Dáil Éireann - Volume 444 - 22 June, 1994

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - THORP Reprocessing Plant.

5. Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications the action, if any, Ireland took at the meeting of the Paris Commission in Sweden last week to raise the issue of the THORP reprocessing plant and in particular the dangers to Ireland from increased reprocessing; the response, if any, received to Irish representations; the further action, if any, now planned; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

8. Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications the way in which he responded to the request from Greenpeace for the Government to initiate arbitration procedures on the issue of THORP at Sellafield; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

53. Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications the next steps, if any, he proposes to take in leading the Irish Government's campaign against the THORP Nuclear Reprocessing Plant at Sellafield.

Mr. Cowen: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5, 8 and 53 together.

The Paris Commission, which deals with the prevention of all types of marine pollution, is primarily a matter for the Minister for the Environment. However, as on previous occasions, officials from my Department and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland attended [389] the meeting for agenda items concerning the discharges of radioactive substances into the marine environment.

Ireland was to the forefront in discussions at the meeting and again raised its long-standing grave concerns about the reprocessing activities at Sellafield and, in particular, the increased emissions arising from the operation of the new THORP plant. Most delegations supported Ireland in expressing anger at the UK and France's non-acceptance during the year of an Irish-sponsored recommendation on nuclear reprocessing plants, which had been adopted in 1993. The effect of this recommendation would be to oblige States to adopt all possible measures, including the application of best available technology and the precautionary principle, for the reduction and ultimate elimination of radioactive substances in the sea. The recommendation also stated that authorisations for radioactive discharges from nuclear reprocessing options had also been considered and a full environmental impact assessment was undertaken in advance. This year's meeting urged the UK and France to immediately reconsider their stance and to comply urgently with the provisions.

The Paris Commission at its meeting all last week in Sweden also adopted an Irish-sponsored recommendation for the carrying out of a study to assess both the reprocessing and non-reprocessing options for nuclear spent fuel management. The Irish view was that the non-reprocessing option, such as dry storage for spent fuel, constitutes the most effective, least environmentally damaging and best manner to achieve the aims of reduction and elimination of radioactive contamination into the sea. A third recommendation, sponsored by Ireland and the Nordic Countries, focused on the environmental impact resulting from discharges of radioactive substances. The Paris Commission agreed that, as a matter of urgency, a detailed examination should be undertaken of the further measure that can be adopted for the reduction and elimination of radioactive substances to the [390] marine environment. My officials have taken a leading role in all of these Paris Commission discussions.

I am having Greenpeace's recent paper on arbitration under the Paris Convention examined, in consultation with the Attorney General. I must say, however, that this question has been considered in detail before and it has been found that there are limitations in such an approach in that there is not a lot of legal weight to that convention in relation to discharges of radioactive substances. Its usefulness is largely as an international forum for putting political and moral pressure on the UK, not as a source of legal obligations. Indeed, the Greenpeace organisation identified and recognised the disadvantages of the convention when it presented a different submission in 1990 to previous Ministers for Energy and for the Environment. Furthermore, the Paris Convention has no binding regulatory or authorisation functions in relation to the planning, building, commissioning or operation of industrial or nuclear plants such as THORP on territories of individual states.

As in the past, I and my officials will maintain unremitting international and diplomatic pressure in every appropriate forum and at every possible opportunity to highlight our concerns and to request the cessation of Sellafield's reprocessing facilities. Our opposition to Sellafield has already been raised at EC level, in the International Atomic Energy Agency, at the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency meetings and at the Paris Commission and the London Dumping Convention. In addition, at Energy and Environmental Councils of the EU, responsible Ministers have persistently raised Ireland's concerns about the dangers arising from Sellafield's discharges and operations.

Mr. Gilmore: Will the Minister accept that by proceeding with THORP without the environmental impact study and without consultation with the Paris Commission and this country, which was recommended by that commission in 1993, the UK authorities have ignored [391] the 1993 Paris Commission recommendations and are, therefore, in breach of the Paris Convention? If he accepts those points, has he notified the British Government that this country is in dispute with it due to its non-compliance with the Paris Commission recommendations and has he also notified the Paris Commission of this? If he has declared that this country is in dispute with Britain over these matters, what does he propose to do about that dispute?

Mr. Cowen: Recommendations are not binding on contracting parties which do not accept them. This principle of international law is a constraint in terms of the mandatory action one can take on points which are put and accepted by the majority of contracting states under the Paris Convention and similar international agencies. One can have serious disagreements with another country but when it is a non-binding recommendation one cannot, realistically, be said to be in dispute in legalistic terms.

Mr. Gilmore: The term is in the convention.

Mr. Cowen: This is regrettable as the other 11 contracting parties have indicated acceptance of the recommendation. The UK has explained that although most of the provisions in Recommendation 93-5 pose no problems it could not agree that the Paris Commission had the competence or the appropriate procedures to be consulted about new or revised discharge authorisations for nuclear plants. It believes the EURATOM Treaty contains the necessary provision for such consultations. The UK delegation also explained that following adoption of the recommendation last year it held a further round of public consultations on THORP and subsequently provided justification for the start-up of THORP's operations. Consultation has taken place within the framework of the EURATOM Treaty. France, another major nuclear reprocessing nation, supported the UK [392] as it does on many nuclear matters in other fora.

We will continue to maintain political pressure in all appropriate fora in our efforts to bring about the ultimate closure of Sellafield. In the meantime we will insist that all regulations are adhered to. We keep a close watch on the situation at all times. There is unanimity in the House on this issue and like successive Governments we will continue to voice our protestations and seek to reduce any perceived or potential threat to Irish people from the operation of the THORP plant.

Mr. Gilmore: I regret that the Minister did not answer the very simple questions I asked him. I will, therefore, put them in a different way. Does he agree that Britain is in breach of the Paris Commission recommendation by going ahead with THORP? It is a simple question.

Mr. Cowen: It is a separate question.

Mr. Yates: All it requires is a yes or no.

Mr. Cowen: It is a separate question.

Mr. Gilmore: The question relates to the Paris Commission. Is Britain in breach of the Paris Commission recommendation — yes or no?

Mr. Yates: It is a very simple question.

Mr. Cowen: Let me answer the question then. It is in breach of a recommendation. We are at one on this issue and I am simply explaining the position. The recommendation is of a non-binding nature and under the Paris Commission it cannot be imposed——

Mr. Gilmore: There is a procedure in the Paris Convention——

An Ceann Comhairle: Let us hear the Minister's reply.

Mr. Cowen: If the Deputy puts down a separate question on general policy [393] issues I will gladly give him the information. I would like to give an accurate and detailed reply to questions on this very technical area. It is because I want to give the Deputy proper information that I take that stance. In his question he asked the way in which we raised the issues, the procedures and what happened. I have given a very detailed response to these questions. If the Deputy puts down separate questions on other aspects I will reply to them.

Mr. Gilmore: It is absolutely extraordinary that the Minister responsible for this very important issue cannot tell us whether Britain is in breach of an international agreement to which we are a party and whether this country has notified Britain that it is in dispute with it over that. Have we notified Britain that we are in dispute with it? The Minister said that the recommendation is not binding, etc. but there is a procedure set down in the Paris Convention. Have we followed that procedure and told Britain we are in dispute with it over its non-compliance with the recommendation? Does the Minister intend to go to arbitration, as provided for in the convention?

An Ceann Comhairle: We are having repetition and the Deputy is raising a separate and distinct matter perhaps worthy of a separate question.

Mr. Cowen: Deputy Gilmore mentions the matter of going to arbitration. Arbitration under Article 21 would not seem to be possible as it specifically deals with “the interpretation or application of the present convention”. Since Article 5 is sufficiently vague, there would seem to be no reliable basis for a dispute between Ireland and the United Kingdom concerning interpretation or application.

Mr. Gilmore: So we are not in dispute.

Mr. Cowen: I am trying to explain the position. The Deputy can make his political speeches later.

[394] An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy must allow the Minister to be heard without interruption.

Mr. Cowen: If the Deputy will listen he will get the answer.

Mr. Gilmore: The Minister has just told us that we are not in dispute with Britain.

Mr. Cowen: I am explaining the position under the technical provisions of the convention, if the Deputy is prepared to listen. If he wants to fly the flag himself, that is fine, but I am dealing with the facts.

Mr. Gilmore: I want the Minister to fly the flag for this country but he is not doing so.

Mr. Cowen: I know what the Deputy is seeking to do. The whole purpose of his question is not to elicit information but to foster the idea that he is more green than anyone else. He is taking up the latest fad.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Gilmore may not continue to interrupt from a seated position. That is totally disorderly.

Mr. Cowen: I am explaining the position. The purpose of Question Time is to impart information. I am giving the Deputy the technical, detailed information if he wants to hear it. If he wants to make noises to be published in the evening papers, he can go right ahead. If he wants the information, it is as follows. Arbitration under Article 21 would not seem to be possible as it specifically deals with the interpretation and application of the present convention. Since Article 5 is sufficiently vague there would seem to be no reliable basis for dispute between Ireland and the United Kingdom concerning interpretation or application. The United Kingdom claims to be complying with guidelines laid down by an international organisation, the International Committee on Radiation Protection. Therefore, it complies with the [395] Paris Convention on levels of radioactive waste disposal. To challenge this on the basis of a legally weak obligation under Article 5 would be difficult, especially given the additional dispute on the ICRP standards. Perhaps it could be argued that the United Kingdom is so derelict in its actions vis-à-vis Sellafield that it is not taking measures in good faith indicated under Article 5.1 to forestall pollution or to adhere to the recommendation of the Commission, but there is no real legal duty here on which to rely. This argumentation was put forward in a Greenpeace document prepared by Dr. R.M. McGonagle on legal opinions for Irish action regarding United Kingdom radioactive waste pollution and forwarded to previous Ministers for Energy and for the Environment. In my reply I referred to the change which has arisen there in relation to the most recent documentation we received from Greenpeace which is being considered in my Department in consultation with the Attorney General. That is the position. I assure Deputy Gilmore if there is any breach of a legal obligation on the part of any member state, including the United Kingdom, detrimental to this country's interests, I will not need his persuasion to fulfil my duty. The officials in my Department would be acknowledged by activists in this area, by Greenpeace and others, to be the most vigilant and able people, who monitor at all times how we can bring further pressure to bear. I will not accept from Deputy Gilmore or anyone else that they are in dereliction of duty in that regard.

Mr. Sargent: Is it not true that the Minister dealt with Question No. 8 as well?

An Ceann Comhairle: That is so. These questions, including No. 5, have been called within the time allocated for dealing with questions nominated for priority.

Mr. Sargent: Can you advise me, a Cheann Comhairle, what happened to it?

[396] An Ceann Comhairle: Only the Deputies who tabled such questions are entitled to raise supplementaries. The Deputy's question has been taken.

Mr. Sargent: And disposed of without any input on my part.

An Ceann Comhairle: That is the procedure at this time, Deputy.

Mr. Yates: Deputy Sargent will be able to get in on Question No. 9.

Mr. Sargent: That is not the same question.

Mr. Gilmore: I refer to the Minister's statement that he was maintaining what he called “unremitting pressure” on the United Kingdom authorities about THORP. What on earth does he mean by “unremitting pressure” when he has just admitted to us that he has not even declared this country to be in dispute with Britain over a breach of an international agreement this country signed? We are the laughing stock of Europe. The Minister responsible does not even declare us in dispute over a breach of an international agreement. So much for his “unremitting pressure”.

Mr. Yates: Bluff and bluster all afternoon.

Mr. Cowen: Deputy Gilmore refuses to accept the points which have been put forward by my officials and the advice available to me, which is a little less simplistic than some of the issues he is putting forward.

Mr. Gilmore: Excuses for doing nothing.

Mr. Cowen: The Deputy is well able to interject the quick little phrase which will get him some publicity. That is how sincere he is about it. I am telling him the legal position.

Mr. Gilmore: The Minister has let them off the hook.

[397] Mr. Cowen: I can assure the Deputy that they know far more about it than he or I. The Deputy serves his own cynical political purposes. An opportunist is all he is, like the remainder of his group.