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Why do you complain? The Reactor was here when you moved into the area!

This is a common response to concerns expressed about living near a nuclear reactor. Does it have any validity? Very little, but it does display the lack of knowledge on the part of those making the remark. So what are the facts?

The present reactor was put into operation in 1958 following assertions to the council by the late Sir Philip Baxter of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC), that there would be no emissions of radioactive materials from the plant. That information was, for whatever reason, false. Radioactive gasses have been released every time the reactor and the radioisotope production plant operate, for the past forty years. Similarly, radioactive waste liquids were emptied into the Woronora River until 1980, despite community protests.

Have the gasses affected the health of the surrounding population? Who knows? There have never been any health surveys carried out - the responsibility of the State government - but there are many stories which could be told.

What did the public know about the work of the Atomic Energy Authority during the 28 years between 1958 and 1986? In spite of the very limited information that it was part of the "atoms for peace" programme, very little news was ever released from the site. The simple reason was that this peaceful plant operated under the Australian Defence Act which was similar to the British Official Secrets Act. Employees who spoke of what went on at the site were open to a long term of imprisonment. Years after he retired, Sir Philip Baxter admitted in an ABC radio interview that they had learnt how to make "the bomb", during the sixties but, we were assured, that it had gone no further.

From the point of view of free expression things should have improved in 1986 when the organisation was changed from th AAEC to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the bonds of the Defence Act were removed. But the culture of secrecy remained and relations with the general public continued to be remote.

The fact that people "knew that the reactor was here" did not mean that they knew much about it and what it was used for. In fact the Community Attitudes Survey, carried out on behalf of ANSTO at the end of 1996, showed that after ten years of comparative openness, knowledge was still slight.

Many people moved to the area in between 1960 and 1980 because the Menai area was released for housing development by the State government. During the dark days of secrecy.

The Sutherland Council expressed its concern to both State and Federal governments about the possible risks which the reactor might pose to the nearby populations. This continued until the mid 1980s until the council, dissatisfied with the assurances that it was getting from Canberra, refused to approve development plans for buildings close to the reactor.

This upset the State government which compelled the council to accept the applications. Pressure had been applied by the Federal government on the State and the advice had come from the operators of the reactor that all would be OK.

Since about 1979 the AAEC and ANSTO have made repeated requests to the Federal government for the original reactor to be replaced with a newer and larger one. This was relatively public knowledge and countless people who moved here since then were under the impression that, when a replacement was granted it would be built on a more suitable site - away from a growing population. Most had been willing to accept the existence of HIFAR but were disturbed and angry when they realised that ANSTO preferred that a new reactor remain here.

At that time they began to inquire about the down side of living near a reactor and soon realised that all was not as sweet as the propaganda made out. They have become more informed. They are demanding answers about health risks, safety of the reactor, evacuation plans (if they exist) and will the industry ever solve its problem of what to do with the nuclear waste it produces. And they are making themselves heard.

Which is where we came in.

For further details, contact Michael Priceman - Nuclear Study Group
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