British government taken to international court over Sellafield

Publish date: June 10, 2003

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

The Irish government is pursuing legal action in an attempt to stop production at British Sellafield MOX fabrication plant

The lawsuit against the British government was filed by the Government of Ireland, and courts hearing are scheduled for the next three weeks at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, the Netherlands.

Ireland protests against the operation of the plant and claims the plant violates the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The MOX fabrication plant was opened in Sellafield in December 2001 and is run by state-owned company British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL).

Most significant action
The Irish government has been strongly opposed to the facility’s operation since the very day of the plant’s opening, on the grounds that it pollutes the Irish Sea and increases the risk of nuclear terrorism and serious accidents.

Sellafield MOX fabrication plant produces a controversial nuclear fuel called Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX), which is a combination of plutonium and uranium oxides.

Irish Minister for the Environment Martin Cullen told the BBC today that he regretted such a step as a lawsuit was necessary, but said that action was essential to protect the interests of the Irish Republic. He said: “This case is among the most significant legal actions ever taken by Ireland. It represents the Irish government’s absolute commitment to ensuring that Ireland’s rights under these international conventions in relation to Sellafield and its operations are fully vindicated.

The Irish government has also expressed concerns over the “inadequacy” of the environmental assessment that was undertaken by the United Kingdom in relation to the facility and their failure to properly estimate the risk of a terrorist attack at the plant.

In a press release today, British Energy Minister Brian Wilson was clear in his support for the United Kingdom’s position, arguing that the Sellafield MOX fabrication plant has virtually no impact on the total amount of radioactive waste that is discharged by the Sellafield site as a whole.

Wilson said: “We therefore regret that this case has been brought. We will respond comprehensively to Ireland’s arguments and demonstrate that they have no basis in law or in fact.”

Wilson did not comment on the Irish claims that the Sellafield MOX fabrication plant will cause an increase in the transportation of plutonium, and therefore may lead to an augmented risk of nuclear terrorism.

Norwegian support
The case will be heard by a tribunal that consists of 5 members.

The hearings will proceed for approximately three weeks and will be open to the public, with the exception of some sessions when the judges will look into materials contested as confidential by the British government.

A top-level British legal team intends to try to change the place of the proceedings on the basis of the argument that the arbitration court does not have the appropriate jurisdiction over the Sellafield MOX fabrication plant.

The lawsuit comes just weeks after a report from the Irish Radiological Protection Institute showed that discharges from Sellafield had actually increased in 2000 and 2001.

The report said discharges of a particularly toxic nuclear by-product technetium 99 have "increased significantly" since 1994.

The technetium 99 discharges have also raised concerns along the Norwegian coast, where the toxic element has affected Norwegian seaweed and lobster yield. Norwegian Minister for the Environment Børge Brende told the Norwegian press today that he fully supports the Irish legal action.

"I have great understanding for the Irish legal action. We are exchanging information with the Irish government and will carefully look into the judicial steps that will now follow."

“Ireland has strong political and moral support from the Norwegian government in this case," said Mr Brende.