Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Questions (11)

Trevor Sargent

Question:

141 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the involvement the Government has with EURATOM; the contributions made by Irish taxpayers to EURATOM since Ireland joined the EU; the efforts made to internalise nuclear safety measures into the body of EU law and phase out EURATOM as an unaccountable pro-nuclear arm of the EU; and his plans to bring about real change in this regard during the Irish Presidency. [3167/04]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Ireland is a party to the EU treaty and, in accordance with this, pays its contribution to the EU budget. EURATOM is financed directly from the general EU budget, but there is no separate contribution from Ireland towards the budget of EURATOM.

This Government's policy is to steer EURATOM's activities towards nuclear safety and radiological protection. EURATOM has been active in both of these areas. For example, EURATOM Directive 96/29, which lays down basic safety standards for the protection of workers and members of the public from the dangers of ionising radiation, represents major EURATOM inspired legislation in the area of radiological protection. In addition, EURATOM has become a contracting party to the additional protocol to the 1977 agreement between EURATOM and the International Atomic Energy Agency on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Proposals by the European Commission relating to the safety of nuclear installations and the safe management of radioactive waste, the so-called nuclear safety package, are also based on provisions of EURATOM. These are under consideration at the European Council's atomic questions working group.

The Government will continue to work through the various EURATOM groups to ensure, in as far as the treaty allows, that EURATOM's focus is on nuclear safety rather than nuclear promotion. There is no current review of EURATOM, but any such proposals will be considered on their merits, and Ireland will participate fully in such circumstances.

The Minister's reply on this matter is even more pessimistic than the reply I received from the Taoiseach. Does the Minister accept that EURATOM, which was established in 1957 and is very much pro-nuclear and the expansion of the nuclear industry, lacks democratic control? It was established before the European Parliament and yet it spends money that is not adequately accounted for — some of it in Ireland — on research projects which are not scrutinised. I know from people doing research that they feel their projects are unsupervised. Some projects, for example, have funding of €5 million.

Is it not time, especially during our EU Presidency, to push for a complete review of EURATOM so that the functions for nuclear safety will become part of the EU body of law and EURATOM, as a standalone company which will spend €2 billion over the next four years on nuclear research, is wound down and a sunset clause inserted? Does the Minister not support that approach along with Austria and Luxembourg? Is it not important that we use our opportunity during the Presidency to push for this so that it happens? There are vested interests that will resist it. However, most of the EU is non-nuclear in terms of not having nuclear power. Surely, we should use that majority position to push for the ending of EURATOM and the internalising of safety so that we can have a future that is not pro-nuclear but fair to renewable energy sources?

Ireland's position on nuclear power, the Government's opposition to it and my views are well documented in the public domain. There is not unanimity in Europe on this issue because some countries are nuclear and support the development of the industry. We do not.

What is important is the nuclear safety package which is currently under discussion and about which there are differing views. As President of the EU, Ireland is seeking to establish a sound consensus on the package to facilitate its adoption at the earliest possible opportunity. As Members know, there was little formal debate on the matter during the constitutional discussions. While Austria tabled a proposal which Ireland formally supported, the measure was not met with universal support. We will continue at all levels to use our influence as a sovereign state on these matters. During the Irish Presidency, we hope to move the agenda forward and to secure agreement on substantive issues such as the safety package.

I appreciate that there is a lack of consensus, as the Minister points out. We would not put this question down otherwise. If there were consensus, there would have been movement. Does the Minister agree that he is in a key and timely position as President of the Council of Environment Ministers to pursue a review of the EURATOM Treaty to end an obsolete feature of EU life? Austria, Luxembourg and many other member states would appreciate it. There is a separate organisation to promote one type of energy which most of us in the EU do not want to see continued and certainly not promoted. Does the Minister not think this is an opportunity to harness the majority position and as chair and President of the Council, to pursue a review? The time will not come around again.

I am not asking the Minister to accept there is a lack of consensus. We know that to be the case. I ask that he use the arguments that EURATOM is unaccountable, in receipt of disproportionate amounts of research money which other energy sources cannot draw down and endangering future generations through the legacy of nuclear energy production. Does the Minister not agree that he should make these arguments through the opportunities afforded to him over the next six months?

I do not agree with all the assertions the Deputy has made in the absolutist terms in which he has framed them with regard to EURATOM. While there are issues and questions which we should pursue, it is not open to me to turn round the agenda during the Irish Presidency. The agenda for the Presidency is well documented and publicised. The best thing the Irish Presidency can do is deal with what is on the agenda, not spend six months trying to get something else onto it. We would not be successful in that because it is not flagged that we should do so. It would be disingenuous and wrong of me to do that having had many discussions with many environment Ministers before the Presidency began to obtain clear agreement on the agenda of the Irish Presidency.

What is before us of unquestionable importance is the first step in a longer process in which some of the issues to which the Deputy alluded should be focused upon. We must start somewhere and before us is the important issue of the nuclear safety package. The lack of consensus means it will be very difficult to address the findings of the atomic questions working group which is where the matter is being considered at the moment. If we make progress on this issue during our Presidency, that is well and good. If we cannot make progress, we will continue to pursue the matter unilaterally as a sovereign Government in every possible national and international forum.