The UK & Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) note recent reports that the UK Government is considering the development of a road / rail bridge or an underground rail tunnel that could connect Northern Ireland and Scotland, an idea which has been suggested for a number of years. It has been suggested a tunnel could cost around £10 billion, with a bridge at least double that figure. (1)
Following on from the UK leaving the European Union, there has been increased discussion on ways to connect the existing four nations of the union together. A transport connection between Northern Ireland and Scotland has been mooted for over 120 years, but it has been particularly put forward in recent times by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As a result of ‘Brexit’, Northern Ireland remains a part of the EU single market to ensure there is no ‘hard’ border points between it and the Irish Republic. This has been one of the most politically charged parts of the Brexit debate. At its closest geographical point, there is just 12 miles between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As the NFLA sees it, there would be a real challenge to developing either a bridge or an underground rail tunnel, particularly if developed over the area of the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Scotland called Beaufort’s Dyke, which a recent NFLA report has considered. (2)
Beaufort’s Dyke is a deep trench of the Irish Sea which is within the closest geographical proximity between Northern Ireland and Scotland. In places, it is an area of particularly deep water within the Irish Sea, and it can be as deep as 1,500 metres in places.
The NFLA recent analysis of the Beaufort’s Dyke concluded:
- The Beaufort’s Dyke deep water trench is an integral part of a very busy commercial waterway through the “choke point” of the North Channel of the Irish Sea.
- It is evident that the Beaufort’s Dyke area has been extensively utilised for the dumping of surplus military munitions comprising small arms, artillery and chemical weaponry derived from two world wars. There are also significant amounts of nuclear waste that have been dumped into the Dyke.
- It has become clear that some of this material was “short-dumped” and could lie outside the Dyke itself. Reporting of the dumping has been characterised by a considerable degree of uncertainty about the precise volume and type of munitions and radioactive waste dumped.
- British Geological Survey work has confirmed that explosions generated by degrading munitions are a relatively frequent occurrence and that at least one of those explosions was observed to have generated an explosive force equivalent to approximately 5.5 tonnes of TNT. The distribution of such munitions was never mapped and there is every likelihood that similar magnitude explosions will occur in the future.
- The Beaufort’s Dyke area is an integral part of both the UK nuclear submarine training exercise areas and, very likely, international naval war fighting exercise and routine defence patrol areas.
- There is a major risk of conflict between the use of the Beaufort’s Dyke as a munitions and nuclear waste dump and its use as a training area (STA) and tactical deployment area for submerged and periscope depth nuclear submarines.
- There is also a major risk of conflict between the use of the Beaufort’s Dyke area as a nuclear submarine training and tactical deployment area and its heavy use by fishing vessels with active nets, as well as oil, gas and container cargo vessels.
In reference to the potential for a bridge or underground tunnel being built in this area, report author Tim Deere-Jones has further commented that:
- The concept of a tunnel between South West Scotland and Northern Ireland should not be compared to the Channel Tunnel to France. The Channel Tunnel is 75 metres below the seabed and 115 metres below sea level.
- As the NFLA’s Briefing explains, the sea-bed canyon achieves maximum depths of around 300 metres, so if a tunnel has to be at least 75 metres beneath the seabed this one will have to be sited at least 375 metres below sea level. The engineering works will be considerably more costly and technically difficult. The integrity of a sub-seabed tunnel in proximity to such explosions is also a matter of considerable concern.
There has been substantial comment on the bridge and tunnel issue. NFLA notes for example the Conservative Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, Simon Hoare MP, commenting on the huge logistical challenges in this project. He has said it is rather more important to resolve the problems between the UK and the European Union over the trade protocol on Northern Ireland.
NFLA notes that a feasibility study has been developed to look at a rail link from Stranraer – Larne further north of the Beaufort’s Dyke, but some of the issues noted above would still apply, whilst a longer tunnel will obviously cost much more. It is a significantly greater engineering challenge than for example the Channel Tunnel project proved to be. (3)
NFLA will be considering this matter at its forthcoming NFLA All Ireland Sustainable Energy Forum webinar on the 12th March.
NFLA All Ireland Sustainable Energy Forum Co Chair, Councillor Karen McKevitt said:
“NFLA has reservations with any development of a bridge or rail tunnel between Northern Ireland and Scotland due to the amount of hazardous chemicals, munitions and radioactive waste that was dumped for decades in the Beaufort’s Dyke area between both nations. Such dumping should never have taken place, but it was commonplace in how we dealt with radioactive materials in the past. As such it makes it particularly difficult to create a transport link now and we express our caution over this project.”
NFLA Scotland Forum Convener, Councillor Feargal Dalton added:
“Whilst new connections between Scotland and Ireland are welcome, they have to take account the considerable health and safety issues that exist within the Beaufort’s Dyke area. A dumping ground for decades, it is also an area of considerable activity for UK nuclear submarines. There have already been a number of ‘near misses’ between such submarines and commercial shipping; as well as snagging the nets of many small fishing vessels. Is it really feasible to develop a bridge or a tunnel in such circumstances? We are sceptical and would argue the budget for it would have to be very large indeed.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 00 44 (0)7771 930196.
Notes to Editors:
(1) Daily Mail Online, 14th February 2021
(2) NFLA Radioactive Waste Policy Briefing 84, November 2020
(3) The Guardian, 14th February 2021