At one level, the facts here are fairly straightforward, although different newspapers seem to be putting different spins on it. The Independent, for instance, reports that the commission is taking Britain to court "over its failure to clean up more than a ton of dangerous radioactive waste" from a tank containing plutonium and uranium, some of which dates from the 1950s.
The Telegraph also takes this line, but the Guardian puts a different light on it. Its Paul Brown reports that, "Doubts about how much plutonium and uranium is contained in a vast waste tank at Sellafield in Cumbria has led the European commission to prosecute the British government for failing to adhere to proper nuclear safeguards".
The commission, according to Brown, "claims that for four years its inspectors have been trying to verify how much material is in the pond so that the UK can be seen to have complied with the non-proliferation treaty, which specifies that the material must not be diverted for bomb-making".
This is in fact the nub of the issue. Under the Euratom Treaty signed in 1957 alongside the Treaty of Rome, to which the UK acceded in 1972, signatories are obliged by virtue of Articles 79 and 82 to keep records of all fissile material, and make installations accessible to Community inspectors in order that they can verify the amounts claimed to be kept.
In the case of the installation at Sellafield, over a ton of plutonium is being kept in a series of tanks in a complex known as B30, but the material has corroded to a highly radio-active sludge, covered by murky water. The mere process of checking, therefore, is dangerous, and there is no easy means of verifying the amount.
Thus, this is not primarily, or even a safety issue and, in fact, the commission has no power to dictate safety standards. The issue, in legal terms, is about record-keeping, and a highly pedantic issue is is. there is no question of the material not being there - just how how much of it there is.
This leaves the mystery as to why the commission is making such a meal of the issue, taking the unprecedented action of referring Britain to the ECJ.
One theory is that the Commission is getting tough because it forced the ten new accession countries to abide by certain commitments relating to nuclear safety and it is anxious to avoid accusations of double standards. This, on its own though, does not seem enough to warrant a full-blown confrontation between the UK and the commission.
Another clue comes from the commission statement made in March when Loyola de Palacio, the Vice-President responsible for Energy and Transport, gave the UK an ultimatum of 1 June to submit an "action plan" which would enable community inspectors to account for the material.
The situation had become "untenable" for the commission, she said. "It calls into question the credibility of our safeguards, which our team of inspectors has been carrying out for fifty years in accordance with very high standards".
In the latest press release, however, de Palacio talks about protecting "the general interests of EU citizens" and also makes reference to “the general strategy for decommissioning the facility in question”, complaining that the UK plan offered to the commission:
does not give any details on particular aspects, such as the granting of the necessary Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) licences and authorisations; nor does it contain either an investment project or an adequate financing plan…These issues, technically, are entirely outside the commission’s remit, and their inclusion in the justification for taking Britain to the ECJ are thus quite revealing.
What we seem to have here is another of those good ol' fashioned power grabs by the commission. Nuclear safety is a highly emotive issue, and a populist cause which the EU would love to claim for its own. For many years now it has been trying to extend its competences into this field and this case – win or lose – might give it the opportunity of pitching for extra powers.
Moreover – and one must always be alert to this possibility – Sellafield has so long been demonised by anti-nuclear campaigners that action against it by the EU – any action – would serve to reinforce the EU's self-assumed role as protector of the environment.
With the constitutional referendums coming up, this will play big in Ireland - where there are long-standing concerns about the installation - and in the Nordic countries, to say nothing of the German Greens, helping to tilt the balance in favour of a "yes" vote.