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Irish ministers raised nuclear concerns

London court hears of letters from Gormley and Ó Cuív to British ministers

Britain failed to satisfy concerns over the possible dangers from planned nuclear power stations when first raised by the Irish government three years ago, according to letters lodged in a London court case.

The high court in London yesterday reserved judgment after a three-day hearing of an application by An Taisce for a judicial review of a decision last March by British energy secretary Ed Davey to grant planning permission for a £14 billion (€16.7 billion) plant in Somerset. The application argues that Mr Davey acted unlawfully in granting planning permission without carrying out “transboundary consultation” with the Irish, as required under European Union rules.

Last week, Jonathan Swift QC, counsel for the energy secretary, said Mr Davey is required to consult where there is “a real risk”, or “a serious possibility” of “significant environmental effects”, but not where that risk is minimal.

The Irish government, Mr Swift said, had repeatedly raised questions about the operation of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria but concerns about the new Somerset plant at Hinkley Point “have never been raised”.


Two letters
However, files lodged in the case include two letters to British ministers from Irish ministers. They were sent by the former Green Party minister for the environment, John Gormley, in February 2010 and his successor, Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív, in January 2011.

In his letter, Mr Gormley said it was not “immediately apparent” that the cumulative effects of Sellafield’s “continuing discharges” and new nuclear power stations had been “satisfactorily assessed’ by the British.

The case made for extra nuclear capacity relied “heavily on claims that nuclear power generation is a necessary part of the UK’s response to climate change”, said Mr Gormley, even though the carbon bill left by stations over their lifetimes was unknown.

A year later, Mr Ó Cuív wrote to the British minister of state for energy, Charles Hendry, to question the British belief that there was “a very low probability” of radiation leaks “due to the robustness of the regulatory regime”.

“My understanding is that his conclusion depends in part on the outcome of certain regulatory processes and environmental impact assessments, which will take place at future junctures in the implementation of the proposed programme.

“It seems, therefore, that certain questions raised by the Irish authorities with regard to possible effects for Ireland cannot comprehensively be answered until later in the process of programme development,” Mr Ó Cuív said.


European referral
Pressing for a referral to the European Court of Justice, counsel for An Taisce David Wolfe QC told Mrs Justice Patterson that “the challenges of EU law which arise here” would not go away: “They need to be resolved, and by [the European court]. It is better to get on with it.”

The British Office of Nuclear Regulation has acknowledged, he said, that changes would have to be made to the design of the Somerset plant to cope with industry-wide changes provoked by lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

The lessons were “solvable”, Mr Wolfe noted the Office of Nuclear Regulation as saying, but he added that the modifications necessary were still being considered “and that substantial further analysis work will be necessary”.

Rejecting arguments from Hinkley Point’s developers that the judicial review application was delaying works at the Somerset site, Mr Wolfe said they had planning permission to start earthworks, but at their “own commercial risk”. In any event, that was no grounds for refusal.