DUBLIN, Ireland Ireland vowed Thursday to force Britain to shut down its Sellafield nuclear complex, as Irish lawmakers and environmentalists led protests outside a new facility at the plant designed to produce recycled fuel for reactors worldwide.
"We cannot allow this situation to stand. It is an act of supreme arrogance," said Joe Jacob, Ireland's government minister responsible for public safety, who warned of a possible Sept. 11-style terrorist strike on the Irish Sea plant.
Sellafield, Britain's major nuclear facility, has been a sore in Anglo-Irish relations ever since Queen Elizabeth II opened the first reactor there in 1956.
British Nuclear Fuels PLC, which operates the complex in northern England, said it had drastically reduced emissions of radioactive material into the sea since the 1970s. It insisted that the Mixed-Oxide Fuel plant, which opened Thursday after a 5-year delay over safety concerns, would not produce any harmful emissions at all.
"This is wonderful news and is the best Christmas present we could have had," declared Jack Allen, head of operations at Sellafield, where the MOX plant is expected to underwrite at least 1,200 jobs.
Britain says it will have a strong market for the MOX plant's product, particularly in Japan.
The plant completed in 1996 but delayed partly because of a scandal involving forged security checks at a sister recycling facility would receive shipments of spent plutonium and uranium from several countries to be converted into new rods of fuel, each equivalent in energy to a ton of coal. The sea shipments in and out would receive armed escort.
Ireland, which has no nuclear energy, has complained for decades of its potential exposure to any accidents at the plant, which lies some 150 miles across the sea. Pressure groups in two coastal towns, Drogheda and Dundalk, claim their communities suffer higher-than-average rates of cancer and birth defects because of Sellafield.
British politicians and scientists, however, insist that recent studies by independent nuclear watchdogs had all found no evidence of dangerous emissions from Sellafield. They suggest Irish ire has more to do with a pending general election in Ireland, where all parties consider opposition to Sellafield a vote-winner.
"We are not aware of any scientific or epidemiological evidence showing any ill effects from Sellafield operations in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland," said Dr. Michael Clark, editor of Britain's Radiological Protection Bulletin.
As Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's ruling Fianna Fail party promised to pursue every legal and diplomatic channel against Britain, opposition lawmakers traveled to Sellafield to join protesters who handcuffed themselves to the gates of the MOX plant.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States have given local lawmakers a particularly fearful new angle of protest.
"If Sellafield goes up in an attack, the prevailing wind will take it right to our country," warned John Gormley, a former mayor of Dublin and a lawmaker from Ireland's Green Party, who took part in Thursday's demonstrations.
Dr. Tom O'Flaherty, chief executive of Ireland's nuclear watchdog, the Radiological Protection Institute, which has not been permitted to visit Sellafield, said radioactive clouds would be released if an aircraft crashed into key storage tanks or reactors. He estimated that, depending on winds, the radiation could produce fatal cancers in 30 out of every 50,000 people in Ireland.
© 2001 The Associated Press