Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together.
Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 9, line 4, after “apparatus”,” to insert the following:
(iv) by the insertion of the following paragraph after paragraph (k):
“(l) to report annually to the Oireachtas on the implementation of the National Radon Control Strategy or any successor strategy.”,”.
It is estimated that 250 people die of radon-related lung cancers every year in Ireland. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas which seeps out of the earth. It is the biggest source of exposure to ionising radiation in Ireland. Radon concentrations are naturally high in Ireland, so much so that some of the highest indoor concentrations of radon measured in homes anywhere on the planet are in towns such as Castleisland, County Kerry, and Mallow, County Cork. High exposures result from radon being trapped and building up in houses and workplaces. Fixing such houses is comparatively straightforward, involving changes to the ventilation in areas where radon collects.
However, radon is odourless, tasteless and invisible. A house must be tested to find out if it has a radon problem. Testing is simple, involving leaving detectors in the house for three months, and costs between €40 and €60.
Despite the fact that testing is easy and cheap, there is a problem getting homeowners to test their properties. The problem is most severe in private rented properties, where tenants living with the radon risk are not responsible for testing and, if necessary, remediating the house. As a result, even though at approximately €50 it is clearly affordable, it is unusual for private landlords to carry out radon tests.
In 2011, the Government established an expert group to produce a national radon control strategy, NRCS. The resulting strategy was put to public consultation in 2013 and adopted in 2014. The strategy provides for a continuation of the testing programme for social housing, which is well advanced. State authorities recognise that radon testing and remediation is something they, as responsible landlords, must carry out. The strategy also recognises that the necessary testing in private rented properties simply will not happen if it is left up to the landlords and their agents. It was, therefore, decided that when the standards for rented housing regulations were next revised, they would address radon. This was adopted as national policy in February 2014. In 2016, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government consulted with a select group of stakeholders regarding revision of the rented housing standards. The EPA pointed out the commitment in the national radon control strategy to address radon in the revised regulations and suggested how it should be implemented. No other stakeholder referred to radon. The general public and public health organisations were not told of the consultation.
Now the mystery starts. In January 2017, the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, signed off on regulations that contain no reference to radon. It is clear from the reply to a freedom of information request the Green Party submitted to the Department that there is no document in the Department which responds to, or addresses, the EPA submission. There is no stated reason radon was not included in the final regulations. This is in a context in which other elements of the strategy are also being ignored. The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, is referenced many times in the strategy, with recommendations that its stakeholder meetings be used to raise awareness and that its website include information and links on radon. However, there is nothing to this effect on the RTB website. How can the Department and the Minister acknowledge a commitment in Government policy, be reminded about another State agency and then proceed as if it did not exist? How could this happen with a simple practical commitment which, if implemented, would reduce the incidence of lung cancer, saving dozens of lives per year? To add insult to injury, the annual report on implementation of the strategy marks the action as complete. Unfortunately, the Government is failing to implement the action in the national radon control strategy. I have, therefore, tabled the amendment requiring the EPA to report to the Oireachtas on implementation of the strategy.
I wish to signal in advance that I will support Senator Conway-Walsh's amendments.
I hope the Seanad will recognise my comments and unite on this issue of public health. I particularly appeal to Fine Gael Senators to support the obligation to report on the implementation of a strategy that their own party introduced while in government.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. We are anxious to get the Bill through as quickly as possible, as he knows.
The Senator cannot-----
Excuse me. We are anxious to get the Bill through as quickly as possible, as is the Minister. Both amendments in this group are good and there is a great deal of merit to them. Radon gas is a serious issue, as it is a silent killer. My experience is that some schools have been affected by it as well. I understand these buildings have been remediated. Will the Minister confirm that new buildings have radon barriers which prevent radon from getting in? Many houses built before radon barriers were introduced, particularly houses in rocky areas, areas where there is limestone and elsewhere around the countryside, are in danger. Radon gas is the key to the growth of cancer in certain regions. This is a reasonable amendment, and I would like the Minister to respond to it.
I support the amendment also. It is important that we monitor and measure exactly the progress being made. Radon gas is a killer and this is a worthwhile amendment to the Bill. Both Houses would be able to ensure that the policy we ask to be implemented is implemented and that there is a regular check on that. We have a responsibility to ensure that the job is done. Senator Leyden is correct that radon gas is a killer. There have been improvements in this regard in recent decades, which I recognise, but this is a sensible, worthwhile amendment that would bring merit to the Bill.
I am happy to support Senator O'Sullivan's amendment but I am disappointed that Sinn Féin's two amendments have been ruled out of order. They related to radon control. One involved a survey of the home for radon, and the second another scheme for remediation to protect against radon gas in homes.
Radon is the greatest cause of lung cancer after smoking and it causes five cases of cancer each and every week. The harmful gas is colourless, odourless and tasteless and people can be unaware of a buildup of radon in their homes. We need to take action. This is a major cause of cancer throughout the State. We need to ensure householders know about the individual risk associated with their properties. I see this in my county, Mayo, which is one of the worst-affected areas in the State.
I also tabled an amendment concerning a remediation scheme, which would help homeowners currently at risk of radon gas. A pilot scheme, which we have discussed before with the Minister, has been put in place in Roscommon and east Galway. I certainly welcome this, but it needs to be extended throughout the State as quickly as possible. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, other counties are greatly affected by this dangerous gas in their homes. We see this in Mayo and Donegal, for instance. The amendment would put back on a statutory footing a scheme to help protect homes from the danger of this lethal gas. Homes built since 1997 should have been fitted with a radon barrier. Homes without this protection, particularly those in the areas that are most affected, need a scheme of testing to carry out remediation works and to protect health. This is simple and this needs to be done. I accept what the Minister has said and what he is trying to do with the pilot scheme. This needs to be moved forward and it needs to be implemented in a comprehensive way. This gas causes ill health and death if not addressed. A small investment is required given what it will do for people's health.
I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach for a little discretion even though I know this is Committee Stage. I will deal with all the issues that have been raised and then come back to Senator O'Sullivan's amendments. I would like to try to address these because Senator Conway-Walsh's amendments were ruled out of order but I am positively disposed to the principle behind them. They can help to address some of the concerns Senator O'Sullivan has raised.
They were ruled out of order because of a potential charge on the Exchequer under Standing Order 41.
Yes. I do not dispute that decision. This will all fall into place if I am given a chance to elaborate on the matter.
Radon gas is killing five people every week through lung cancer. Basically, a lung cancer diagnosis is terminal. Only 4% of people survive after being diagnosed. After smoking, radon gas is the second biggest killer in respect of lung cancer. Five deaths a week are attributed to radon gas.
Back in 2002, legislation was brought forward to introduce a scheme to test and retrofit homes. There have been 15 people in my position since then. They have been from many of the political parties - the Labour Party, the Green Party, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil - and this issue has not been progressed. That is because it was put into primary legislation. Returning to Senator Conway -Walsh's point, I have delayed this legislation for 12 months to try to do exactly what she wants in her amendments. I was determined to ensure that we could do that. However, based on the long and protracted negotiations I had with my officials, the legal section of my Department and the Office of the Attorney General, it is not possible for me to do that because, unfortunately, my predecessor provided for a scheme in primary legislation that is inoperable. The only way I can introduce a national scheme is to amend that primary legislation with another scheme. The difficulty is that I do not know at this stage what will or will not work in communities throughout the country.
To try to find that out - and to develop a proper robust scheme - we pinpointed 1,400 homes in Roscommon and east Galway. It is not a comprehensive list of homes; it is only a sample of people in low radon and high radon areas. We kept it geographically tight because we do not want contractors running the length and breadth of the country. We want this turned around quickly. It takes three months for the radon test kit to be installed and returned, and then it has to be read. Once it is read and the homes that require retrofitting are identified, we will carry that out. We developed pilot schemes with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and from those we have developed a robust scheme. Based on that, I intend and am determined to roll out a national scheme available to everyone.
This is a serious public health issue. It is a big demand on our health resources and affects the quality of lives of people. As a representative of a constituency afflicted with radon gas over a long number of years, I raised this in Dáil Éireann on numerous occasions from the Opposition benches. I am committed to introducing a scheme once I know how it can be structured. I hope that when I do so, I will have the assistance of colleagues to expedite it through the Houses of the Oireachtas as quickly as possible. I am fully supportive of the thrust of Senator Conway-Walsh's amendment and I am determined to introduce legislation to reflect what she has said and implement this on a national basis. This has been long-fingered for far too long.
Regarding Senator Leyden's question, the building regulations were changed in 1998. Since then, there has not been a significant issue with radon gas. There may be one or two isolated pockets where the radon barrier has not been put in. We can spot-check some of those premises as part of this national roll-out to make sure that the building regulations are fully complied with.
I understand where Senator Grace O'Sullivan is coming from. If I was sitting in her shoes, I would make the same argument out of frustration with the failure to make progress since the legislation was enacted in 2002. I agree with the point she is making. I will propose a solution. I am opposing the amendments because it is not an appropriate function for the EPA to have in primary legislation. The creation and implementation of the NRCS is an administrative and management issue for my Department and a multi-Department, multi-agency approach to improve the awareness of, and protection, from radon gas. The EPA is not responsible for the formulation, adoption or delivery of the strategy. It follows that a statutory requirement to report on the implementation of the strategy, over which it has no control or responsibility, cannot be imposed. The policy function for tackling radon rests with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and he or she is directly accountable to the Oireachtas in this regard.
I know where Senator Grace O'Sullivan is coming from. However, the difficulty I find myself in is that a radon retrofitting scheme was provided for in legislation in 2002, which prevents me from introducing such a scheme. Inserting this provision into legislation would transfer responsibility from the Minister who is directly accountable to Members in this House and in the Lower House to the EPA. I am willing to provide a report that would be laid in the Library, and then to come into this House - which is probably easier to do than the Lower House - and take questions on the implementation of the radon strategy. It is only right and proper that the Minister be held accountable for that. It would have been useful if some of my 15 predecessors had been held accountable for the failure to implement it. Putting this in legislation and giving responsibility for reporting to the EPA is not going to help delivery because the agency is not responsible for the implementation of the plan. It would only give a broad commentary and report back on it. The Minister, however, is responsible for the implementation of the plan and he or she should be held accountable for it in the House.
The EPA's work on radon is a key component of the NRCS. I remind the Senator that the agency reports on its work in this regard on a statutory basis under section 51 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992. Those reports are laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The NRCS is chaired by my Department. The strategy contains recommendations on a broad range of measures aimed at reducing radon risk to people in Ireland and these are set out in six thematic areas. Successful implementation of the strategy would require action from a range of Departments, public bodies and stakeholders. My experience regarding matters to be implemented across government, taking responsibility away from the Minister and giving it to one agency that does not have teeth to report on will fail to ensure that the matter is implemented.
There are 31 identified action points set out in the NRCS and it is intended that all those action points will be implemented. A total of 19 actions are complete, three actions will be completed with the transposition of the basic safety standards directive and nine further actions have been commenced and will either be completed following the end of the strategy in 2018 or carried out on an ongoing basis. Some of the key achievements to date include the establishment and launch of a dedicated website, www.radon.ie, the completion and roll-out of targeted training courses on radon remediation for construction site staff, local authorities and contractors and the establishment of registration schemes for radon measurement services and radon remediation contractors.
One of the strategy's key recommendations relates to financial incentives to encourage householder action on radon. I launched a targeted radon testing and remediation survey to assess the uptake of radon testing and remediation in homes in high radon areas and adjacent lower risk areas to inform the detailed design of a new nationwide financial incentive scheme. Due to the success of the work programme under the NRCS, I intend to establish a successor strategy on a statutory basis to continue the good work in identifying and remediating radon where it occurs.
Senator O'Sullivan has raised a particular issue regarding consultation. I am happy to take up that particular point on her behalf.
The Government opposes amendment No. 2 both on principle and on the detail behind it, as it is already set out in section 7 of the principal Act. Paragraph (1)(d) assigns to the Environmental Protection Agency the general function of advising the Government, the Minister and other Ministers of the Government on radiological safety matters relating to the transport, use, storage, maintenance and disposal of radiation sources wheresoever located. Paragraph (1)(c) further assigns the general function to the EPA of advising the Government, the Minister, other Ministers of the Government and the public on measures for the protection of individuals in the State from radiological hazards. Paragraph (1)(k) assigns the function to the agency of providing information to the public on any matters relating to radiological safety which the agency deems fit. The function of the EPA to advise the Government, the Minister and Ministers of the Government and the public on radiological safety matters is not restricted by a geographical location, type or purpose of radiation source.
The difficulty is that the amendments would bring no additional clarity to the functions of the agency as an advisory body, but they may include a number of unidentified and unclear terms which may be open to legal interpretation and may, in fact, impede the agency in delivering its mandate. Again, I refer back to the 2002 legislation which was brought through this House with the best intentions but is now impeding me in introducing a scheme. I have concerns that if these two amendments were enshrined in the legislation they could impede the objective of the scheme. I am committed to come back and report on it. The Minister should report on it, not the EPA. This is across Departments but the EPA can only respond and be accountable for what is within its function. The Minister is answerable in respect of both his Department and the action or failures by the Government in implementing this. It would be wrong not to leave that accountability with the Minister. I will be happy to return and report on it through whatever mechanism the House deems appropriate. The second amendment is already covered in the primary legislation but it could give rise to an interpretation which may impede the EPA.
I accept what the Minister said. He obviously recognises the impact of radon on public health. What I am proposing is that we would get a comprehensive report from the EPA. However, I understand that the buck stops with the Minister. If I understand him correctly, he is giving the House a commitment that he will report back to the House and assure us that steps are being taken with regard to what I propose in the amendment. As regards stakeholder analysis, we see situations where there is no full stakeholder analysis or where there are gaps where stakeholders are not contributing to a process. It would be appreciated if a stakeholder analysis includes all stakeholders, which will always be the public as well as agencies and institutions.
I have a feeling that radon, radiation and the impacts of transboundary radiation have somewhat fallen off the Irish agenda. We saw that recently with Hinkley Point C when the Government had no representative at the Espoo Convention consultation to represent this country with regard to new developments on the east coast of England and the installation of a nuclear power plant. It is important that we as a nation, and I direct this remark to all parties in the House, pull up our socks and acknowledge the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan and remember the accident at Chernobyl. We must not forget that there is a risk to this country from both radon and radiation in terms of transboundary contamination or pollution from the UK. We must take appropriate steps to identify the risks and do what we can to ensure we are prepared in the event of an accident happening in the UK.
I accept the good faith of the Minister's commitment and welcome it.
I appreciate Senator Grace O'Sullivan's amendment because it brought forth a comprehensive response from the Minister. He takes this issue very seriously, and rightly so given the dangers of radon. I am delighted the Senator will not press the amendment because the Minister has promised to report back.
With regard to the effect of radioactivity on Ireland following Chernobyl, we were very badly served at the time by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. Nobody should have been allowed out during the period after the Chernobyl accident. I genuinely believe that from my experience as a Minister of State with responsibility for trade. The fallout reached as far as north Roscommon. In fact, milk powder that was affected was sent back from South America. That was resolved, but the effect is enormous.
If something happened in Britain there is no doubt that we would be absolutely devastated. The UK can exit the EU as much as it wishes but we must ensure it has proper controls of the radioactivity in the developments taking place. The Minister and the Department are aware of this. It is important that they keep a close eye on what is happening in Britain because the dangers are enormous. Britain is also drilling for gas and oil and that is creating difficulty also. Chernobyl was a wake-up call for anybody who thinks that we are not affected by international events. Some cattle were affected very badly by cancer as a result of the fallout from Chernobyl.
This work is very important and I am delighted the Minister is on top of his brief in this regard. He needs space to develop this. He is correct that the Minister is accountable to these Houses. The agencies are not.
On the points raised by Senator Grace O'Sullivan, the EPA under its remit with regard to radon publishes its aspect of it as part of its annual report under section 51 of the Act. That is laid before the Houses. The implementation of the NCRS is published by me. It is not a statutory document and is not laid before the Houses, but I will ensure that when the annual report comes to me and is published, a copy will be given to the Senators. It will then be a matter for the Whips, but I will be happy to come to the House to go through the implementation and to update the Senators on the progress we have been making on the pilot scheme and the progress towards a national scheme. I am happy to do that once it is available.
As regards the stakeholder analysis, I am open to any suggestions on stakeholder input in that regard. The Senator is correct. It is not the case with this specific issue, but I specifically asked that question about stakeholders on another issue within the last week. In many cases stakeholders do not include the public, yet the biggest stakeholder we have is the public. I made that very point with regard to stakeholder consultation.
The Senator is right. The most important group is the public and it should be involved. This should not be a way of bypassing that engagement. If the Senators have any suggestions or ideas I am quite willing to take them on board and facilitate them where I can.
In response to Senators Leyden and Grace O'Sullivan's questions about the UK's nuclear building programme, the Government asked the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, now merged with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to prepare a report on the potential radiological implications for Ireland from the proposed nuclear power plants in the UK. The principal finding of the report published in May 2013 is that the routine operation of the proposed nuclear plants will have no measurable radiological impact on Ireland or the Irish marine environment. This report continues to inform Irish engagement on the UK's new nuclear build programme.
In response to the question on why the Irish Government was not consulted on the Espoo Convention at an early point, the scientific expert analysis by the RPII of the UK's nuclear build programme found that the routine operation of the proposed Hinkley Point C power plant would have no measurable radiological impact on Ireland or the marine environment. Representations were made to the Espoo implementation committee on the Hinkley Point C project which issued draft findings that the UK Government should have consulted with the neighbouring states. There was no agreement at the last Espoo meeting of the parties on the Espoo findings and the matter was withdrawn. A revised decision will be considered at an ad hoc meeting of the parties to take place at the end of 2018 or early 2019. The UK invited states to comment on the project by letter of 28 July 2017 without prejudice to the Espoo implementation committee discussions.
In respect of the last meeting of parties, Ireland was not represented. The lead Department in Ireland for the convention is the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government which liaises as appropriate with other Departments and agencies on particular issues. Ireland was not represented at the Espoo Convention meeting of the parties which took place in Minsk, Belarus.
In response to the question of whether there had been any meetings specifically for consultation on Hinkley Point C, a meeting took place in Dublin in April 2017 between UK officials and representatives of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. If the Senators want a more detailed briefing specifically on that subject we can arrange for them to meet with officials and go through it because the back and forth between both jurisdictions and what is happening on Espoo is quite complex. If Senators contact my office we can facilitate that and go through the detail. I hope that has answered the questions raised.
Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 seek to amend section 10(1A) which provides: "The Minister may by regulations provide for the carrying out of relevant activities and for interventions that may be required to deal with ionising radiation...". The amendment seeks to provide that these regulations and actions include a survey of homes across the State in areas deemed to be at risk to radon exposure. There are potential cost implications arising from such surveys-----
On a point of order, I am sorry to stop the Leas-Chathaoirleach in full flight but can somebody tell me how we can be making all these decisions when there are only four of us sitting here? We have no quorum.
Is the Senator calling for a quorum?
We are not making decisions.
That is exactly what we are doing.
We are dealing with Committee Stage. I was just giving a-----
There are four of us here, we might as well be standing at a bus stop.
I did not want to rule the Senator out of order but she is out of order.
The buses are busier than that and there would be more than four people standing at a bus stop.
I was simply giving a reason, which the Senator is well aware of, under Standing Order 41.
I am not chastising the Leas-Chathaoirleach nor would I think to do such a thing but there are only four of us.
We are each representing our parties. We speak for our parties.
The Minister gave a very full response, which the Senator allowed him to do on earlier sections.
We are like people standing at a bus stop and thinking they are in the Seanad.
I have just pointed out that amendments Nos. 3 and 4 have the potential to impose a charge on the Revenue and must be ruled out of order in accordance with Standing Order 41.
I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill through. I would like to see speedy progress of Bills such as this because too many Bills are being held up in the system. I am delighted the Minister has got it through. For clarification, I understand this Bill has yet to go to the Dáil and I hope it gets through the other Chamber. The Minister might clarify that point.
It is going to the Áras from here.
Therefore, it is now passed and is going for early signature, as such. I welcome that. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill through. It is very important that these responsibilities are clearly in his domain and that we can allow for delegation of responsibilities, given the new additions to his ministerial title. I wish him well on that. Well done.
From the Government side I acknowledge the work that has been done by the Department and the Minister to get the Bill through the Houses. It is very important legislation. I welcome that it will be signed by the President as soon as possible.
As Senators are aware, the Bill is comparatively short and quite technical in nature. Primarily, its purpose is to regularise matters in the area of radiological protection by amending certain sections of the Radiological Protection Act 1991 and 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.
In addition, it provides 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 to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, as the appropriate 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.
The Bill also provides the legal basis for the evolution of a one-size-fits-all system of licensing currently operated by the Environmental Protection Agency 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 the EURATOM Council, 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. I stress that the introduction of a graded approach to regulatory control will not result in any reduction in radiological safety. However, it will provide a much simpler, less costly and less administratively burdensome regulatory framework for both the operator and practitioners engaged in activities involving radiation sources. The Bill also provides for amendments to update the terminology of the 1991 Act to account for developments since the Act came into effect.
I thank colleagues for facilitating the passage of the Bill. I give a commitment that I am determined to introduce a scheme to address the issue of radon gas as soon as practicable and feasible.