We Still Can't Manage Nuclear Waste


It’s a sad truth that whistleblowers have provided the public with more information about accidents at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor site on Sydney’s outskirts than the site’s operator — the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) — ever has.

After a report on ABC’s Lateline last week, it’s clear that this pattern has been repeated. A secret report by Comcare, the federal government’s workplace safety watchdog, finds that ANSTO has under-reported accidents, breached safety standards, and breached health and safety laws.

The Comcare report was produced in response to revelations last year by ANSTO whistleblower David Reid. The report finds that ANSTO did not take all reasonable steps to maintain a safe working environment; failed to take all reasonable steps to train and supervise ANSTO Health employees; failed to comprehensively risk assess its radiopharmaceutical production process; failed to notify Comcare of safety incidents; and that ANSTO’s suspension of David Reid was "somewhat extreme" and that he was denied procedural fairness.

You’d hope that the Federal Government would step in to redress the problems at Lucas Heights and to do so with some urgency.

No such luck. The government has asked for a "review" of the Comcare report. And if that review finds its way into the public arena it will most likely be thanks to a whistleblower. If the review doesn’t produce the answers the government wants to hear, further reviews will likely be commissioned until the government gets the whitewash it wants.

These problems have obvious relevance for ANSTO workers and for the residents of surrounding suburbs, all the more so in light of ANSTO’s approach to emergency planning. Nuclear engineer Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO’s Division of Reactors and Engineering, said (pdf) way back in 2001:

"Another document called the Sutherland Shire Local Disaster Plan is needed to cater for the public. This plan is a most remarkable document. … In the whole document there is no mention of the words ‘iodine’ or ‘nuclear’ or ‘reactor’ and only one mention of ‘ANSTO’. No one would guess from reading this plan that there was a nuclear reactor in the area. … Here is a document presented as a reactor emergency plan that doesn’t mention the words ‘reactor’ or ‘radioactivity" because it doesn’t want to upset people."

In the event of an accident with off-site consequences, local residents would have to sue ANSTO to achieve redress. On this issue Wood was even more scathing:

"I believe that it is very important that the public be told the truth even if the truth is unpalatable. I have cringed at some of ANSTO’s public statements. Surely there is someone at ANSTO with a practical reactor background and the courage to flag when ANSTO is yet again, about to mislead the public. For example, the claim ANSTO makes for nuclear indemnity is indefensible."

The problems at ANSTO also have national significance. ANSTO is actively promoting the development of nuclear power in Australia — although the organisation has demonstrably failed to competently and safely run a much smaller nuclear research facility.

More immediately, ANSTO is up to its neck in the plan to establish a national nuclear waste repository in the Northern Territory, both as the main source of the waste and as the operator of the repository (if it proceeds).

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson plans to put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill before Parliament this month. Mussolini would blush. The Bill gives Ferguson the power to override all state and territory laws that could in any way impede his dump plan — and the power to override almost all Commonwealth laws. Public health laws, occupational heath and safety regulations, road safety laws — all subject to ministerial whim.

Ferguson claims that the Traditional Owners for the proposed dump site at Muckaty Station, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, support the proposal. In truth, some do, but many do not. Letters of protest and petitions from Muckaty Traditional Owners have been ignored. Muckaty Traditional Owners have initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the site, yet Mr Ferguson persists with the fiction that Traditional Owners support the dump.

Ferguson has refused repeated requests from concerned Traditional Owners to meet with them. His latest excuse for ignoring them is that the matter is subject to legal action. He has also said that he will consult Traditional Owners after a decision has been made on the proposed Muckaty dump — a thorough reworking of the traditional of consultation.

Ferguson says he will "respect" the Federal Court’s decision but in fact he is pre-empting it by pushing forward with legislation which entrenches Muckaty as the only site under active consideration for a national repository. Interestingly, Ferguson’s Bill is very similar to Howard-era legislation (pdf) which Labor slammed as being "sordid" and "draconian".

Ziggy Switkowski, who was until recently the Chair of the ANSTO Board, has been promoting the construction of 50 power reactors in Australia. Over a 50 year lifespan, 50 reactors would be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of radioactive tailings waste at uranium mines. The reactors would be responsible for a further 430,000 tonnes of depleted uranium waste, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process (which would most likely take place overseas). The reactors would directly produce 75,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and 750,000 cubic metres of low-level and intermediate-level waste.

The Labor Party promised to address radioactive waste management issues in a manner which is "scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms" and to "ensure full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes". Every one of those promises has been broken by Martin Ferguson and his Waste Management Bill.

It’s very clear that nuclear power reactors produce vastly more waste than ANSTO’s research reactor. The government needs to demonstrate a capacity to safely and responsibly manage the Lucas Heights research reactor and the waste it produces before trying to sell us on the idea of a nuclear power industry.


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