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Some Reasons for Opposing the Expansion of Australia's Nuclear Industry

Has a need been established for a new nuclear reactor? The Research Reactor Review (RRR) in its 1993 report found that, based on the scientific effort at that time, the unlikely prospect of commercial and industrial equity capital there was no justification for a new reactor.

A government decision in favour of a replacement reactor would rely on its evaluation of what it considered to be the "national interest". This could mean prestige, defence (nuclear weapons research) or merely sitting at the table of IAEA committees - a view rejected by the RRR.

The report laid down five "onerous conditions" to be examined during a period of five years from the date of the report. If any single one was not met, the a negative decision would be indicated. It is my opinion that three have not been met and the fourth, relating to the definition of national interest can not be ascertained.

On this basis the need for a new reactor has not been established and a new reactor can only be allowed by disregarding the conditions laid down by the RRR.

Site selection process for a new reactor

If a decision in favour of a new reactor is made then the question of siting will become a major problem for the government. When the search for a national waste repository for low and intermediate level radioactive waste was started following the Research Reactor Review (RRR), the process was initiated by the National Resources Information Centre (NRIC).

Following the code of practice laid down by the NH & MRC for the Near-Surface Disposal of Radioactive Waste in Australia its criteria included natural and physical characteristics such as low rainfall - freedom from flooding - stable hydrology - freedom from cyclones, tectonic, seismic or volcanic activity, as well as socio-economic, ecological and land-use factors.

The McKinnon report said that " If a decision were made to construct a new reactor, it would not necessarily best be placed at Lucas Heights. An appropriate site would best be decided after exhaustive search and taking into account community views." "Any siting decision should be based on criteria similar to those developed by the NRIC with an additional range of economic and scientific criteria." RRR (20.1 and 20.2)

A site for a nuclear reactor should be at least as stringent as that for a low level waste dump! Anything less would not be acceptable!

The next stage of the site selection process

HIFAR was built in the days before Environmental Impact Studies were mandatory. Fortunately this no longer applies but there are still deficiencies, particularly in the federal sphere. A full and independent EIS would be essential but, under the terms of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 the Minister for the Environment has a variety of options which he may choose. The minimum option allowed would be a closed study and a decision announced by the minister. Obviously this would be totally unacceptable. Another option would be a Public Environment Report (PER), also a poor substitute for the real thing and again unacceptable.

The weakness of the 1974 Commonwealth Act is that it is weaker than the State's environment's laws and does not offer the protection which the selected community will demand and will be entitled to.

On the subject of the lack of suitable Commonwealth legislation may I point out that there is no legislation to cover compensation to members of the public off-site should there be a major accident involving a nuclear reactor. Also that there is confusion between State and Federal Government Departments and Local Government as to who would be responsible for compensation. It seems that members of the public affected would have to take the Commonwealth to court! Shades of the Voyager and Agent Orange!

Lucas Heights as a site

HIFAR was built in 1958 in a sparsely populated outer Sydney suburb. It became known as Lucas Heights but was recently renamed Barden Ridge because of its association with Australia's largest land-fill and only nuclear reactor. Sir Phillip Baxter, then the chief scientist of the AAEC, told the Shire Council of the day, that the reactor would not emit any radioactive effluent or gases during its operation. This was blatantly untrue.

Will the government impose a replacement reactor on the same site which is now surrounded by a population of 30,000? If this is one of its options then it must consult with this community and give full details of what is envisaged.

This would include:
  • The size and type of the new reactor

  • Its anticipated life expectancy

  • Its expected annual use of fuel rods

  • Plans for its radioactive waste storage and final , not short term, disposal. Would fuel rods be reprocessed on site? If so what would happen to the resultant radioactive by-products?

  • Details of planned emissions

  • Plans in place for local health studies...........the list goes on
Community opinion on Lucas Heights as a site for a new reactor was made very plain in the Community Attitudes Survey, commissioned by ANSTO (Report dated February 1997). Question 16 asked " how supportive would you be of a new reactor being built at........" This question was asked three times, the person being interviewed not realising that other options were to be canvassed.

The results were:
  • Sutherland Interviewees showing varying levels of support

    • Option 1: Lucas Heights: 57%
    • Option 2: On the fringes of Sydney 46%
    • Option 3: In a remote area of Australia 83%
  • People from Bankstown/Liverpool Area
    • Option 1 52%
    • Option 2 44%
    • Option 3 88%

Regulation of the Nuclear Industry

Considering that HIFAR has been operating for 39 years its regulatory regime is disgraceful. ANSTO consistently claims that it operates under conditions laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but this was dismissed by the RRR. ANSTO still operates under an authorisation issued by its Board to its Executive Director. The Nuclear Safety Bureau (NSB) refers to this variously as a "de-facto""could be seen as" or "in place of a" licence. Minutes from the meetings of the Safety Review Committee show that at this moment there are regular conflicts between the NSB and ANSTO as to who has jurisdiction in certain areas of operation.

Although the AIEA has set the ground rules for independent regulation of the nuclear industry and most countries abide by these, Australia has allowed this situation to drift along. The RRR concluded that this state of affairs could not continue - but it has, ever since the 1993 report. Requests to the Ministers for Health in this and the previous government have brought minimal responses. Both the industry and the public remain in the dark as to any forthcoming legislation.

The conclusions 19.1 to 19.5 of the RRR - page 235 must be put in place now and bring us out of the era of the 1950's. Any new regulatory body, such as the proposed Australian Institute for Radiation Protection (AIRP) must have on its committee a member of the community ( at present Dr Gary Smith, Head of the Environment and Science Department of Sutherland Shire Council is on the Safety Review Committee. This committee may be disbanded if and when the AIRP is introduced. If the community is denied representation it will be a grave loss indeed and a denial of the democratic process).

A Repository for Australia's Radioactive Waste

A place to store Australia's radioactive waste is many years overdue because of lack of interest paid by successive governments over four decades and also due to bad advice given to those governments by the AAEC and ANSTO. Their advice always was and remains, that "waste disposal is not a problem". This attitude prevailed because of the understanding that one of our allies, the US or the UK would take it away. The RRR said that it was "morally dubious to export an Australian problem"

In the conclusion to section 17 of the RRR report and one of the Review's "onerous conditions" was that "A crucial issue is final disposal of high level wastes, which depends on identification of a site and investigation of its characteristics. A solution to this problem is essential to any future decision about a new reactor."

At the present time there is no country in the nuclear world which has a site which can be guaranteed as being permanent. At Sellafield in the UK the project to develop a deep underground dump has been abandoned after spending $A760 million. At Yucca Mountain in the US a deep underground site has been built - it cost billions - it has just been downgraded to being an "interim facility" after failing to meet the requirements of the EPA. So much for waste being no problem!

There is no indication that the government is even looking for a repository for either high level or long-lived intermediate level waste. This flies in the face of the main condition laid down by the RRR.

The fuel rods sent away to Dounreay in Scotland, following a "morally dubious" decision by the previous government will result in the return to Australia of concreted radioactive waste. This material is described quite clearly by the US Department of Energy, as High Level waste. ANSTO and the Minister call it Intermediate waste in a semantic argument. This material will contain the same amount of radioactivity as was held by the original spent fuel rods but will have a greater volume. This exercise, because of lack of forward thinking cost Australia $6.8 million.

Since the RRR the Senate Select Committee on the Dangers of Radioactive Waste was convened. Its report has been with the government for 14 months now and not a single comment has been made public despite many enquiries. Part of its report was a recommendation that an above ground dry storage repository be built at an appropriate site, suitable to store all levels of radioactive waste, including high level. Such a repository would ensure that the waste was safe, secure and retrievable so that, if and when permanent disposal methods are developed they can be put into action.

In summary, waste generated from nuclear reactor operation is a problem. Transporting such waste is an extension of the problem. Reprocessing produces more waste and increases the original problem; it is grossly polluting and dangerous. Due to bad advice and bad planning we have created our current waste problem.

The big question is, do we want to continue in the same manner for the next forty years or so, plus 30 to 100 years to decommission two nuclear reactors? Will we not be paying too high a price for an item of false prestige which cannot be justified on its merits. If it were put to the economic rationalists the answer would be obvious.

I have not touched on the questions of nuclear weapons research, alternatives to nuclear reactors, redeployment of reactor staff, Synroc research, the lack of health studies on the local community since HIFAR was built, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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