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.