Sellafield's nuclear pollution of the Irish Sea took decades to achieve


Greenpeace has been at it again, harrying British Nuclear Fuels for its discharges into the Irish Sea from its Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria.

Its report released yesterday said seabed sediments collected 2 km offshore, near Sellafield's nuclear waste outflow pipe, were so radioactive that if carried ashore they would be classed as low-level nuclear waste.

Already, the report has generated predictable indignation from Government and Opposition alike. BNFL responded with the familiar refrain that these figures were not new and there was no risk to the general public. The Government claims it is doing all it can, the Opposition criticises lack of action, the environmental lobbies issue cancer warnings. It is a familiar merry-go-round.

The fuller picture remains obscured. It is as follows - the seabed is contaminated; yes, a large-scale dump exists in the Irish Sea. No, it doesn't seem to represent a public health hazard.

Fine Gael's statement hinted at a fresh crisis, as though Greenpeace had discovered something new. "The Minister must make immediate contact with Greenpeace in order to establish the legitimacy of these findings," it said. Nuala Ahern of the Greens said she was "once again shocked by the secrecy surrounding nuclear waste which `somehow' gets left lying around".

The Government, meanwhile, is seeking urgent clarification from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, as though the body charged with monitoring our own waters, coastline, air and sea life for radioactive contamination should suddenly go off and begin sampling sediments in British territorial waters.

Why did none of these travellers on the merry-go-round check whether this information was truly new? The accumulation of radioactive materials is a process that has been under way for decades. It is not material that was "dumped" in the conventional sense - as though off the back of a lorry - but which has built up because of Sellafield's discharges.

Would these same participants be surprised to know that high levels of two of the most long-lived and toxic radionuclids, Americium and Plutonium, have built up in sediments in the Irish Sea off the Isle of Man? Scientists have been studying their position and watching for signs of movement at least since the mid1980s.

Greenpeace told us that Sellafield is pumping eight million litres of radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea every day. But it has been doing that for decades. Meanwhile BNFL yesterday told us to forget about the discharges, only worry about the dose: the level of radioactivity that can be delivered to the public as they swim in the sea, or eat lobsters, mussels or fish.

BNFL must know that the Irish Sea so dilutes the pollution they daily discharge into international waters that dose limits are never reached, and that you'd probably get more radiation during a flight to New York.

How is a confused and pummelled public to deal with this dizzy whirl? Any child would tell you that all you have to do is get close to the centre where things turn more slowly. There, you can find at least a few home truths to help you find your way.

First: The waste is not ours, we get no benefit from it and we should never be satisfied that a company working for profit has left this radioactive legacy for generations of our children to come.

Second: Sellafield has turned the Irish Sea and its seabed into a nuclear dump. It is already there and despite claims by BNFL that its radioactive discharges are only one per cent of what they were in the mid1970s, the dumping goes on, which means the dump gets fuller daily.

Third: We shouldn't be too worried - yet - that the radioactivity might cause us harm. There is precious little hard evidence that having a swim in Brittas will shorten a lifetime because of Sellafield's pollution. Enjoy your Dublin Bay prawns because the RPII continually monitors them to ensure radiation levels are low.

Fourth: Be aware that while we have no evidence - yet - that the radiation might harm us, scientists continue to search for proofs that it could. Dr Carmel Mothersill of the Dublin Institute of Technology in Kevin Street is pursuing research that might show that even tiny levels of radiation could cause harm.

Fifth: Encourage the Government to continue to challenge the UK government, be glad we have a vigilant and determined group such as Greenpeace forcing the release of data, be thankful for dedicated Opposition speakers who demand the Government seek an end to such pollution.

And never be satisfied that the Irish Sea is being damaged in this way, which brings us back on our own merry-go-round ride back to the first home truth.