by David Granville
DESPITE LEGAL challenges by the Dublin government and protests from the Belfast assembly and environment campaigners on both sides of the Irish Sea, British Nuclear Fuels pressed ahead with the commissioning of its controversial MOX reprocessing plant at its Sellafield site in Cumbria before Christmas.
The first batch of ceramic-coated nuclear fuel pellets to be produced by the plant, made by blending plutonium and uranium, are expected to be ready for export in October.
The Belfast assembly registered its opposition at the beginning of December claiming that it had not been consulted before the Westminster government gave BNFL the go ahead for the plant.
The Irish government’s campaign received a further boost just days before the plant went live when Norway joined the clamour of opposition voices, citing the threat of nuclear pollution from the plant to Norwegian fish stocks.
However, BNFL, which has sunk £470 million into the development, has the full backing of the Westminster government. British ministers deny that the plant poses a pollution threat and argue that it will bring important economic benefits.
UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith went as far as to state that Irish attempts to halt the development are “ill-founded” and part of “a wider war against Sellafield”.
Closure of the plant would result in “catastrophic losses” for the government, he told the tribunal which applies the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea in November.
In early December, the Irish government was unsuccessful in its attempts to stall the commissioning of the MOX plant on grounds that it breached the convention.
The 21 members of the UN maritime court ruled unanimously that it had no jurisdiction over the plant as a full hearing was already scheduled for late February, 2002.
The Irish government argued that the convention obliged Britain to reduce pollution in the North Sea and share information with it about the plant.
Following the ruling, Irish ministers made it clear that they were prepared to explore all legal avenues in their fight to get the plant closed and prevent further nuclear pollution of the Irish Sea. In line with this strategy, the Irish government is also pressing ahead with legal challenges under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic and through the European Court of Justice.
Concerns over the dangers of nuclear pollution from the plant have long been a concern of the Irish government, environmentalists and local campaign groups, especially those in the Dundalk area, where is widely believed that higher than average cases of cancers and leukaemia are linked to pollution from the plant.
In a separate development, a House of Commons defence committee has been told that a terrorist attack on Sellafield could result in a nuclear catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.
Giving evidence to the committee in January, Dr Gordon Thompson, executive director for the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told MPs that older parts of the site, including storage tanks containing 100-times the amount of caesium-137 released in the Chernobyl accident, were particularly vulnerable.
February/March 2002 edition
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