Radioactive Discharges Confound North Sea Ministers

BERGEN, Norway, March 21, 2002 (ENS) - A conflict over radioactive discharges has overshadowed this week's ministerial conference on the protection of the North Sea. Environment ministers from nine countries bordering the sea reached agreement on a wide range of issues during their two day meeting. But they failed to make any progress in resolving a long standing dispute over discharges from nuclear reprocessing facilities in the UK and France.

Countries such as Ireland and Norway have become insistent in their calls for an end to the radioactive releases, particularly those from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Sellafield fuel production and reprocessing facility in northern England.


BNFL Sellafield facility in Cumbria (Photo courtesy Nuclear Reactor Engineering ERT)
Yesterday, Norway's Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik publicly urged citizens to join in peaceful protests against the continued discharges. Still, the ministers could only agree on a commitment to evaluate countries' progress towards cutting the discharges to almost zero by 2020, the same target set under the Ospar Convention for the Protection of the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR).

The North Sea conference is an infrequent but important political talk shop for the region's environmental leaders. Its ambitious declarations have often influenced environmental policy making at the European Union level and beyond. The last conference was held in 1995.

But the environment ministers downgraded future gatherings in a move termed "astonishing," by KIMO, the international environmental organization representing 100 coastal local authorities in 10 northern European countries.

Only ministers will attend future meetings and they will be held on a single issue basis. The ministers handed future influence on North Sea marine environment issues to the European Commission and to OSPAR.

This move was anticipated by KIMO, the organization said today in a statement. KIMO international president Ann-Christine Andersson, told the ministers, "We would strongly urge you to carefully consider the future cooperation for the North Sea and not let your role, as a regional influence be overtaken by other frameworks where you will be in the minority."

The ministers considered overfishing of the North Sea as a top priority issue. The forum has relatively little direct influence over fisheries, but environmental groups like WWF and Birdlife International are pleased by what they see as mounting political pressure for environmental issues to be fully integrated into European fisheries policy.

In their final Declaration, the environment ministers committed themselves to urge the European Union to "integrate environmental protection into the principles, objectives and operational procedures of fisheries management," as part of this year's review of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy.


Yacht sails the North Sea near the British coast. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy
The WWF applauded the ministers' commitment to "reduce the accidental capture in fishing nets of marine mammals to less than one percent of their estimated population." This means reducing the harbor porpoises accidentally caught every year in the southern and central North Sea by three quarters, said the WWF which staged a demonstration against such lethal by-catch in front of the meeting hall.

The ministers agreed to mount a recovery plan for harbor porpoises in the North Sea, which WWF believes commits them to achieving changes in fishing practices.

They will request the European Union to identify areas to be closed permanently or temporarily to fishing to help fish stocks recover. This could mean closures in the North Sea for cod, whiting, plaice, and skate.

The ministers also agreed that within eight years a network of well managed marine protected areas will be designated to safeguard threatened and declining species and habitats, satisfying another recommendation of conservation groups.

WWF estimates that at least 10 percent of the North Sea would have to be protected, with bans in some sensitive areas of the most environmentally damaging practices such as dragging fishing nets along the sea bed and extraction of oil, gas, sand and gravel.

Another important development was a commitment to monitor the introduction of ecosystem management in the North Sea through "environmental quality objectives," or indicators. Ten objectives have been adopted and more will be added.

The ministerial declaration also includes strong words against the release of genetically modified marine organisms, such as fish. Ministers agreed to take "every possible action" to confine any eventual use of such engineered organisms to "secure, land-based facilities." No genetically modified organisms are currently authorised in the European Union.


Wind turbine is constructed in the North Sea offshore of Blyth, England (Photo courtesy Blyth Offshore Wind Ltd.)
The meeting produced a strong statement in favor of the construction of offshore wind farms, drawing praise from Greenpeace.

UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher said, "The 20th century was the century of oil, the 21st must be the century of renewable energy."

But Greenpeace warned that this historic commitment to the development of renewable energy in the North Sea will be undermined while the UK and France continue to support the polluting nuclear industry.

Greenpeace political advisor Simon Reddy said, "The UK and France have to understand that the policies they articulated in Bergen represent a fundamental contradiction. What use is it signing up to clean renewable energy if you simultaneously continue to support a failing industry that is polluting our environment?"

Greenpeace believes that the North Sea governments could "crack the poverty code by kick-starting a global renewables revolution," saving the climate and alleviating poverty in the process.


{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email:}