Ireland sues the Nuclear Kingdom

Publish date: November 2, 2001

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

While Norway considers filing an international lawsuit regarding the discharges from Sellafield, the Irish Republic has already moved against the Britons.

The Irish lawsuit is a result of the recent UK decision to authorise the MOX (mixed oxide) nuclear fuel production plant at Sellafield. MOX-fuel is based on plutonium and uranium and is designed for use in civil nuclear power plants.

Anger in Dublin
The Irish Government have for a long time raised concerns regarding the operation of Sellafield, which is located just 60 miles from Dublin, but has previously been reluctant to take up legal actions.

The fact that the British plans are based on a considerable import of uranium and plutonium and regular transports of dangerous nuclear substances through the Irish Sea has however created an "intense anger" in Dublin, reports the Irish Times.

Besides, the MOX-production plant is a potential target for terrorist-attacks. Thus, also the heightened terrorist threat since September 11 has been a factor in tipping the scales.

Numerous violations
The Irish Government served its legal documents on the UK Government last week. Simultaneously the Irish Minister of State, Joe Jacob accused the UK for having violated "numerous provisions" of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

– The UK has not carried out a full assessment of the plant’s impact on the environment and violated its obligations under the Convention to protect the marine environment, Jacob said. It has failed to take adequate measures to prevent pollution from the plant; violated its obligations to co-operate and share information with Ireland; and not assessed the risk of terrorist attacks or prepared a proper plan to respond to such attacks.

The case will be heard at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. On November 9, 2001 the Tribunal will evaluate whether or not it shall issue an injunction preventing the MOX-plant from starting operations until a full hearing of the case is carried out. The full hearing is expected to go on for at lest a full year.

Britons in the crossfire
Hamburg is not the only venue where British authorities have to defend the Sellafield plant these days. The lawsuit there will proceed parallel with an arbitrary hearing, which the Irish Government filed in June 2001 under the OSPAR-Convention in order to get access to various items of information on the MOX-plant that the UK so far has refused to provide.

Another possible fixture may be held at the European Court, where Ireland considers taking legal actions against the UK for violations of the Euratom Treaty.

In the October 30-editions of the Norwegian dailies ‘Dagbladet’ and ‘Aftenposten’ Norway’s Minister of Environment, Børge Brende from the Conservative Party gives his full moral and political support to the actions of the Irish Republic. Mr. Brende has asked the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the ‘Regjeringsadvokat’ (attorney general) to examine the legal foundation for a possible Norwegian suit against the UK. – We will, however, have to make an independent evaluation before any conclusion can be made, Brende said to Dagbladet.

This is a sensible attitude. Although MOX-production at Sellafield may lead to hazardous transports of nuclear substances through Norwegian waters, the MOX-plant would still represent a larger threat to Irish than to Norwegian interests.

Thus, the primary factual foundation for a Norwegian lawsuit would most likely be the potential damage to Norwegian interests caused by the increased discharges of Technetium-99 from Sellafield since 1994.

The MOX-case is however, far from irrelevant for Norway. The Government should also note that Ireland has based its case on the UNCLOS- provisions regarding the protection of the marine environment, rather than on the somewhat indistinct principles on environmental protection, which is developed through international customary law.