Government pressed to reveal how much it knew about reported Sellafield leak

Nuclear site on England’s northwest coast has long been a source of contention between Ireland and UK

The Government has come under pressure to clarify how much it knew about ongoing safety concerns revealed at the Sellafield nuclear site in England.

It follows an investigation uncovering documented “widespread concerns” about a degradation of safety at the facility and a “cumulative risk” from various failings.

The report, published by the Guardian on Tuesday, set out a multitude of claims including a leak of radioactive liquid likely to continue to 2050 which could have “potentially significant consequences”.

Sellafield has long been a byword for nuclear danger in Ireland and a source of continued campaigning. The latest revelations have placed renewed pressure on the Government to respond.


“We have a history and a track record of appalling issues of vigilance on the Irish authorities’ side,” said Attracta Uí Bhroin, environmental law officer at the Irish Environmental Network, who led an An Taisce legal challenge against plans for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in 2013.*

“So the questions [that] need to be asked now are: what did they know about this? What did they do about it? If they didn’t know about it, why not and what’s going to be done about that?

“Because this is a really serious issue. And Minister [for the Environment Eamon] Ryan needs to basically make statements on this and engage very proactively on this because, in fairness to him, we know that the issue of nuclear is a matter which is very close to his heart.”

Head of advocacy at An Taisce, Dr Elaine McGough, said it would ask Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin to raise the report “as a matter of urgency” and to seek intervention from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), a collective of councils in the UK and Ireland, described the revelations as “very concerning”.

“It’s part of a history at Sellafield of things going wrong and I think it’s something which the EPA’s Radiological Protection Advisory Committee should look into,” said NFLA member and Dublin Fingal Green Party Cllr David Healy.

Ireland engages with the UK Department for Energy Security through the UK-Ireland Contact Group on Radiological Matters which meets twice a year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which did not immediately respond to requests for comment, engages with the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency.

“There is also a formal agreement between the UK and Ireland for the early provision of information in the event of a nuclear accident,” a spokesman at the Department of the Environment said on Tuesday, adding the UK was part of the EU’s early notification and information exchange system.

Nevertheless, the claims contained in the report are likely to stoke renewed debate over what has remained a bone of contention between the two countries.

Sellafield in Cumbria lies about 170km to the east of Ireland. Describing the facility as “Europe’s most hazardous nuclear site”, the Guardian’s year-long investigation quoted an internal document from November 2022 raising widespread concerns over a degradation of safety across the site, with risks posed by nuclear safety issues, asbestos and fire standards.

It also reported that a leak of radioactive liquid from the Magnox Swarf Storage Silo (MSSS) would likely continue to 2050.

The newspaper said concerns regarding safety standards were such that they were raised in diplomatic cables from US officials.

Ireland has previously set its sights on Sellafield operations. In 2006, the European Court of Justice ruled the State had acted illegally by going to the UN over Sellafield, the culmination of a five-year effort to have its reprocessing plant closed.

Shortly afterwards, then minister for foreign affairs Dermot Ahern said the government would proceed with its legal attempts to shut it down. In 2008, then minister for the environment John Gormley said he remained committed to seeing the cessation of reprocessing operations.

In 2022, it was announced Sellafield’s Magnox plant would cease reprocessing and enter a new era of clean-up and decommissioning.

*This article was amended on Wednesday, December 6th, 2023 to correct an erroneous reference to the An Taisce legal challenge having been brought against Sellafield. It was brought against the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times