Second quarter of 2003

Ireland takes UK to court again on Sellafield

The third legal bid of Ireland at an international court on Sellafield points out unjustified risks and presses the United Kingdom to cease operation of its plutonium complex.

WISE-Paris, 11 June 2003

[Posted 11/06/2003]

On 10 June 2003, in The Hague (Netherlands), the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) began to hear Irish claims against the Sellafield nuclear facility, located a few miles in front of the Irish coasts and discharging radioactivity into the sea. (1) This trial is the third act of a long story opposing Ireland to the UK before international courts.

In 2001, Ireland sued the UK before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) regarding the authorization to open a new MOX facility in Sellafield, SMP (Sellafield Mixed Oxide Plant). Ireland failed to stop the project but the Tribunal decided to force the UK to “exchange further information with regard to possible consequences for the Irish Sea arising out of the commissioning of the MOX plant”, (2) the Irish Sea being already considered as one of the most radioactively polluted seas in the world.

In October 2002, a new trial began, this time before the PCA, because the UK decided not to cooperate with Ireland and refused to release sensitive information on the MOX fabrication plant, according to Ireland. (3) Ireland required the disclosure of any relevant information on Sellafield MOX plant and based its claims on article 9 of the “OSPAR Convention” (4) (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) specifying that has to be made public all “information [...] on the state of the maritime area, on activities or measures adversely affecting or likely to affect it.” (5)

According to the Irish point of view, the dispute can be separated into two cases: either BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Limited), the public operator of Sellafield facility, has already won a lot of contracts to make MOX fuel, and then the environmental impact on the Irish Sea is certainly very high, or BNFL has almost no contract, which means the Sellafield MOX plant is not cost-effective, and then has to be stopped according to the European laws. A 1996 Euratom Directive requires that activities increasing the exposure of populations to radiation need to be justified by some kind of benefits, especially economic ones. (6)

The point of view of the UK was based on a narrow regulatory interpretation, and focused on a point of the same article 9 of OSPAR Convention, specifying that the information required by Ireland belongs to the field of “commercial confidentiality” and then should not be disclosed. Regarding environmental concerns, Jonathan Cook, spokesman for the British Department of Trade and Industry, said: “we have demonstrated as publicly as we can that the environmental threat is almost nonexistent”. (7)

Although the final ruling of this case has not been given yet, Ireland has decided to sue the UK on several other issues regarding SMP authorization, opening a new trial before the PCA. Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Ireland essentially asserts that the UK failed:
- “to take the necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment of the Irish Sea” (8) from SMP and THORP (Sellafield THermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) and the radioactive movements associated.
- to assess the real risks of terrorist attack on Sellafield and to take appropriate measures to prevent it.
- to cooperate with Ireland, by refusing to share the information required for the environmental assessment.

Then Ireland asks for the UK to stop the operation of the MOX plant and international movements of radioactive material linked to it and to the reprocessing plant, THORP, until further guarantees can be obtained on these major issues.

Three weeks of hearings (10 to 27 June 2003) will allow both sides to express their views. (9) The final ruling will probably not be handed down before a few months.


  1. The issue of the radioactive discharges of reprocessing plants has been extensively discussed in a WISE-Paris report commissioned by the STOA unit of the European Parliament: Schneider, M. (Dir.), Possible Toxic Effects from the nuclear reprocessing plants at Sellafield (UK) and Cap de La Hague (France) – A first Contribution to the Scientific Debate, WISE-Paris, September 2001
    Main conclusions of the report, illustrated by WISE-Paris for the Public Hearing of the Committee of Petitions, European Parliament, Brussels, 17-18 April 2002, can be consulted at:
    This report was used as evidence in the first legal bid or Ireland against UK on Sellafield before the ITLOS court:
    see WISE-Paris, “Irish Government Presents WISE-Paris Report as ‘Evidence’ in Case Against the UK Over the Sellafield MOX Plant”, 23 November 2001
  2. See ITLOS website:
  3. PCA’s hearings of the whole week of trial (Ireland vs. United Kingdom, « OSPAR Arbitration ») are available on PCA’s website: v. United Kingdom ("OSPAR" Arbitration)
  4. Short for OSlo and PARis, as it replaces Oslo and Paris Conventions. OSPAR Convention has been ratified by Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK) and entered into force on 25 March 1998
  5. OSPAR Convention, article 9(2). See OSPAR website:
  6. Member States shall ensure that all new classes or types of practice resulting in exposure to ionizing radiation are justified in advance of being adopted by their economic, social or other benefits in relation to the health detriment they may cause”, Article 6 of Directive 96/269/Euratom
  7. "International tribunal begins hearing Irish International tribunal begins hearing Irish complaint on British nuclear recycling plant complaint on British nuclear recycling plant", 22 Octobre 2002, Toby Sterling, Reuters
  8. See the Irish Irish Memorial, Part IV, p. 254: Memorial Part IV.pdf
  9. All hearings will be available on PCA’s website: v. United Kingdom ("MOX Plant Case")

Back to contents