UK 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 international movements of radioactive material associated with the plant; and the United Kingdom has breached its obligations under Articles 123 and 197 of UNCLOS in relation to the authorisation of the MOX plant, and has failed to cooperate with Ireland in the protection of the marine environment of the Irish Sea inter alia by refusing to share information with Ireland and/or refusing to carry out a proper environmental assessment of the impacts on the marine environment of the MOX plant and associated activities and/or proceeding to authorise the operation of the MOX plant whilst proceedings relating to the settlement of a dispute on access to information were still pending. (3) In particular the UK Government commissioned the report, “Assessment of BNFL’s Business Case for the Sellafield MOX Plant,” from consultants Arthur D Little. The report was released in July 2001 but vital financial and other data about the prospects for the plant were censored and not released publicly, to the UK High Court or the Government of Ireland. ADL did not consider the possibility that BNFL may fail to win business in Japan, even though future Japanese contracts even then were highly uncertain. Alongside BNFL, ADL has subsequently gone bankrupt. (4) In addition to the failure to secure business with Japan, BNFL has suffered further problems with its clients. BNFL originally stated that they would produce the first MOX from SMP by the end of 2002, to be delivered to Swiss client NOK which operates the Beznau reactor shortly thereafter. Since when BNFL have admitted that they were unable to meet the schedule and that the four nuclear fuel assemblies of MOX would be completed during 2003/4 and transported by May 2004. Greenpeace for the past four years has investigated problems of BNFL MOX fuel technology, charging that the technology is fundamentally flawed and unable to produce reliable high quality MOX fuel. This has major implications for any nuclear reactor that would use the MOX increasing the risk of catastrophic nuclear accident. These problems are understood to be one of the principle reasons BNFL has been unable to meet its production schedule, and why Japanese utilities are unwilling to sign contracts for MOX with SMP.(5) The OSPAR Convention is the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the NorthEast Atlantic.