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Nuclear Plants.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 4 May 2006

Thursday, 4 May 2006

Ceisteanna (1)

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

1 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his Department’s position on the transportation of MOX fuel; if contacts have been made on this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16826/06]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Shipments of radioactive material, including MOX fuel, are subject to international maritime regulations including the right of "innocent passage" and to strict international safety standards applicable to the marine transport of such material.

The continuing concerns of the Irish Government in relation to all transports of radioactive material through the Irish Sea are regularly and repeatedly conveyed to the UK Government at ministerial and official level. Ireland also co-operates on this issue with like minded coastal states at international fora such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. The concerns we have relate to safety, security and environmental risk from an accident or incident.

Arising from our efforts over the years, information is made available to Ireland on a voluntary and confidential basis by the Governments of shipping states, principally, Japan, France and the United Kingdom, on shipments of radioactive material including MOX fuel. This information is also transmitted for operational reasons to relevant Government authorities such as the Irish Coast Guard service. The Irish Government in response makes clear that such shipments are unwelcome, and seeks and obtains assurances from shipping states that such shipments will not enter Irish territorial waters.

Ireland has been receiving such communications concerning shipments of radioactive material for more than ten years. Given the voluntary and confidential basis on which the information is provided, it has not been the practice to issue press statements on receipt of such notifications. Press queries which may arise are dealt with on a case by case basis. These arrangements are consistent with the long-standing principle of confidentiality in regard to inter-Government communications. That principle is also enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act.

Additionally, in so far as shipments are related to the MOX plant, which is the subject of the dispute between the United Kingdom and Ireland under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, the issue has been the subject of legal correspondence between Ireland and the UK. The MOX plant at Sellafield utilises plutonium, separated during reprocessing of spent fuel for foreign customers at Sellafield, and returns it to those customers in the form of MOX fuel. The Government instituted international legal proceedings against the Government of the United Kingdom under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the commissioning of the MOX plant. These proceedings remain suspended, pending the resolution of issues of Community law between the European Commission and Ireland on the MOX plant case. These issues are being litigated before the European Court of Justice and a final ruling in the case is expected later this month.

The Minister has been lulled into a state of soporific complacency on the transport of radioactive fuel up and down the Irish Sea. It passes his constituency and mine and it also passes the city of Dublin where more than 1 million live. When the first shipment of MOX fuel came through the Irish Sea from Japan many Ministers spoke out and protested here, there and everywhere. The Minister called out the Irish Coast Guard service and the Irish Air Corps, and there was great public debate. Everybody agreed with those actions and supported those views. However, in June 2005, when the second shipment of MOX was being transported through the Irish Sea the Minister was told about it but did absolutely nothing. He was silent on this issue, which is shameful, compared to the activity and concern expressed so publicly and so clearly by the Government.

The issue is why did the Minister remain silent? There is no regulation binding the Minister to a law of omerta when cargo, specifically cargo which could be used by terrorists to make a nuclear bomb or in the event of an accident at sea could cause serious pollution for many years in the Irish Sea, is being transported. The Minister remained silent and useless. It is worthless that the Minister kept quiet and said nothing when this was going on.

If the Deputy wishes to check what I said or check the record, he will find that issues relating to intergovernmental materials, such as the references made here, are not the subject of press statements. He is correct in saying there was a specific incident some time ago which attracted attention but that has not been the case during the past ten years.

It was two years ago.

If the Deputy wishes to check the record over the ten years during which we have had the notifications — I understand he does not want to check it, but wishes to characterise this in his usual dramatic way — he will see that the appropriate procedures have been adopted and will continue to be adopted. During the past ten years there have not been press statements in the majority of cases. Any issue of press commentary has been dealt with in the majority of cases on a case by case basis. I do not know whether the Deputy lives in the real world, but intergovernmental communications are not normally the subject of press statements or the type of brouhaha he has suggested should be the norm.

When the last MOX fuel shipment travelled around the world, maps were published in all the newspapers of the world outlining where it was going. We are dealing with MOX fuel, a specially refined fuel, which was not available ten years ago. I put it to the Minister that the ship in which the Minister allowed it to be carried, the Atlantic Osprey, is totally unsuitable for the purposes for which it is used. It has a single hull, only one engine, no naval armaments on board and is totally unsuitable. It is a 20 year old ship that in March 2002 had a fire in its engine, after British Nuclear Fuels Limited purchased it. It is inappropriate that the Minister does not protest about it, but remains silent, because it is a matter of grave and serious concern. It is not good enough for the Minister to hide behind ten years of silence.

MOX fuel is new fuel. This is only the second time it has been used and the Minister has not done anything about it, which shows his lack of action and concern. His silence on the shipment of such dangerous material in a totally unsuitable ship is unacceptable from a Minister. The ship is 20 years old — it was 15 years old before British Nuclear Fuels Limited bought it — and it is not suitable. When the Minister and the other Ministers protested, the Irish Air Corps flew and the other craft was on the water, the ship complained about was much more secure. It was double-hulled, had a naval escort and used the best available technology. The Minister is allowing ships which are unfit to carry this material up and down our coast and, quite honestly, he could not care less about it.

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