Dodging questions on Sellafield
Dodging questions on Sellafield

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Dick Roche, the Irish environment minister said it reminded him of Homer Simpson, who, as you know, is safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Plant where he keeps just ahead of the posse of government inspectors. Roche was talking about the latest leak at the Thermal Oxide Re-processing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield. Or, more correctly, the latest leak from Sellafield as far as we know.

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know because the leak was played down by the British government and misleading information trickled out to the media just like the radioactive fluid the plant is notorious for spewing into the atmosphere and the Irish Sea. As far as we know the leak was discovered on April 19. Twenty tons of uranium and 160 kilograms of plutonium in a nitric acid liquor had formed an 83,000-litre pond, half the size of an Olympic swimming pool, on the floor of a sealed concrete cell. A speck of plutonium inhaled will kill you. As far as we know, this time nothing escaped into the atmosphere.

The British assured the Irish government, as they always do, that there was no risk to public health. Since Dublin won a case in 2001 the British are obliged to keep the Irish government informed of goings-on at Sellafield. Some chance. Still, it didn’t take a genius to work out that since the liquor leaking through a crack in a pipe had amounted to 83,000 litres, it must have been leaking for some time. January perhaps? Then Roche was told that working out the rate of the leak, it was probably leaking since last August to account for that quantity of gunge. Roche’s response was that you don’t have to be an Einstein to work out that if you put liquid in one end of a pipe and it doesn’t emerge the other end, then there’s a leak. Apparently that’s beyond Sellafield’s Homer Simpson.

We’ve all been here before. April’s incident, level three on the International Nuclear Event Scale’s seven point scale, is just the latest (we are told) in a long, long line stretching back to the 1950s when Sellafield was called Windscale. Until spring 2003 Sellafield was discharging liquid radioactive waste straight into the Irish Sea. It isn’t just the Irish government which is concerned about the radioactivity in the sea and the air the British plant belches out. The Norwegians complain about finding lethal Technetium-99 as far north as Spitzbergen in the Arctic.

Have you noticed anything though? Silence from the north apart from Eddie McGrady who has been banging away about Sellafield for over twenty years. It’s true Lady Hermon signed an early day motion in the Commons in 2004 about a leukaemia cluster in north Wales possibly connected with Sellafield discharges, but what about north Down straight across from Sellafield? What about the Portavogie fishermen? How many three-eyed fish do they catch, or is that just in The Simpsons?

Why don’t Iris Robinson and Lady Hermon join Eddie McGrady to expose Sellafield and the secrecy and disinformation that cloak it? Has any unionist ever asked a question about Britain poisoning the sea off their coast? Is it because they support Britain right or wrong? Is it because some nationalist might say, “Glad to see you’re supporting the Irish government”? Unionists are thick-skinned and defend the indefensible six counties, but they can’t be immune to radioactivity. It’s unforgivable they make no effort to find out its effects in Down.

Politically the most interesting silence is at the NIO. There our smooth proconsul and his district commissioners demonstrate their total unconcern for the welfare of people in North Down. Not a cheep about Sellafield. They don’t even feel the need to issue a statement of reassurance. Nothing to do with them you see. Over to the Department of Trade.

If the role of a proconsul for the time being is not to represent the people of his region at the Cabinet, then what is it? After all, he can score two for the price of one. As proconsul for Wales he could ask about the effect of Sellafield on north Wales as well. He won’t though. He’ll tell you it’s a matter for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which owns Thorp. He’s very experienced you see. Until a few years ago he was minister for energy which meant he spent his time dodging questions about policy at, you guessed it, Sellafield. So think about that next time you hear him waffling on about health and prosperity here.

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