The European Parliament has concluded a two-day hearing into the impact of nuclear reprocessing on communities and regions within the European Union.

The hearing was organised in response to a controversy surrounding an external study of the possible toxic effects of the reprocessing plants at La Hague and at Sellafield.

The study was requested by the petitions committee as part of the workplan for 2000 of the parliamentary panel dealing with the assessment of scientific and technical options (STOA), following the lodging of a petition objecting to reprocessing activities by an EU citizen in 1995.

When the report was considered by the STOA panel last year, it was criticised by some MEPs, who raised concerns about the document’s apparent lack of objectivity, pointing out that it was drafted by an organisation they described as anti-nuclear. The panel also expressed regret that the authors (WISE-Paris) had leaked parts of their report before its official publication.

The first day of the hearing opened with a statement by the author of the original petition, Mr Nachtway of Germany, followed by statements from Lawrence Williams, chief inspector of the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) and Philippe Saint-Raymond, deputy director of France’s nuclear safety directorate, DGSNR.

It also heard evidence from the director of WISE-Paris, Mycle Schneider, and from three representatives of the scientific community, Annie Sugier, president of France’s Nord-Cotentin radioecology expert group, Brian Wynne, of Lancaster University’s institute for environment, philosophy and public policy, and Keith Baverstock, a radiation expert and advisor to the WHO.

The main points made by those giving evidence were as follows:

The petitioner

Mr Nachtway. “It is clear that a truly-epoch-making experiment is being conducted in Europe, one that nobody anywhere else in the world has ever dared to undertake. The experiment was never announced as such, but it has been fully operational for decades. The subject of the experiment is the European seas, and the objective is to see what happens when large quantities of radioactivity are introduced into an extended marine biosphere.”

The report authors.

Mr Schneider said: “The reprocessing of spent fuel at Sellafield and La Hague leads to the largest man-made releases of radioactivity in the environment worldwide. The releases correspond to a large-scale nuclear accident every year.”

The regulators.

Both Williams and Saint-Raymond stressed that the national nuclear regulatory systems in the UK and France were comprehensive, strong and robust, with a clear duty imposed on the licensee to act responsibly to ensure the protection of the environment, the public and workers, as well as tight regulatory control to ensure they complied with their duties.

Williams added that the WISE-Paris report had highlighted two particular ‘areas of concern’: the risks presented by the storage of highly active liquid waste, and the discharge of radioactive waste into the environment. He said: “The need to reduce the potential hazard and hence the risk to the public and the workforce from radioactive waste on some of our nuclear licensed sites can sometimes conflict with the objective of reducing discharges. This is because the very act of retrieving the waste and conditioning it can lead to the need to increase discharges. Reducing discharges will inevitably result in the waste being concentrated and contained on site.”

The European Commission.

The EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström outlined the EC’s role in ensuring health and safety in the EU: the establishment of basic radiation protection safety standards for implementation by member states; collection and verification of information provided by member states about levels of radioactivity in the environment and discharge levels; verification of use of nuclear materials through safeguards.

With regard to the WISE-Paris report, Wallström said the Commission believed that there were three key differences between the WISE-Paris report’s findings and the findings of EU reports: the conclusions were drawn from over-conservative prospective models; it emphasised uncertainties and focused on relative differences in concentrations and discharges, suggesting that individual doses could be very high; and that it calculates collective doses for an infinite time scale, rather than restricting the time horizon to 500 years, as is customary in the industry.

The nuclear industry.

Various representatives of the industry made the following points:

• The reprocessing plants at La Hague and Sellafield are fully licensed by government authorities to conduct their operations.

• That the plants fully comply with national, European and international regulatory regimes.

• The environmental impact of the plants is continuously monitored and reviewed by the relevant competent bodies, and the results are assessed and published by the national regulatory agencies.

• Numerous scientific reports, published by official organisations, indicate that the discharges from the two sites are not harmful to the public health or to the marine environment.

A spokesman for BNFL, Mr Wilson, said that the maximum possible radiation dose that a member of the public could receive from Sellafield’s liquid discharges to the Irish Sea was 140 microsieverts in 2000, which compared with a dose limit of 1000 microsieverts, and the average UK national background radiation dose from natural sources of 2200 microsieverts.

For Cogema, Mr Pradel stressed that removing plutonium from spent fuels lowers their long-term toxicity by a factor of 10, and the volume of ultimate waste to be disposed of by a factor of 5. He added that reprocessing nuclear materials permits the recovery of substances such as uranium and plutonium, which can generate energy once recycled, and thus prevent the depletion of energy resources and guarantee greater energy self-sufficiency in the long term.

The scientific community

Annie Sugier, the president of France’s Nord Cotentin radioecology expert group, said that a detailed study carried out by French radiological experts had shown that radioactive emissions could be expected to induce just 0.0014 leukaemia cases in a population of nearly 7000 young people over a period of 18 years. By way of contrast, radiation from all sources could be expected, using the same model, to induce a total of 0.83 leukaemia cases.