TED Case Studies

British Nuclear Waste in the Irish Sea



CASE NAME: Irish Sea Nuclear Spill

I. Identification

1. The Issue

Sellafield Nuclear Plant is located on the Northwest Coast of England on the Irish Sea. It is a government owned facility that produces about one-fourth of the United Kingdom's energy. Nuclear waste from this facility had turned the Irish sea into one of the most radioactive bodies of water in the world. This pollution threatens the health of the British people as well as inhabitants of Ireland across the Irish Sea. This is a controversial issue because of the environmental degradation of the Irish Sea. This case raises the question of how a country can try to protect it self against invading polution from a neighboring state.

2. Description

The Sellafield nuclear installation in north-west England produces vital energy to the people of the United Kingdom. It also produces weapons grade material needed for the production of nuclear weapons. For these reasons, Sellafield is an important facility for the U.K. in terms of domestic and security needs. Although Sellafield provides important services for the people and government of the United Kingdom, it has had a detrimental effect on the environment.

Since 1952, Sellafield has been dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. This sea is now considered one of the most radioactive bodies of water in the world. Fish, shellfish, and sea plants in the Irish Sea contain substantial amounts of radiation. This is an environmental problem as well as a trade problem. Irish fishermen often catch mutated fish that can not be sold. Also, nuclear waste clean-up facilities that are being developed at Sellafield cost a great deal to finance and are part of growing industry in Great Britain.

The dumping of nuclear waste may put human lives at risk as well. Spray from the Irish Sea turns into radioactive dust, and can be found on beaches and in people's homes.(1) Increased rates of cancer have been reported on the east coast of Ireland and west coast of England. In the village of Seascale, near Sellafield, there has been a disproportionate amount of cancer reported among the population. Some of the residents of this town are convinced that Sellafield is the cause of an unusually high amount of leukemia cases among the children.(2) However, government scientists in the United Kingdom ruled out any such link between cancer and radiation from the Sellafield plant in March 1996.(3) Opponents to Sellafield claim that the report was inconclusive, and continue to pursue further investigation.(4)

Sellafield has eleven silos full of radioactive nuclear waste. Each silo contains an amount of waste eight times the amount that was released by Chernobyl in 1986.(5) If vapor happened to be released from one of these silos it could result in a disaster much worse than Chernobyl. Leaks of radioactive waste are dangerous due to its half life of 24,000 years.(6) This means that this waste will always be present in the Irish Sea. Due to the dangerous characteristics of radioactive waste, and its half-life, a certain tension over the issue has arisen in Ireland. This is especially true now that NIREX, a British state-owned company, is building a 'rock characterization facility' named Thorpe at the Sellafield site. The Irish Government feels that this facility might be used for dumping highly radioactive nuclear waste once it is completed.(7) NIREX claims that the facility will be used to test "conditions for a potential underground rock repository for low and intermediate level radioactive waste".(8) Environmentalists and the Irish believe that due to the large amounts of money being spent on the project, some sort of waste storage plant is actually being built.

The problems and potential dangers of current radioactive waste in the Irish Sea is a particularly sore subject for the Irish Government because its citizens do not receive benefits of the Sellafield Nuclear Plant but they do incur environmental costs. Another concern that haunts the Irish is the possibility of a failure or meltdown at Sellafield. The results of such an event would be catastrophic for the British and Irish. In Dublin, Ireland's most populous city, over 300,000 people (almost 10% of Ireland's population) would have to be evacuated over 40,000 square kilometers if such a disaster were to happen.(9) Since the effects of Chernobyl are still being felt and just now analyzed, the Irish Government is starting to become aware that a meltdown at Sellafield could cause long term problems for the environment and people of Ireland and England. Land would have to be left and food production would suffer for many years. Such a disaster would hurt the economy as well as the environment.

The worry of a major accident comes from smaller accidents that have occurred at Sellafield in the past. The first of these was in 1957, when a large fire at the reactor core forced the operators to flood the core with water, and then entomb the fuel piles with concrete.(10) As a result of the fire, a highly radioactive cloud traveled south-east over England and Europe.(11) More recently in 1983, it was discovered that on three separate occasions, a mixture of radioactive waste, solvent, and water was directly discharged into the Irish Sea. The level of radioactive contamination in the water around Sellafield was reported as being 100 to 1000 times the normal level which led government officials to close 40 km stretch of beach north and south of Sellafield.(12)

Because of past incidents, the Irish Government feels that "Sellafield poses a serious and continuing threat to the health and safety of Irish people."(13) Ireland will seek to put political pressure on the U.K. and to "harness support from our European neighbors".(14) Because the United Kingdom is so dependent on the Sellafield plant it will be hard for the Irish government to persuade the English to shut it down. However, Ireland has set an agenda, outlining actions to take with regard to Sellafield. One of the actions proposes:

We will seek an amendment and updating of the EURATOM Treaties to take account non-nuclear jurisdictions sharing land or maritime borders with countries operating nuclear power and reprocessing plants, to include stringent regulation for the decommissioning of nuclear facilities; and a prohibition on underground nuclear dumps such as the one currently being proposed by NIREX in Cumbria, taking into account the potential contamination of ground water and marine resources(15)

Other measures include the creation of an inter-Governmental Conference of the Irish Sea whose purpose would be to make rules governing, among other things, the amount of radioactive discharges put in the Irish Sea.(16) The Irish Government plans to persuade other European Union members to participate in the conference.(17) The Irish Government is also looking into taking legal action if a case can be presented. Finally, the Irish plan to use diplomatic pressure to dissuade other European countries from signing reprocessing agreements with the Sellafield facility.(18) The Irish government knows the importance of Sellafield to English energy production, and expects this campaign to take a long time.

Irish efforts at halting development or even shutting down the Sellafield facility will indeed be an enormous task. Although there may be significant environmental costs for the Irish Sea, Ireland, and England, it seems the economic benefit of operating Sellafield for the U.K. may be too much to overcome. In October 1995, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNLF), opened a 600 million pound complex of five 'clean-up' sites at Sellafield.(19) This complex is part of BNFL's ongoing 2 billion pound waste management program at Sellafield.(20) The complex is designed to remove radioactivity from the nuclear waste. BNFL claims that it is committed to protecting the environment, and making progress in waste management. This may be true but the storage and reprocessing of nuclear waste is also big business, and "more than 1500 hundred jobs were created on the site during the peak of construction."(21) BNFL exports reprocessing technology to other countries, and is one of the United Kingdom's fastest growing export earners.(22)

The Sellafield nuclear plant involves a conflict between the economic and security needs of the United Kingdom, and the condition of the surrounding environment, including the Irish Sea. Although BNFL is making efforts to 'clean' nuclear waste produced at Sellafield, Ireland will still oppose the plant and any further development. As one Irish official stated, "further expansion of Sellafield's nuclear facilities would represent 'an inexorable and increasing threat to Ireland's environment as well as fishing, agriculture, and tourism'."(23) Unfortunately, it seems that there are no existing procedures that Ireland can take that will likely prevent nuclear waste from adversely affecting their environment or remove the risk that a major accident poses to their country. The Irish Government faces an uphill battle, that is made harder when further development produces large economic benefits.

3. Related Cases

UK Water Pollution

Mocho Nuclear Plant

Irish Fishing Quotas

Shetland Oil Spill

4. Draft Author:

Eric Pratt, December, 1996

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

In Progress

6. Forum and Scope:

United Kingdom and Bilateral

7. Decision Breadth:


8. Legal Standing:


III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Country: UK and Ireland

10. Sub-National Factors:


11. Type of Habitat:


IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Ban

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:

Direct, BNFL was the United Kingdom's fastest growing importer in 1994.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: No

b. Indirectly Related to Product: Yes Utility

c. Not Related to Product: No

d. Related to Process: Yes Radioactivity

15. Trade Product Identification:

Nuclear Waste treatment Systems

16. Economic Data

BNFL is expanding its market for nuclear waste management to the United States where over $300 billion is expected to be spent over the next 30 years in order to clean up sites in America. BNFL's 1994 exports: 425 million pounds.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:


21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

High and Product

23. Urgency and Lifetime:

High and thousands of years

24. Substitutes:

Alternative energy

Since Sellafield produces such a large portion of energy, it does not look like the UK would cut back energy production at the plant.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


26. Trans-Boundary Issues:

Yes, England and Ireland. Ireland has a long troubled history with England. This current problem of radioactivity in the Irish Sea seems to touch a sore spot with the Irish. Ireland is being adversely affected by an industry that they had no part in creating and one that gives them no benefits. They view the situation as a trans-border issue and are taking steps within the EU to improve their situation.

27. Rights:


28. Notes

1. Christine Deane, The World Uranium Hearing, Salzburg, 1992.
2. Amelia Gentleman, "Scientists Rule Out Sellafield Child Cancer Link," Press Association, March 27, 1996.
4. Ibid
5. Christine Deane, The World Uranium Hearing, Salzburg, 1992.
6. Frank McDonald, "Sellafield waste plan would pass burden to countless generations," The Irish Times, January 23, 1996,1.
7. Frank McDonald, "Sellafield development seen as step towards dumping nuclear waste," The Irish Times, January 10, 1996.
8. Ibid
9. Frank McDonald, "Dubliners warned of disaster if Sellafield tank fails," The Irish Times, May 30, 1996.
10. John May, The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.), 115-117.
11. Ibid
12. Ibid, 269-270.
13. Frank McDonald, "The Irish Sea and Sellafield," The Irish Times.
14. Frank McDonald, "Ireland to harness support on UK nuclear sites," The Irish Times, January 15, 1996, 6.
15.Frank McDonald, "The Irish Sea and Sellafield," The Irish Times.
16. Ibid
17. Ibid
18. Ibid
19. "Duke of Kent opens environmental clean-up plants at Sellafield," BNFL homepage, October 24, 1995.
20. Ibid
21. Ibid
22. Ibid
23. Frank McDonald, "Sellafield development seen as step towards dumping nuclear waste," The Irish Times, January 10, 1996.

29. Relevant Literature

1. "Sellafield waste plan would pass burden to countless generations,"
2. "The Irish Sea and Sellafield" http://www.indigo.ie/finegael/govtplan/sellfld.htm
3. "Ireland to 'harness support' on UK nuclear sites" htp://
4. "Sellafield discharges to increase" http://homepages.enterprise.net/mkermode/polcul/selfish.html
5. "Sellafield development seen as step towards dumping nuclear waste"
6. "Irish Sea Sediment IAEA-135, the Irish Sea, and the Sellafield Reprocessing Discharges" http://ocean.fsu.edu/oce/mschultz/Irish.html
7. "Dubliners warned of disaster if Sellafield tank 'fails" Irish Times, May 30, 1996.
8. Christine Deane, The World Uranium Hearing, Salzburg, 1992.
9. May, John. The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.
10. MacGill, S.M. Sellafield's cancer-link controversy: The Politics of Amnxiety. London: Pion Limited,1987.
11. Gentleman, Amelia. "Scientists Rule Out Sellafield Child Cancer Link," Press Association, March 27, 1996.

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