By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The pressure has increased on the embattled Sellafield nuclear complex after Irish and Danish energy ministers agreed to back a move for the immediate suspension of the THORP reprocessing center, which employs about 1,400 people.
The suspension proposal comes before the June meeting in Copenhagen of the OSPAR Commission for the protection of the marine environment of the northeast Atlantic.
Energy Minister Joe Jacob said that while Ireland fully supports Denmark’s motion, it would also be making a more hardline proposal that seeks a "cessation" of reprocessing and the immediate "termination" of Sellafield’s activities.
Jacob said he believed it was "the beginning of the end for Sellafield."
Both countries will now seek support for the anti-pollution treaty motion and their joint strategy comes as the plant on Britain’s west coast faces new problems. The plant has long been a sore point in relations between Ireland and Britain. Opponents have long argued that radioactive discharges into the air and water are the cause of increases in some cancers among people living in counties bordering the Irish sea.
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Police are currently investigating alleged sabotage of a robotic maintenance tool that handled nuclear waste.
The company is also reeling from the aftershocks of the revelations about falsification of safety records.
Japan, Germany and Switzerland all stopped sending nuclear waste to Sellafield because of concerns about safety.
Denmark’s Energy Minister Sven Auken said the motion seeks suspension until the option of dry storage for spent nuclear fuel is fully explored and it can be ensured that there are no discharges into the sea.
However, while supporting suspension, Jacob said the OSPAR meeting was an opportunity to achieve the long-standing Irish government demand for complete closure.
He would not be happy about continuing dry storage at Sellafield because of the "total lack of credibility at this point in time."
Ireland is seeking the "termination factor" because otherwise "we are going to have further assurances, further reassurances somewhere down the line. We have been robust and it is time now to further up the ante," Jacob said.
"We are the more moderate," Auken said, "Whether in fact it does make much of a difference, I don’t know. I cannot see after suspension, how, unless everything changes, that you would reopen."
Auken said he believed that Iceland and Norway would support the suspension proposal and Sweden and Finland would give it serious consideration.
"The Nordic ministers have consistently warned against reprocessing and we have felt a lot of solidarity with Ireland as the immediate neighbor of the installation," Auken said.
For an OSPAR proposal to be accepted, it has to receive a weighted majority of two-thirds of the 15 OSPAR members. It will only be legally binding if Britain, as the country affected, also votes in favor.
He said that even if Britain does not vote in favor, the motion could have a strong political impact.
"I think the British government is listening," Auken said. "I am very optimistic about the British government. They have taken a positive interest in finding a resolution to this."
He hoped alternative jobs could be found for staff but said: "We cannot have the principal of the protection of the environment of the high seas being subordinate to short-term job considerations. That is not acceptable to sea-faring countries."
He said Denmark’s concern resulted not only from its bordering the North Sea but also because it is responsible for Greenland and the F’roe Island.
"This is a real threat to the Arctic environment, not only in terms of real dangers to the health, but also to the reputation of the catches of Greenland and the F’roe Islands, which are totally dependent on fisheries," Auken said. "If it is said that they are radioactively contaminated, that would damage their exports."