Ireland’s noxious politics

The Irish authorities' anti-Sellafield campaign is based on dodgy claims and political opportunism.

Damian Byrne

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Recent reports that the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant in Sellafield may cease operations by 2010 allowed the Irish government to make dubious claims of a victory in its ongoing campaign to shut down the controversial Cumbria plant.

Irish environment minister Martin Cullen said the government was ‘turning the screws’ on the British, and that ‘with each turn of the screw the ultimate objective of closing Sellafield moves nearer’ (1). Whatever the future of Thorp, it looks like there will be no let up in the peddling of irrational fears and prejudices about Sellafield by Ireland’s politicians, media and environmentalists.

Growing up in a small town on Ireland’s east coast in the 1980s, I was always aware of the Sellafield issue and of the perceived dangers of radioactive waste material being pumped into the Irish Sea. There were urban myths of two-headed, glow-in-the-dark fish, but even the added presence of raw sewage in our local harbour was not enough to deter us from swimming and fishing there.

Sellafield generates far less pollution now than it did then and safety measures have been enhanced. Yet public anxiety in Ireland has intensified, and the campaign to have the plant shut down has developed into a national crusade.

The anti-Sellafield campaign was fuelled by the events of 11 September. The possibility of a terrorist attack on Sellafield lent a powerful, if irrational, new argument to those seeking its closure. But the campaign had gathered considerable momentum before 9/11, feeding off today’s heightened sensitivity to potential dangers and aversion to risk. And nobody has done more to fuel fears than Ireland’s political and media establishment.

In recent years, the government, as well as environmental campaigners, have pursued various legal avenues in an attempt to disrupt operations at Sellafield – though such efforts have proved futile up to now. In November 2001 Ireland’s largest governing party, Fianna Fáil, took out a full-page advertisement in The Times (London) calling for the closure of Sellafield. In April 2002 a national campaign resulted in 1.3million postcards being sent to Tony Blair, Prince Charles and Norman Askew of BNFL to demand the closure of Sellafield.

The Sellafield issue holds obvious attractions for Ireland’s political elite, whose authority has been severely eroded by corruption scandals and inquiries over the past decade. Government defeats in high-profile referendums on the Nice treaty and abortion have highlighted the political establishment’s alienation from the electorate. With the old Civil War divide in Irish politics now exhausted, and nothing of substance having emerged to take its place, turnout at local, European and general elections has declined at an alarming rate.

In this climate, Sellafield offers politicians that increasingly rare commodity – an issue on which they are sure of being in touch with popular opinion. It enables them to pose as crusading defenders of the national interest, to engage a clearly defined enemy, and to employ the kind of impassioned rhetoric normally so out of place in the arid world of modern managerial-style politics.

So Taoiseach Bertie Ahern declared last year, in almost Churchillian tones, that, ‘We will not stand for this. The issue will not be allowed to rest. The campaign to close Sellafield has only begun. It is a campaign that will be waged relentlessly until it is won’. For Ahern, a politician normally so devoid of ideology or principle, this was a rare display of conviction.

The anti-Sellafield crusade also affords the Irish an opportunity to indulge a smug sense of moral superiority over their neighbour across the Irish Sea. This tendency was evident during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001, when Ireland’s ridiculously over-the-top response to an animal disease gave rise to a mood of national self-congratulation, especially when compared with the allegedly inadequate response of the British. It is worth recalling that the Irish Republic experienced just one case of foot-and-mouth, yet a national campaign was built around ‘protecting Ireland’.

The case against Sellafield usually centres upon the risk to health and safety posed by the dumping of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea. According to the Irish Examiner, ‘Britain’s total disregard for the safety of tens of thousands of Irish people living in the nuclear shadow of Sellafield is both arrogant and contemptuous…it is absolutely unacceptable for British Nuclear Fuels to continue discharging radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. As a result of the company’s shameful tactics, the waters off Ireland’s east coast now contain the greatest concentration of radioactive pollution in the world’ (2). Sinn Fein environment spokesman Arthur Morgan claims that Sellafield is responsible for ‘almost an epidemic of cancer’ on the east coast and in County Louth in particular (3).

Yet all of the scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that radioactive pollution generated at Sellafield has been reduced to insignificant levels and poses no risk to Irish people’s health and safety. A report published in May by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland highlighted Sellafield as the main source of artificial radioactivity in the Irish Sea. But it emphasised that ‘it continues to be safe to eat seafood from the Irish Sea and to use the marine environment for both leisure-based and commercial purposes’.

The report observed that consumption of fish and shellfish is the main way the Irish public are exposed to radiation as a result of discharges from Sellafield. And it claimed that the doses due to eating fish and shellfish, at 1.18 microsieverts in 2000 and 1.20 microsieverts in 2001, appear to have reached a plateau in recent years.

Commenting on the report, the Institute’s principle scientific officer, Dr Tony Colgan, said: ‘These doses are very small and represent less than one per cent of the annual average radiation dose of approximately 3620 microsieverts received by members of the Irish public from all sources of radiation. Consequently, they do not constitute a significant health risk.’ (4) This has consistently been the finding of the Institute since it began monitoring the radioactivity in the Irish Sea in 1982.

A report by a Department of the Marine task force in 2000 concluded that thousands of tons of radioactive material dumped in the Irish Sea between 1950 and 1976 posed an extremely low risk to human health and marine life. The British government acknowledges that some short-term increases in discharges will be necessary as certain plants are decommissioned, but they must still remain within authorised annual limits set by the Environment Agency.

In addition to the 99 per cent reductions in discharges that have already been achieved, Britain published a detailed strategy paper in 2002 for reaching the ultimate goal of ‘close to zero’ concentrations in the marine environment by 2020, as agreed in talks in Sintra, Portugal. Putting these discharges into perspective, the British ambassador to Ireland, Stewart Eldon, notes that ‘aerial and liquid discharges from all disposals of radioactivity account for less than 0.1 per cent of the annual radiation dose received by people in the United Kingdom. The figures for people in Ireland will, of course, be very much lower still’ (5).

Another popular myth is that activity at Sellafield has been responsible for Down’s syndrome clusters along Ireland’s east coast. Yet in 2001, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland publicly accepted the findings of a study that a cluster of Down’s syndrome births in Ireland in the 1960s and early 70s was not linked to Sellafield.

The study, reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2000, investigated a suspected link between a serious fire in a nuclear reactor at Sellafield (then called Windscale) in 1957, and births of Down’s syndrome babies to six mothers who had been pupils in a school in Dundalk in 1956-57. On the assumption that all six mothers were at the Dundalk school at the time of the 1957 fire, it had been suggested that radioactive contamination from the fire might have been a factor in causing Down’s syndrome in their children.

It was found, however, that three of the six girls had left the school, and the Dundalk area, some months before the fire occurred. So it was concluded that if there was a common cause for the six cases at the school, it could not have been the fire at Windscale. Responding to the report, the RPII observed that, ‘For many years there has been a widespread belief that the existence of such a link was probable or even proven, and this belief has undoubtedly been a source of anxiety for people in Ireland, particularly in the Louth/Dundalk area. The RPII therefore considers it important that the disproving of the suggested link should be widely publicised’ (6).

Regardless of what happens to the Thorp plant, the Sellafield issue will not go away. Ireland’s politicians, of course, have a legitimate interest in ensuring that the facility is run to the highest possible standards of safety and good practice – but it is about time they abandoned the emotiveness and the fearmongering, and engaged the British authorities in a rational dialogue based upon the facts. In the meantime, I shall probably be steering clear of the Irish Sea – because of the cold, not Sellafield.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Irish Independent, 27 August 2003

(2) Irish Examiner, 29 May 2003

(3) Irish Independent, 27 August 2003

(4) Press release from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, April 2003

(5) Irish Times, 22/05/2003

(6) Press release from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, April 2001

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