British Government in international court over plutonium plant

Press release - 9 June, 2003
The UK Government will appear in an international arbitration court from tomorrow charged with violating the United Nations Law of the Sea over its decision to open the plutonium plant operated by state-owned company British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) located in Sellafield, Cumbria (1).

The case is being brought by the Government of Ireland and will be heard over the next three weeks at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, The Netherlands. Ireland is opposed to the operation of the plant on the grounds that it pollutes the Irish Sea and that it increases the risk of nuclear terrorism and serious accident. According to the Irish government, the United Kingdom has also breached its international obligations to cooperate with Ireland and failed to protect the marine environment and to reduce and eliminate radioactive discharges from the Sellafield site (2). Greenpeace believes Ireland's legal argument at the Permanent Court of Arbitration is a strong one.

"This is a landmark case in holding large nuclear powers to account under international law," said Greenpeace international lawyer Duncan Currie. "Already the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has emphasised the obligation to cooperate under international law, and small states at risk of pollution from nuclear activities will be watching this case very closely," he expressed.

In 2001, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth UK legally challenged the UK Government's approval of the controversial Sellafield plutonium fuel MOX Plant (SMP) on the grounds that its environmental risk outweighed any economic benefits, and therefore authorization was not justified under European law. The UK argued that BNFL would secure business with its largest potential clients in Japan, and that the cost of the plant, 470 million sterling, could be written off - at taxpayers expense (3). The High Court in London accepted the UK Government's arguments and ruled against Greenpeace. Since then BNFL has failed to secure any contracts with Japan and has become insolvent (4).

The UK Government will come under further attack later this month at the Ministerial meeting of the OSPAR Convention (5), where Ireland, Norway and others will criticize it for failing to end radioactive marine pollution as required by international agreement.

"The British Government disregarded the environment and common sense and the demands of Ireland and other states by opening this plutonium plant, and the consequences of its intransigence under international law will become patently clear over these coming weeks. The fact that this facility handles thousands of bombs worth of nuclear material, to be then shipped and proliferated across the planet, highlights the flawed nuclear non-proliferation, security and environmental policies of Blair and his administration. Ireland is to be congratulated for bringing this case. This plant should be closed down before its too late," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International in The Hague.

Notes: Greenpeace briefing ‘Irish Government versus UK Government: Sellafield MOX Plant, Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, 10th – 27th June 2003’ available at: The UK Government approved the Sellafield MOX Plant (SMP) in 2001 against an international outcry. (2) Ireland claims that the UK Government has violated a number of articles of the UNCLOS. Articles 192 and 193 and/or Article 194 and/or Article 207 and/or Articles 211 and 213 of UNCLOS in relation to the authorisation of the MOX plant, including by failing to take the necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment of the Irish Sea; failing to properly or at all to assess the risk of terrorist attack on the MOX plant and