Irish Sellafield Suit Thrown Into Disarray

LONDON, UK, June 26, 2003 (ENS) - An international tribunal has delivered a setback to Irish efforts to stop nuclear fuel manufacturing at the Sellafield nuclear plant in the UK. It has emerged that Ireland could face legal action from the European Commission for having brought the case in the first place.

The Sellafield MOX Plant on the Irish Sea manufactures mixed oxide fuel from uranium and plutonium for use in foreign nuclear power stations. Ireland alleges that the UK has failed to protect the marine environment from radiation resulting from the manufacture of MOX fuel and requested the establishment of an arbital tribunal under the dispute resolution provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The arbitral tribunal, rejected demands for "provisional measures" that would effectively have required the MOX plant's closure. Ireland had failed to show an "urgent and serious risk of irreparable harm," it said.


The Sellafield nuclear complex on the Irish Sea (Photo courtesy Sellafield Local Liaison Committee)
Ireland sought provisional measures after the tribunal, in mid-June, suspended the main case until December citing doubts over its jurisdiction.

During the proceedings it was noticed that the European Commission had indicated in May in answer to a question from MEP Proinsias de Rossa that it was considering infringement action against Ireland for having bypassed the EU legal framework.

Britain's Energy Ministry welcomed what it called the tribunal's "comprehensive rejection" of Ireland's demand for provisional measures, which it said had "no scientific basis" and "went far beyond protection of any rights Ireland might have."

UK Energy Minister Stephen Timms called for more constructive engagement on Sellafield. "Even on Ireland's own evidence, there is no scientific basis to the accusations Ireland has made about pollution and no justification for taking such extraordinary legal action," said Timms.

The tribunal's order points out that, "The Attorney General for Ireland, in opening the case, accepted that "the level of discharges from the MOX plant ... is not of a significant magnitude."


British Energy Minister Stephen Timms (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
The tribunal said Ireland has not established that "serious" harm would be caused to the marine environment by operation of the MOX plant.

The Irish Environment Ministry focused instead on the tribunal's decision to maintain an order made in 2001 for the UK to cooperate fully with Ireland. "This order recognises that the UK has failed to give us the cooperation we need to protect ourselves from the potential threats from Sellafield," it said.

The United Kingdom must now agree a mechanism for cooperation with Ireland on issues of nuclear safety, and both parties must report on progress made in implementing the original order and the new decision, the Irish Environment Ministry said.

The first of these progress reports must be submitted to the Tribunal by September 12, 2004. The tribunal will keep under review the reports and information provided under these orders and will examine the possible need for further measures.

The tribunal ordered the parties to ensure that no actions are taken which might aggravate the situation. This means that the UK must abide by the commitments given to Ireland on June 13 that no decision to authorize further reprocessing the MOX facility without prior consultation involving Ireland.


Irish Environment Minister Martin Cullen (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
Irish Environment Minister Martin Cullen said, “I welcome today’s Order of the Tribunal. The establishment of a proper mechanism in which to extract important information about nuclear safety from the British government is an important new development. This Order recognizes that the UK has failed to give us the cooperation we need to protect ourselves from the potential threats from Sellafield."

“We now have a UN referee overseeing the implementation of Britain’s obligations. The Tribunal has set a tight deadline for co-operation, which is a positive development and should prevent the kind of prevarication we have seen in the past.”

Cullen said, “It is clear for many years now that radioactive discharges from Sellafield result in contamination of the Irish marine environment. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) carries out a regular program of radioactivity monitoring of Ireland’s marine environment, the objective of which is to assess the exposure of the Irish population resulting from radioactive contamination of the marine environment and to estimate the risks to health."

“While the RPII view is that the doses received by the Irish public through the consumption of seafood do not constitute a significant health risk, the fact that such radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea are continuing is a matter of serious concern to the Irish government."

Timms pointed out that on Monday the British government published draft legislation to enable the establishment of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as proposed in the July 2002 policy paper on "Managing the Nuclear Legacy."

"We are, of course, seeking Ireland's views on the draft bill and hope they will engage with us fully over this important area of work," Timms said.

"However vehemently people might choose to demand that Sellafield be shut down, there are real challenges to be faced and the work to clean up the site cannot be completed overnight," said Timms. "It is time to start working together."


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