Conference on Nuclear Energy organised by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

Speech by Senator Joe O’Reilly in Strasbourg

On Friday, 26th November 2010

We have been enjoying an excellent two day Conference on Nuclear Energy. I freely admit that nuclear energy is undoubtedly efficient and relatively clean in terms of carbon emissions. In fact, the World Nuclear Organisation estimates that it emits only 1 – 2% of the carbon emitted from coal fired fuel. However, these statistics need to be tempered with the realisation that construction, transport and waste storage and de-commissioning of nuclear stations does contribute to carbon emission. I would further concede that with GDP set to double in China and India, and a rapidly increasing world population, nuclear energy will be part of the energy mix.

Having said that, I come to this debate from a different perspective. I am concerned about the degree to which nuclear waste is hazardous to health. The link between radioactive nuclear waste and a range of health risks such as leukaemia is only too well established. Health rings in bands of 1½ – 2 kilometers have been measured around Sellafield Nuclear Plant. Within the eighth ring or 8 miles from the Nuclear Plant there are ten times the incidence of childhood leukaemia. None of us need reminding of the horrific consequences of the Chernobyl accident. The consequences remain to such a degree that at the geographical remove of Cumbria in Wales, sheep produced there and, indeed, subsidised by the E.U. are deemed not fit for human consumption.

A typical 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor produces around 25 tonnes of spent fuel per year. Spent fuel is very high level radioactive waste which represents 1% of all nuclear waste. There are already more than 60,000 tonnes of spent fuel in storage facilities in Europe either on land or sea.

Nuclear waste is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to reactor operation and, indeed, in the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Much of the radioactive waste produced will remain hazardous for many thousands of years and all current methods of storage are less than satisfactory. It was interesting to hear Mr. Herbert Reul, Chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament concede yesterday that due to the finite supply of uranium, and as a management exercise, nuclear waste would have to be recycled. He stated that “people are afraid to take a decision”. This process is fraught with danger. Nuclear fuel processing activities at the Sellafield Nuclear site in the U.K. give rise to the discharge of low levels of radioactive material into the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic. Liquid radioactive waste is discharged into the Irish Sea and low levels of artificial radioactivity have been identified in the sea water.

In 2009 the U.K. Government announced its plans to build ten new nuclear plants. Possible sites have already been identified and these plants could be up and running as soon as 2018. There is concern in Ireland around the fact that most of these sites will be located on the West Coast of the U.K. and therefore on the east of Ireland. We are concerned about the risks involved in having such a large number of nuclear plants at such close proximity to our shores. Given that to date, Sellafield’s Waste Management record is sub-standard to say the least, I believe there are grounds for concern about marine life in the Irish Sea and North Atlantic, and to people along these coastlines.

The Nuclear Industry is dependent upon the transportation of nuclear components and materials such as uranium, fresh fuel, nuclear spent fuel and plutonium. Radioactive materials are carried by sea, rail, road and air. Currently Sellafield radioactive waste is being stored in stainless steel containers and transported to the ports of Barrow on Furness and Workingham. Repatriating containers of nuclear waste to Japan, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands is regular practice and is extremely dangerous. This process was highlighted recently by Greenpeace when they intercepted a train carrying nuclear waste from France and Germany. Activities such as these run the risk of attracting fringe movements and further compromising the safety of transporting the waste.

There remains as yet no proven long term solution for dealing with radioactive waste and spent fuel although research and development will continue in this area. The solution generally proposed by experts is the use of deep geological repositories with a combination of natural barriers and engineered systems to provide physical and chemical containment. In a number of countries, however, such a repository has proven difficult. Some countries have inappropriate geological structures. The building of all storage sites will need careful monitoring and regulation.

I welcome the recently proposed Directive from the E.U. Commission. However, it will take time – now with Council of Ministers – it will take up to ten years to fully implement.

Of course, the elephant in the room when discussing the nuclear question is the risk of a terrorist attack and a consequent Chernobyl. We must maximise security of construction and otherwise.

The purpose of my presentation has been to draw attention to problems of nuclear waste. I hope I have done so adequately. We must monitor carefully and continue with research and development into waste management. Research is ongoing in France on nuclear fusion. It is also important to continue research on marshalling hydrogen as an energy source. Energy conservation and the development of renewables must be priority items.

In conclusion, might I say that while it would be flat earthist to fully dismiss the nuclear option, it would be a cruel irony if, in our understandable haste to solve the carbon emission issue, we literally store up suffering and death for our children and grandchildren.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website