Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill 2018 to the Upper House. While this Bill is comparatively short and quite technical in nature, it will regularise matters in the area of radiological protection by amending certain sections of the Radiological Protection Act 1991, to effect the transfer of radiological functions from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment as directed by the Government when the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment was established.

The Bill also includes amendments relating to ministerial powers to make regulations to establish and maintain regulatory oversight of practices involving radiation sources. These amendments will enable the transposition into law of certain articles in Council Directive 2013/59/EURATOM laying down basic safety standards for protection against the dangers arising from exposure to ionising radiation. The Bill also transfers the functions currently vested in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment under the Containment of Nuclear Weapons Act 2003, which implements the State's obligations under the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The Bill further provides for an administrative appeals process and the right to appeal to the courts to challenge decisions made by the Environmental Protection Agency on registrations or licences for the carrying out of activities involving radiation sources. This brings Ireland in line with international best practice and addresses the recommendation made by an integrated regulatory review service mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Ireland in 2015 to, "ensure legislation provides for appeals against the decisions of the regulatory bodies in relation to radiation safety".

The Bill will additionally provide that a function under the Harbours Act 1996 requiring the consent of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to exempt certain vessels carrying nuclear material otherwise prohibited from entering an Irish harbour will also be transferred by the Bill to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment as it is appropriate to that Minister. Finally, the Bill will provide for amendments to update the terminology in the 1991 Act to account for developments since that Act came into effect.

Before speaking on the details of the Bill, I will outline by way of background the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in regulating this area. The EPA is responsible under the Radiological Protection Acts for providing advice to the Government, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and other Ministers on matters relating to the following: radiological safety including monitoring developments abroad relating to nuclear installations and radiological safety; monitoring, measuring and assessing radioactivity contamination of the environment, including the seas around Ireland; controlling by way of licence the custody, use, manufacture, importation, transportation, distribution, exportation and disposal of radiation sources; informing the public on any matters relating to radiological safety; and supporting the development and implementation of national plans for nuclear and radiological emergencies. The EPA has a key role as regulator in ensuring that acceptable standards of practice are maintained.

Sections 8 and 9 of the Bill will provide the legal basis for the evolution of a one-size-fits-all system of licensing currently operated by the EPA to a risk-based graded approach to the regulatory control of radiation sources, making it a far more streamlined and appropriate system. The provisions on a graded approach to regulation are in line with the requirements of Council Directive 2013/59/EURATOM, referred to as the basic safety standards directive, which lays down basic safety standards for protection against the dangers arising from ionising radiation and with international best practice in the field of radiological protection.

The provisions also address the recommendation made by an integrated regulatory review service mission of the International Atomic Energy Agency to Ireland in 2015 to introduce a graded approach to the regulatory control of radiation sources. The new graded approach to authorisation of practices involving the use of radiation sources will provide a new system of registration for low-risk activities resulting in a reduction of the regulatory, financial and administrative burden for practitioners and companies engaged in such practices.

It will also allow for a more efficient use of the regulatory resources of the EPA.

Section 10 of the Bill amends and clarifies the Minister’s powers to make regulations to regulate activities involving the use of radiation sources, including in response to European legislation. Specifically, the amendments provide that the Minister may make regulations for a registration and licensing system to be established and maintained by the EPA to regulate radiation sources based on the magnitude and likelihood of exposures resulting from the intended practice. Further to this, the Minister may make regulations setting out the following: safety and security requirements and conditions that must be met by the applicant seeking a registration or a licence; the procedures to be followed in the application process for the grant, renewal or amendment of a registration or licence; an administrative appeals process to ensure that clients can appeal decisions of the EPA without the expense of having to go to court to make such a challenge as is currently the case; and for the fixing of fees payable in respect of the application process.

Sections 11 and 12 clarify the consultation process on certain matters to account for the change in ministerial functions arising from various Government decisions since the enactment of the 1991 Act.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for the transfer of functions under the Radiological Protection Acts and the Containment of Nuclear Weapons Act 2003 from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and consequential amendments to ensure the orderly transfer of associated administration and business. These are technical amendments and constitute no change in policy in this area.

Part 4 of the Bill transfers a function under the Harbours Act 1996 requiring the consent of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to exempt certain vessels carrying nuclear material otherwise prohibited from entering an Irish harbour to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment as it is appropriate to that Minister. Again, this is a technical amendment to account for a transfer of a function and does not constitute any change in existing policy.

The Bill completed Final Stage in Dáil Éireann on 8 May 2018. The Dáil discussion provided the opportunity for a useful exploration of the various issues regarding radiological protection generally. A particular focus was on the danger posed by radon gas. While not addressed in the Bill, I am pleased to advise that I recently launched a pilot study on the subject to inform a future legislative scheme to address the issue. I share the concerns of many Deputies about radon gas, which is an issue that has been raised in the past by colleagues here in this House. I am fully committed to introducing measures to address this serious issue and reduce the number of deaths resulting from radon. For me to introduce a scheme, I need to bring forward legislation that repeals the existing legislation set out in statute. To have robust legislation that can work in practical terms, I need to complete that pilot study in the coming months to ensure that I can bring forward legislation to ensure we have a proper radiological retrofitting scheme put in place throughout the country.

This Bill will complete the transfer of functions related to radiological protection to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and will establish the legal basis for Ireland to fulfil its international obligations to ensure robust and reliable regulatory oversight of radiation sources in Ireland. Additionally, the risk-based graded approach to regulation underpinned by the provisions in this Bill will provide for a simpler, less costly and less administratively burdensome regulatory framework for both the regulator and practitioners engaged in activities involving radiation sources. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to the House. I welcome the Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill 2018. The Bill is an important step to strengthen Ireland's protections against nuclear and radiological threats, which Fianna Fáil fully supports. Fianna Fáil has always been and remains wholly opposed to any form of nuclear development within Ireland and in other places where nuclear development presents a threat to Ireland. We must remain vigilant in our approach to nuclear threats.

The Bill updates Ireland's existing arrangements for the management of radiological and nuclear risks, which are sorely needed given the technological changes and advances in radiological technology. The two main objectives of the Bill are, first, to move Ireland to a risk-based approach in the management of radiological technologies and, second, to complete the transfer of responsibilities for radiological protection and nuclear safety from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

The Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill 2018 also provides a legal basis under the principal Act for the transposition into Irish law of certain articles in Council Directive 2013/59/EURATOM. EURATOM is the main organisation in Europe for the management of nuclear energy, the development of better safety mechanisms and the research of nuclear technology.

On a related note, the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union will greatly impact Ireland’s protection from nuclear disaster. Currently, the United Kingdom is subject to rigorous safety standards under EURATOM. These will cease to apply, however, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union unless a separate agreement is negotiated, which I hope will be achieved. That is vital to the protection of Ireland’s interests. The big advantage for Ireland from a trade point of view is the fact that we are a nuclear free country. That has added greatly to the sale of our agriculture products around the world, particularly powdered baby milk from plants in Ireland where there is no threat from nuclear fallout, except the threat from across the water, which is always present.

Radiological technology is used in many everyday devices, for example, X-ray machines. This clearly needs to be managed, but it is also important to recognise the difference with very high-powered radiological technology. The current system of radiological control treats all radiological technology equally, something which has been deemed to be out of date and not fit for purpose by leading international experts on nuclear and radiological technologies. This Bill moves Ireland towards a graded or risk-based approach whereby lower risk technologies will simply have to be registered while higher risk activities will continue to require a licence. This approach has been recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency integrated regulatory review service, and is in line with the EURATOM directive.

The Bill also completes the process of transferring responsibility for radiological-nuclear management from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. That technical amendment is vital as without that change, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment or the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government may be vulnerable to legal challenge in the course of consultation processes.

As the principal organisation with responsibility for nuclear safety standards and research in Europe, EURATOM is very important to the minimisation of the risks that nuclear energy in particular present to Ireland and the rest of Europe. Unless the United Kingdom commits to a separate agreement on this issue, EURATOM’s safety standards will cease to apply to the United Kingdom upon its departure from the European Union. Given that some of the United Kingdom’s nuclear power plants are located just 128 miles from Dublin, it is vital that this issue is addressed. Sadly, despite the Fianna Fáil spokesperson for communications repeatedly raising this issue with the Government in October of last year, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has yet to raise it with his counterparts in the United Kingdom. If he has not done so already, it would be worthwhile if he was in communication with his opposite number in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, he does not have an opposite number in Northern Ireland because the Executive has not been set up, which is a major mistake because he would be working with the Northern Ireland Secretary with responsibility for that area. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill. We would like to see it enacted speedily and not delayed in this House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He has done a fantastic job. It has to be acknowledged that this Bill is an important milestone in what is another part of the Minister's brief. This legislation, which was passed by the Dáil with the full support of all parties, is an indication not only of the support the Minister has for the Bill but also his regulatory approach to radiological protection and the licensing of such an entity.

The Bill is working with those changes and is updating legislation that dates back to 1991. It also ties in other legislative measures that have been passed since then. We are working with the new technologies that exist, taking into consideration older legislation and putting forward a new Bill that will be more workable for Irish industry and for the State to police. It is positive legislation and I welcome it. We must move it forward and pass it as soon as possible. Hopefully, next week we can return to it and make further progress.

These are important legislative measures, although they might not be the headline legislative measures one will read about in The Irish Times tomorrow morning. This legislation is necessary for Ireland Incorporated and Irish society to move forward and to ensure we are competitive, proactive and that we can deliver when it comes to these key issues in society.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this Bill, which I welcome. The Bill transfers many of the functions under the other radiological protection Acts to one Minister. It deals with nuclear safety in the State but does not deal with the threat posed by nuclear power plants in close proximity to the State. The most concerning of these is the plant formerly known as Windscale in Northumberland. Today it is called Sellafield in an attempt to bury the bad memories of the 1950s when the reactor there went on fire and emitted radioactive particles into the atmosphere for weeks.

The emission of radioactive material from these plants does not just affect the state in which it happens. As we saw with Chernobyl in the 1980s, we are all at the mercy of the winds once material is leaked into the atmosphere. Sellafield houses the nuclear waste left over from power generation in massive cooling pools located on the Northumberland coast on the Irish Sea. It also accepts nuclear waste from outside Britain. The plant is decaying fast yet it is still accepting waste. Has the Minister raised concerns either with the British Government, the EU or the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, about the poor state of Sellafield and the continued acceptance of waste? There are plans to build the first new nuclear plant in 20 years at Hinkley Point, but there was no consultation with the Irish Government when those plans were being drawn up. In the end An Taisce had to take Britain to court. France and Germany also took cases.

The attitude of the Government towards the danger posed by nuclear plants in Britain appears to be very lax. What will happen when Britain is outside the EU and we cannot rely on the European courts or pressure from our EU neighbours? There are also reports that sites in the North may be used to store some of the nuclear waste that storage sites like Sellafield can no longer hold. Can the Minister give us an update on what he knows in this regard? In addition, can he give an assurance that the Irish Government is determined to keep this island nuclear free?

I also wish to raise the issue of radon gas emissions in residential houses. County Mayo has some of the highest numbers of properties where the presence of radon is above the reference levels. Radon is naturally occurring in the rocks but in large concentrations it can have detrimental effects on health. Information is key. Radon tests, detectors and barriers can make properties safe. Without wishing to scaremonger, it is important that homeowners and people seeking to buy a house have all the available information. I am aware that there are questions on the conveyancing form that is filled out when a house is being sold about the presence of radon and whether any remediation work has been carried out. Are there any plans to formalise this in legislation? Homeowners who bought their properties in the last 15 years do not know if their house has a radon barrier. I understand that from last year, all new houses have this radon barrier. However, what about the almost half a million houses that were constructed during the so-called boom? How do people know if their house has a barrier? Many of the developers who built these houses have disappeared and it is very difficult to find out if there is a barrier without major disruptive work being carried out on the house to find out.

Are there any plans for some type of remediation scheme for this? In the Dáil recently the Minister said that a pilot scheme had commenced in six locations and that €75,000 had been set aside for it. Where are these locations and how is that pilot scheme progressing? If successful, is the Minister hoping to get the necessary funding to continue it? This issue will be with us for a long time into the future, longer than the lifetime of a dwelling, so we need a long-term strategy to get the information and to act on it.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for bringing this legislation forward. In one sense it is a transfer of functions from one Department to another but it is also about tidying up existing legislation and strengthening regulation. That is welcome.

The Bill transfers certain functions from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, as well as some functions under the Harbours Act 1996. With regard to the Harbours Act, there is no reference in this Bill to the transportation of radioactive material. I presume it is covered under the air transport legislation but what regulation do we have for that area? How do we supervise it? There has been criticism previously of flights that go through Shannon Airport, for example. In the case of shipping we know exactly what is involved, but do we have any checks and balances in respect of the airline sector and the transport of radioactive material or goods that might contain such material? Where does that fit into the regulation? I do not see a reference to it in the Bill. Perhaps it is already covered by the legislation covering the airline industry. It would be interesting to have that clarified.

We can sometimes take our eye off the ball in this regard because we believe everybody else is keeping an eye on it and that there are proper safety measures all over the place. However, at times a recheck is necessary to ensure we have the checks and balances in place especially with regard to something like this where if something goes wrong the effects can be really detrimental. We must be extremely watchful and careful in that context. I welcome the legislation bringing the regulation under one Department rather than it being spread over a number of Departments, but the issue with the airline area is something on which I seek clarification.

I will try to answer as many of the questions raised as possible. First, I thank the Senators for their contributions and constructive input to the debate. As I said earlier, the Bill primarily effects the transfer of radiological functions from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, as directed by the Government decision when the Department was established. Additionally, the risk-based graded approach to regulation, underpinned by the provisions in the Bill, will provide for a simpler, less costly and less administratively burdensome regulatory framework for both the regulator and practitioners engaged in activities involving radiation sources. The Bill further deals with technical issues to provide a legal basis for Ireland to fulfil its international obligations to ensure robust and reliable regulatory oversight of radiation sources in Ireland.

As regards the issues raised, I will first refer to the regulations regarding radon barriers. The building regulations date back to 1998 and all new houses built since 1998 have a radon barrier. That is the legal situation. Every house that was constructed since 1998 should have a radon barrier in place. The provision under conveyancing is not provided for in legislation.

It is in the Law Society's guidelines so there is pretty much a standard procedure in that regard. It identifies this is an issue in circumstances where a property is being sold or transferred. It is identified and flagged at that stage.

That neatly leads me to the issue of the pilot scheme. My intention was to bring forward, as part of this legislation, a provision to introduce a scheme for the retrofitting of homes to deal with radon gas. The Department was established two years ago and the legislation is only coming forward now. For the past 12 months, it was my intention to have, when the legislation came forward, a specific provision to put in place a scheme to retrofit homes to deal with radon gas. The problem, however, is that this is already in primary legislation and the only way I can bring forward a scheme is to have it on a statutory basis. Moreover, the existing legislation must be repealed and an actual scheme must be put in place. The difficulty with the current primary legislation is that it is not fit for purpose in practical terms. To try to overcome this challenge, we decided to have a pilot initiative and, based on that, draft the primary legislation allowing us to roll out the scheme across the country. My intention, as Minister, is to have a national scheme.

The areas covered by the pilot are counties Roscommon and Galway. We have picked 1,400 houses in the region. The reason we picked these locations is that they contain areas with very high radon levels and others with very low levels. Rather than having the contractors involved in doing the work travelling the length and breadth of the country and spending more money on travel than retrofitting houses, and because we want this turned around quite quickly, we allocated a sum of €75,000 to test in areas with high, low and medium levels of radon. The objective is to examine the test take-up rate, costs, challenges and barriers. All 1,400 homeowners have been written to at this stage. The pilot covers Tuam in the north, Loughrea in the south and the area as far as Ballinasloe and up to Castlerea. On foot of that, the objective is to come forward with the amending legislation to roll out a national scheme.

That number of homes - 1,400 - is only the tip of the iceberg in counties Roscommon and Galway, where there are problems. County Mayo has a particular problem and west Galway has a considerable problem. Since the radon map was first published a number of years ago, I have raised this matter. I am determined to introduce a scheme for the entire country in order that we can actively encourage people to have the test carried out and participate in the scheme to carry out the remedial works required. I understand the costs will not be very prohibitive. Let us see what comes back from the pilot initiative. I hope that, with the agreement of both Houses, we can pass the legislation quite quickly. That is what I am determined to do. The reason for this is that, every week, five to six people are diagnosed with lung cancer as a direct result of exposure to radon gas. That is just not good enough. Radon is the main cause of lung cancer deaths after smoking. I, for one, am very concerned about this and I am very anxious to see it addressed.

In Northern Ireland, a decision to host a geological disposal facility would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, taking into account planning and environmental considerations. According to the report by the UK Government, the functions relating to the management of radioactive waste in the United Kingdom are devolved from the UK Government to the devolved Administrations. In addition to an area having the right geology, community acceptance is also required. Previously, a site identified in Cumbria in England was rejected because it did not have the support of the local council. In the context of Northern Ireland, therefore, the Northern Executive would have a role in this regard. The UK report notes that such a decision would be 15 to 20 years away. Therefore, any such decision is a long way away but the Northern Ireland Executive will have a direct role in this regard. It is written into the UK procedures that there must be local support. This will be determined by the people in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland.

Members referred to Brexit, the United Kingdom and what will happen after the latter leaves the European Union. As members know, the United Kingdom has formally notified the European Union of its intention to exit from the terms of the EURATOM Treaty in addition to leaving the European Union. The United Kingdom, however, remains a member of EURATOM and the UK nuclear industry remains subject to oversight by EU institutions. It is likely that the UK will remain subject to that oversight during any transition phase, which is projected to last for two years following the exit in March of next year. Post Brexit, the United Kingdom will continue to be a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, the chief executive of the agency was here with me last week or the week before. The agency establishes and monitors adherence to standards and nuclear safety, security and safeguards. Therefore, in respect of the various conventions, partnerships, agreements and intergovernmental treaties under the auspices of the agency, Ireland will continue to play a role in directly analysing and peer reviewing UK nuclear safety procedures to ensure the United Kingdom meets its international obligations. I have exchanged correspondence with UK Minister Richard Harrington, the undersecretary for industry, on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland after Brexit. The United Kingdom is committed to ensuring that nuclear safeguards under the direction and supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency will continue after Brexit.

With regard to Sellafield, there are a number of significant hazards at the site. These are recognised by industry, its regulators and the Irish authorities. Sellafield has the largest inventory of radioactive waste in Europe, some of which is stored in ageing facilities. The circumstances are acknowledged by the UK authorities as requiring active hazard-reduction programmes. In light of long-standing concerns about the potential for an incident at Sellafield to affect Ireland, the Government commissioned a team of international nuclear experts to undertake a probabilistic risk assessment, PRA, of Sellafield. This assessment considered a wide range of events, including operator error, earthquakes, fires, floods, meteorite strikes and terrorist attacks. The assessments included incidents caused by internal events, such as a fire within the facility. The PRA found that while internal events such as a fire could lead to significant releases within the site and surrounding area and the potential for injuries and deaths among site personnel, they would not lead to significant contamination reaching Ireland. The PRA also considered more severe external events, such as a meteorite or aircraft crashing into a facility and causing the dispersion of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The assessment concluded that such events would not lead to contamination levels in Ireland high enough to cause observable health effects here but would require the introduction of food-related and agricultural protective actions in Ireland, causing significant socioeconomic impacts.

Ireland has in place a national emergency plan for nuclear accidents. It is designed to deal with the consequences of such events and includes arrangements for the introduction of appropriate preventive protective actions for people and the food chain. At Government level, there is a formal agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland for early provision of information in the event of a nuclear accident. There are also regular meetings of officials from both Governments to discuss nuclear issues. At technical level, the EPA meets at least annually with the UK nuclear regulators, the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, and maintains regular contact with them in case of incidents or other developments of interest at nuclear sites in the United Kingdom.

There is a standing agenda item on nuclear power plants, both Sellafield and new nuclear plants, at the twice yearly meeting of the UK and Ireland contact group on radiological matters. We get an ongoing update on the issue at those twice yearly meetings.

On Senator Colm Burke's point about transport by air or sea, transport of radiological material is subject to licence under the Radiological Protection Act 1991. Council Directive 2011/70/EURATOM sets out the safety requirements for radioactive waste. Council Directive 2006/117/EURATOM sets out the legislative framework for transport of sources of radiation by sea and by air.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 22 May 2018.

Will all Stages be taken next week?

We would be quite happy to do that.

Committee Stage, Report Stage and Final Stage will be taken.

That will be a matter for the Leader. It is noted. When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 May 2018.