Stephen Castle / The Independent / England – 2004-09-06 22:09:02
BRUSSELS (September 4, 2004) — The Government is facing unprecedented legal action over the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria after a decision by the European Commission to take Britain to court over its failure to clean up more than a ton of dangerous radioactive waste.
There has been international friction for years over the handling of a tank containing plutonium and uranium, some of which dates from the 1950s.
Under the Euratom Treaty, signed by the UK, the commission has the power to order governments to document and dispose of radioactive waste. But yesterday’s decision to take Britain to the European Court of Justice is the first of its kind, and the Government disputes the legal basis for the decision.
The row centres on the storage of waste plutonium and uranium, kept underwater in reinforced concrete ponds known as B30. These were built in 1959 to store uranium fuel rods used in military and civil reactors. The material accumulated over decades and was never properly documented.
The fuel is under water to keep it cool and to shield workers from radiation, and the ponds are thought to contain 1.3 tons of plutonium. So dangerous is the site that staff are said to be restricted to an hour’s work a day near it, and inspectors have been unable to examine the material because of the conditions.
The issue has aroused strong passions in Ireland because of Sellafield’s proximity to the Irish Sea. In June, Britain replied to EC demands for a clean-up plan, but that document was rejected yesterday as inadequate, partly because it does not have the status of a formal government plan.
Lawsuit Follows Years of Inaction
Loyola de Palacio, the Commission vice-president, said: “We have not been able to get this commitment from the UK Government and we have not been able to get them to draw up a clear plan of action with a clear timetable with appropriate financial commitments which would back up the plan.”
Despite more than four years of negotiations, the Government had not fulfilled its commitments, she said, leaving her no alternative but to go to Europe’s highest court. The Commission cited eight faults with the UK’s proposal, including the lack of dates for decommissioning, detailed description of the work to be done, authorisation for each stage and the naming of individuals who would be responsible.
Ms de Palacio said she will continue to negotiate with London, and the EC would withdraw its case if ministers produce a satisfactory plan. The Government says the Euratom Treaty’s rules are being used incorrectly. It says the treaty aims to ensure waste is not diverted to other sources, which does not happen at Sellafield.
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: “The Euratom Treaty safeguards are neither safety nor environment-related controls. They require the Commission to satisfy itself that nuclear materials ‘are not diverted from their intended uses as declared by their users’. Safety and environment-related controls fall within the remit of the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.”
The Commission is getting tough, in part, because it forced the 10 countries that joined the EU in May to abide by certain commitments. It is anxious to avoid accusations of double standards, and wants all member states to harmonise safety and waste management standards.