Nuclear waste and the Irish Sea

Today the Irish Sea is probably the most heavily contaminated with radioactive debris of any sea in the world. British plans to build a new nuclear reprocessing plant at Windscale could make this situation dramatically worse. Jeremy Bugler reports on the 100 day public inquiry which the Irish government did not attend. By Jeremy Bugler

"Windscale discharges several kilograms of plutonium annually into the Irish Sea. No one knows where it goes. Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known to man. One millionth of a gram can cause cancer because of the Alpha radiation it emits. Plutonium has a very long life. It gives off radiation very slowly but does so for many thousands of years."

....Extract from a report by Friends of the Earth 1975

THE IRISH government was not repreesented at the Windscale Inquiry, the public hearing into proposals by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd to build a vast nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria in the North West of England, eighty miles from the Irish coast. President Jimmy Carter has already imposed a ban on all American plans to develop this kind of nuclear technology (a ban that is supported by the British foreign secretary, Dr. David Owen) while in countries as diverse as France, Germany and Australia, public opposiition to such plants is growing, often accompanied by violent demonstrations.

It seemed to many British observers that Ireland, as the country whose coastal waters are most likely to be affected by proposals for the new nuclear reprocessing plant, should have been represented at the Windscale hearings. Possibly the Dublin governnment felt that diplomacy did not permit it to ask for official representaation at a British domestic inquiry. More probably, it did not fully underrstand the importance of the hearings to Ireland, in particular to the Irish fishing industry, and remains content to accept the very hit and miss monittoring by British scientists of the effects of the nuclear waste already being discharged into the Irish Sea, although this was revealed by the Wind scale Inquiry to be hopelessly inadequate.

In fact, it was the Irish Sea and the dangers to it which grabbed the first headlines in the English press when the Windscale Inquiry opened.

In the absence of any Irish government representative, the running was left to the Isle of Man. The island's counsel, George Dobry, Q.C., a barrister short of stature but not of punch, told the Inquiry's inspector that levels of highly radioactive plutonium around the mouth of the pipe that discharges nuclear waste from the Windscale complex into the Irish' Sea, are no less than twenty six times greater than those at Enewetok, a deserted atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Enewetok? An arresting comparison. It was above Enewetok that the Americans exploded 'Mike', their first hydrogen bomb, back in 1952. Other H bomb tests have also been carried out there.

Today the Irish Sea is probably the sea most heavily contaminated with radioactive debris of any in the world. To understand this state of affairs, consider that for one thing, the Irish Sea takes three quarters of the radiooactive sea discharges of the British nuclear industry, weapons and energy, For another thing, countries such as the United States permit no radioactive disscharges to the marine environment at all, with only minor exceptions made for low radioactivity in certain munnicipal sewerage.

What happens every hour of every day offshore at Windscale would not be permitted in the United States. And yet if the plan for this new plant to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is allowwed by the British government, the emission of radioactive waste, including particles of potentially catastrophic plutonium, will increase further.

Because the Irish Sea is enclosed from Larne in the North to Carnsore in the South, it acts as a saucer-like container, so that the chances of radioonuclides like plutonium being dispersed in the open ocean are considerably reduced.

It wasin the early fifties that nuclear waste started to trickle down the Windscale pipe into the Irish Sea. In all the years since then the UK Atomic Energy Authority has insisted that the levels emitted have been so low, and the absorption capacity of the Irish Sea so high, that this method of nuclear waste disposal was simply good housekeeping. In the eight weeks of the Wind scale Inquiry this carefully constructed picture was shattered.

Some doubts had already been sown by the evidence of the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries Joint Committee. This committee pointed out to the Inquiry that there was already cause for concern in the level of radioactive contamination of fish caught in the Irish Sea, particularly by boats fishing out of Lancashire ports. They believed that 'the interests of the fishing inndustry could be significantly damaged' if radioactive discharges were to continue at present or higher rates. They added that some fishermen and their families who eat above average amounts of seafood, already consume up to 35 per cent of the recommendded limits of caesium 137. (These limits are set by the International Commission of Radiological Protection and are currently under attack for being much too high. American scientists believe they should be drastically cut.) In the context of the Lancashire fishing inndustry's evidence it would seem, at the very least, prudent for the Irish fishing industry to express the same concern for its own interests.

The man who caused the eight week sensation, the real damage at the Wincllscale Inquiry, was an American. (It was perhaps inevitable that he had to corrie from outside the British nuclear establishment.) Dr. Vaughan T. Bowen, geochemist and senior scientist at the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution, is the last opponent that the British nuclear lobby want. Softly spoken, . distinguished, he is one of the world's leading authorities on aquatic polluution. Worse still, from British Fuels' point of view, Dr. Bowen is broadly speaking in favour of nuclear power.

The American. giving evidence on behalf of the Isle of Man government, opened in full-throttle: the Windscale site was and is the wrong place for such a highly dangerous reprocessing plant because of the nature of the coastline, the sea bed and the currents of the Irish Sea. He agreed with the view of the British Fisheries Radiobiology Laboratory at Lowestoft that 'longglived alpha-emitters' (plutonium, americium) released by Windscale are 'rapidly immobilised' in the sediments of the Irish Sea, but 'in the case of a large, complicated container like the Irish Sea,' there is a limit to how much it can contain and severe difficulties in knowing how much it can contain. He saw circumstances in which all the complacent calculations about the sea's containing capacity on which we have optimistically relied for so long could be turned upside down.

What the Quiet American is worried about is 'the sudden catastrophic reemobilisation' of large amounts of radioactive particles that have been accumulated and lain dormant over many years. What might happen then is that the Irish Sea, instead of having to absorb only the annual discharges from Windscale, might have to cope with years of output: '90 per cent of all transuranic elements like plutooilium that Windscale ever released into the Irish Sea.'

What kind of sudden catastrophe could cause this to happen? The British government has tried to suggest that what Dr. Bowen was describing could only be an earthquake, ripping up the bed of the Irish Sea and scattering tons of sediment over the beaches. However, Dr. Bowen was thinking of something much less dramatic.

We do know that under infrequent violent storm conditions really large amounts, in terms of total accumulated sediment in estuaries, or even from down on the bottom of shallow seas like the Irish Sea, are thrown up on beaches in storm waves and then are left there when the water recedes.' This sediment then dries out and is 're-suspended' as fine dust which is blown about for miles. Such dust is, according to Dr. Bowen, the main threat, since transuranics like plutonium are most toxic when they are breathed in by mammals, in other words by human beings.

British nuclear experts still tend to mock this notion, but the layman can perhaps consider 'the 100-year storm' which oil companies use in planning offshore drilling operations. Oilcbmpanies design their platforms to resist the ravages of the worst storm that can be predicted, on available data, for 100 years. Unfortunately this method is not foolproof. A rash of blow-outs occurred some years ago in the Gulf of Mexico as a consequence of the worst storms in 250 years. By this token, Bowen's severe storm is a real possibility.

Dr. Bowen went much further than this. He was critical of the methods used by Britain to monitor exactly what is happening to the Irish Sea, and what could happen if the new nuclear reeprocessing plant is built at Windscale. Early in his evidence, Dr. Bowen mildly observed that he was surprised that the prestigious Fisheries Radioobiology Laboratory at Lowestoft, which has the responsibility for monitoring pollution, does not give data which enables scientists to calculate the rate at which long-lived radionuclides (like plutonium or americium 241 nuclides) are accumulating in the mud at the bottom' of the Irish Sea. The Lowestoft Laboratory tends to conncentrate its monitoring on the shorterrlived radioactive particles that often disappear anyway because of natural decay. It pays comparatively little attention to the much more dangerous, long-lived nuclides that accumulate in an enclosed sea bed like that of the Irish Sea.

This observation turned out to be the small cloud that blew into a temmpest. Bowen set out, in clinical detail, ways in which the eminent British laboratory is falling down on the job. To the British, who are chauvinistic when it comes to the brilliance Of their technological experts, Bowen was blasspheming. He persevered, giving out a iong list of ways in which the Lowestoft Lab should change its practices, pointting out that monitoring data takes years to emerge from the lab (l974 data was not released until just before 1977). He also maintained that the Lab is backward -looking, Its data .only lets people know of what happened in the past, not how patterns of pollution are developing. The FRL reports 'have consistently suffered from a failure to ask the questions, why, where or how?' He set out a list of ten points for reform in the Lab so that what is happening in the Irish Sea can be clearly ascertained.

His final shot caused a sensation. 'It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the Fisheries Laboratory is defending Windscale and related operations rather than examining them with care.' The inspector, a sceptical judge called Parker, seemed on the verge of a seizure.

The question is, what shouid now be done? No one in Ireland should expect the Windscale Report, when it comes out next year, to savage British scientists, but they should realise that British scientists cannot be trusted to safeguard the Irish Sea.

Yet the Sea provides food and liveliihoods for thousands of people in Ireland, livelihoods that could be endangered. In the course of his eviidence, Dr. Bowen completely blew up the confident British assertion that fish and shellfish cannot absorb plutonium from sea mud. They can, and do. In Japan the fishing industry has already experienced mass refusal by the Japanese public to buy fish which they believe to be contaminated in this way. Could the same thing happen in Ireland?

The Irish government, under pressure from the fishing industry, has been engaged in a vigorous campaign to safeguard the traditional tights of Irish fishermen to fish in Irish coastal waters. It may be that at least part of that effort would be better directed. to protecting the Irish Sea from what could happen if the new reprocessing plant at Windscale gets the go ahead.