki of Sussex University—suggest that there is insufficient convincing evidence that a safety case could be made which would justify development of an RCF at Sellafield. Over the weekend, there was further media coverage which referred to two in a series of more than 40 reports provided by Nirex to the UK Environment Agency, formerly Her Majesty's Inspector of Pollution. These reports have heightened further the perception of serious scientific and economic pitfalls associated with pressing ahead with this rock laboratory.

Taking all of this into account and given the prospect of a decision by Secretary of State John Gummer, I wrote to him this week reiterating Ireland's strenuous objections to the Nirex proposals and highlighting the fact that there has been an absence of a fully open and transparent site selection process with independent review. I indicated that this made it impossible to understand the environmental basis on which the choice of location for the project, so near to the Irish Sea, was made. I called for the plan to be abandoned and maintained that more research should be undertaken into alternative sites and disposal options which would avoid an environmental threat to the Irish Sea. I urged him to refuse Nirex's appeal or at the very least to reopen the inquiry so that the many scientific and geological factors which have come to light could be properly assessed.

I am pleased to tell the Seanad that I was informed yesterday that the UK Government has now decided to engage in a public consultation process about a whole series of additional information which has come to light in the recent past about the Nirex proposal and is effectively reopening the inquiry. My Department will be included in this consultation process. As I understand it, the results of this new consultation will eventually be considered by the UK Secretary of State for the Environment when he adjudicates on the Nirex appeal. Accordingly, my Department will now examine this new area of consultation and elaborate as necessary on our strenuous opposition to the Nirex proposal because of the environmental risk which it represents.

I have previously made firm commitments about the Government's determination to prevent this dump being located at the Sellafield site. I think any objective observer would agree that the Government has done all in its power to vigorously press our case and to influence decision making by the UK authorities. My own appearance at the public inquiry and the forceful arguments put to the inquiry on Ireland's behalf is a measure of that steadfast approach. We will not shrink from pursuing the case further if the rock characterisation facility is approved, drawing upon the best scientific and legal advice to advance our case. In conclusion, I pay tribute to the Seanad for once again displaying cross party solidarity on this important subject.

I thank the Leader of the House and the other parties for agreeing to my all-party motion on this important issue.

I have always believed this is a national issue above party politics. The passing of today's motion will strengthen the hand of the Minister and the Government in their fight against this proposed site at Sellafield.

I welcome the fact that, since this motion was tabled, the Minister has been informed by his opposite number in Britain, Mr. John Gummer, that the British Government has done a U-turn by deciding to reopen the public inquiry on the Nirex proposal. I also welcome the fact that the Minister sought and obtained a meeting with the British Ambassador. Today's motion will demonstrate to her how strongly everyone feels about this issue.

In the last couple of days there have been two accidents at this monstrosity called Sellafield. There has also been a train accident. This highlights the worries everybody has about it. It is significant that on the Cumbrian local authority, all the parties, including the Tories, have opposed the site and have asked for the inquiry to be reopened. We now have the spectacle of British Government scientists coming forward with information that supports our Government and the Minister's stance at the public inquiry — that this is not the right place for a nuclear waste dump.

The weight of information and media coverage is important. This issue, which successive Irish Governments have highlighted, is now getting a fair hearing in the British media. The Minister must ensure that on every occasion this issue tops the agenda both at national and international level.

Following my conversations with them, I am confident that British MPs and MEPs, as well as those from Northern Ireland, share our concerns. I hope we will work hand in hand with them to ensure that the current British Government, and whoever may be in power after the British general election, will take Ireland's concerns into account.

If any of the waste that is being stockpiled at Sellafield seeped into the Irish Sea it would leave this country in a horrendous situation, both environmentally and commercially. I am pleased that there is cross-party support for this motion and that the Minister's efforts to ensure that this disastrous proposal by Nirex for a dump at Sellafield will not go ahead.

I congratulate Senator Wright's proposal for a short debate on this issue. As he said, there is cross-party support on the matter. The Minister is aware that this House has given him and his Government colleagues total support in recent years for the campaign against Sellafield and the Nirex proposal for a rock cavern site.

As the Minister announced yesterday, the good news is that the public consultation process will recommence in light of additional information that has recently come to hand concerning the Nirex development. The new consultation process may not have been put in place were it not for the Government's work on this issue. The Government has been proactive and has always been focused in its campaign. The Minister's intervention at the first planning process at Cumbria was innovative. The second process would not have been opened up by the British Government if it had not been for the Minister's work. The Government must be commended for these efforts.

This debate provides us with yet another opportunity to send a clear message to the British Government that the Irish people want this nuisance to stop. Following incident after incident at Sellafield we have seen a total disregard for the health and safety of people living here. The campaign against Sellafield must continue and its successful conclusion can only come about when the facility is closed down once and for all.

Opposition to the Sellafield project and the rock cavern project proposed by Nirex, is not only focused in Ireland but has gained huge support throughout Britain, including from many local authorities that are opposed to the advancement of the nuclear industry. The British Government must understand that opposition to Sellafield is no longer only based here. An important coalition has now developed on both sides of the Irish Sea whose voice must be heeded. The Sellafield issue must be raised at the highest level between the British and Irish Governments. We frequently hear about the importance of the North-South dimension of Anglo-Irish relations, but Sellafield represents the most important issue in the east-west axis.

The lunatic proposal by the British nuclear industry to place a gigantic nuclear dump under the suface of Cumbria is yet another example of that industry's insensitive and irresponsible attitude. It is time Nirex, BNFL and Mr. John Gummer listened carefully to the advice and expertise of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution. Vast sums of public money have been put into this development, but it is money that has been poorly spent. To date, over £200 million has been spent on the development, which is going nowhere.

The weight of geological and technical information about the proposal is such as to make it completely untenable for either the British or Irish people to accept. The fact that the dump has been proposed within a stone's throw of the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield underlines the sinister nature of the proposal.

The cross-party nature of our opposition to Sellafield must continue and the obvious threat of the nuclear industry to Ireland should not be underestimated. All those involved in the campaign have a responsibility to stop the out of date advances of the British nuclear industry.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I understand he cancelled an important meeting to be here, which indicates the level of importance he places on this issue. For many years the Labour Party has been opposed to nuclear power. Both in Government and out of power, we lent our voice to opposing the Sellafield process, which must be brought to an end. Recent events have shown just how much at risk we all are from the threat of accidents at Sellafield. There is a public health risk through environmental contamination. From the most recent incident there, we see how even small accidents can lead to radioactive contamination of workers and the work site itself.

More important still is the risk of the Nirex proposals to place a dump in the rock strata under the Irish Sea. This would have repercussions for generations to come, yet they propose to do it despite our total opposition. If an accident occurs we will, as a nation, suffer the consequences.

As the Minister rightly pointed out, we do not benefit in the slightest from the risks that are being taken. The British public may get cheaper electricity but we do not benefit from that while we run a risk to our children and our children's children. There are consequences in the continuation of work at Sellafield in that it encourages the stock piling of what could be potentially dangerous side products of the process. It could lead to more nuclear arms being made available throughout the world. It would seem that what is driving Nirex, Thorpe and BNFL is money and if that is their only concern then they will sell plutonium to the highest bidder without worrying about the consequences. There are consequences, therefore, not only for ourselves but for world peace.

I wish to thank the Minister for the hard work he has put into this area. The fact that the inquiry is to be reopened is attributable to that work. Without his strong efforts we would not be listened to as readily as we have been. I also pay tribute to the Government, particularly Minister Gilmore, who has been very active on this issue.

It is a tribute to Senator Wright, who initiated this debate, that he has shown cross-party support for the work of the Minister. This is an issue on which the whole of Ireland is united. The Minister has everybody's backing and I wish him well in his meeting tomorrow with the British Ambassador.

Sellafield represents an ongoing threat to the health and safety of everybody living in these islands. Since the days when Sellafield was known as Windscale, it has been plagued by accidents, leaks and what are euphemistically termed "incidents" involving radiation. Each of those incidents represent a potential catastrophe, and in the last six weeks Sellafield workers were contaminated by radiation.

The threat posed by Sellafield has been significantly increased by the Thorpe nuclear reprocessing plant, a facility which involves the transport of nuclear waste and nuclear enriched material through the Irish Sea. The risk posed by Sellafield and Thorpe are compounded by the proposed Nirex underground nuclear waste dump. Leaked internal memos prepared for Nirex confirm what environmentalists have long suspected, that the geological structures of the Sellafield site are fundamentally unsuited to such a facility and that there is a real danger of radioactive contamination of the water course. That is an opinion apparently shared by the British Government experts.

Under these circumstances any decision by the UK Environment Secretary, John Gummer, to grant planning permission to Nirex would amount to criminal negligence. Construction of this dump would pose a serious and continuing health risk not only to those living around Sellafield but to those living on the east coast of Ireland. In recent years the UK authorities appear prepared to play Russian roulette with the safety of everybody in these islands, and the privatisation of the nuclear industry has placed profit margins firmly above safety margins.

Regarding the Nirex proposal I would like to find out from the Minister whether an underground dump of this type is covered under EU environmental directives. In the short and medium term it is clear that maximum diplomatic pressure must be exerted on the UK authorities to ensure that planning permission for this radioactive rubbish bin is refused.

I welcome the very strong statement by the Minister and his total commitment and that of Minister Gilmore to this issue. I hope that the public representatives on all sides will continue to voice the concerns of the people in every available forum.

Last October I welcomed in this House the Supreme Court decision clearing the way for legal action to be taken against BNFL. I pointed out that the Euratom treaties were outdated and had not kept pace with either scientific or political change. They should be amended to take account of the concerns of non nuclear jurisdictions such as Ireland which share land or maritime borders with nuclear jurisdictions. Radioactive fallout does not respect national boundaries. I am aware that there is considerable opposition within the EU to any such change and I hope the Government will continue to pursue this matter at various levels.

As a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary body, we have prepared a study on environmental issues affecting the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The Minister gave evidence to that body. The draft report of that group has now been completed but since then extraordinary information has come into the public arena over the last two weeks. I am shocked by it.

In preparing that report the group visited Sellafield and the Nirex dump. I was present on both occasions but that was not my first visit to Sellafield. I visited Sellafield in 1985 with a group of colleagues from Dublin Corporation on the 30th anniversary of the great fire. I expected a large demonstration but was shocked when I got there because, apart from the Dublin group, the Wexford group and the Louth group, there were very few people from Cumbria. I was disillusioned and felt that the Irish Government in their efforts to close Sellafield and the Nirex dump were only puffing against the breeze until the British people became interested in the problem that affected their country.

In the last two weeks the Cumbrian county council and other local authorities have shown interest. They now realise that this is an issue on their own door step. If we can encourage that, then it will be a first step forward in abating the situation that exists at Sellafield and Nirex. That is the key to the solution — we must encourage the local authorities in that part of Britain to become involved with us in requesting the British Government to close these facilities.

I compliment the Minister on the stand he has taken on this matter. I do not want to pre-empt the report, but the Minister's stand is recognised in it. It is very important that we send out a strong message and provide every opportunity to encourage the people of Britain to object to this facility.

Question put and agreed to.