State papers 1987: Stinging rebuke to call to shut Sellafield

The minister for the environment, Ray Burke, received a stinging reply from his British counterpart after calling for the closure of the Sellafield nuclear processing plant in 1987, writes Seán McCárthaigh    

State papers 1987: Stinging rebuke to call to shut Sellafield

State papers released under the 30-year rule show the UK energy secretary, Peter Walker, totally rejected what he claimed were Mr Burke’s “unfounded allegations” about the safety of British nuclear energy facilities.

The Tory MP also said he could not accept comments made by Mr Burke about Sellafield.

Mr Walker said the British nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, was satisfied that closure of the plant would be “out of all proportion to the very low risks which arose from a few minor incidents in 1986.

Mr Burke wrote to Mr Walker in March 24 to raise Irish concerns about the threat posed to the health and safety of Irish citizens by nuclear installations in Britain.

He criticised the decision of the British government over its recent announcement that it was proceeding with the construction of another reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk given the number of incidents at British nuclear plants at the time.

“Our concerns are based on the possibility that incidents at any British nuclear installation can have severe repercussions outside the UK, in particular in Ireland,” said Mr Burke.

He said there was also concern that the decision on Sizewell indicated it was part of a nuclear programme which would result in the possible location of further stations much closer to Ireland.

Mr Burke said the Irish Government was left with no option but to formally protest at the construction of the new plant at Sizewell.

Ray Burke
Ray Burke

In December 1986, the Dáil had unanimously passed a motion calling for the immediate closure of the nuclear processing plant at Sellafield amid concern about radioactive waste being discharged into the Irish Sea.

In a reply sent on May 7, Mr Walker said he wanted to state clearly at the outset that he believed the safety of the UK nuclear industry was “second to none”.

“The fact is that there has never been a serious nuclear accident posing any risk to the public throughout the 30-year history of civil nuclear power,” said Mr Walker.

He claimed the application to build the Sizewell plant had been the subject of the longest and most wide-ranging public inquiry ever conducted in the UK.

Mr Walker cited how an official report had noted that there was no safety obstacles to prevent the construction of the new Sizewell reactor.

He noted that the UK Central Electricity Generating Board had indicated they would be applying for permission for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Mr Walker said any such future applications would ensure they would constructed and operated to safety standards “at least as high as those set for Sizewell B”.

“The movements of radioactive materials and the continuation of fuel reprocessing will result in no significant risk to population on either side of the Irish Sea,” he added.

Records show the Irish government realised that the prospect of Sellafield being close at the time were “remote”.

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