SSEC logo Sutherland Shire Environment Centre  

Submission to Environment Australia on the Replacement Nuclear Reactor Environment Impact Study - Volume 3 / Supplement

Should it be built at Lucas Heights - or anywhere?

Initial comments

The Process

The introduction to the Centre's submission on the Draft EIS listed the objections to the process. To the manner in which the proponent, and the Government Departments are intertwined, all working towards a presentation which will confirm the Cabinet decision to build a new reactor at Lucas Heights. To the dependence of the Commonwealth, the Ministry for Science, the Ministry for the Environment on the advice of the proponent in nuclear matters. In fact the EIS documents provided to you so far by ANSTO are nothing more than another book of advice.

Nothing that has occurred since the appearance of the Draft has altered our opinion. Indeed the our reasons have increased.

When the Supplement, Part 3 was due for release, your Department stressed that "under statutory legislation, there was no specific obligation for the public to have any right to reply". When asked if you would at least read any comments received, the reply was "Yes, but under the terms of the legislation, there was no compulsion for the Department to take any action". Very reassuring! But the community still relies on "the system" to perform on its behalf and that Environment Australia will dismiss the EIS as presented to it by ANSTO.

The Minister

Has anything else happened to raise our hopes of common sense prevailing? On 3 February, the Minister for Science was interviewed by Sydney Radio Station JJJ. Mr Nick Minchin is the Minister with the responsibility for the final decision. He has held the position for only a few weeks and may not yet be up to speed, but gave his answers firmly and confidently.

When asked by the interviewer "Will a new reactor be built at Lucas Heights?" he replied without hesitation, "Yes". He made no qualifying reference to the EIS process which is still underway with, apparently, no decision having been made. Was this an oversight - by a very experienced politician - or an appalling indication that he knows the result of the EIS in advance? Which is exactly what was expected by this community when it was announced that ANSTO would prepare the EIS. The fox designing the chicken house.

In a further comment, the Minister showed either contempt for Shire residents or a total lack of knowledge of the subject when he claimed that there was majority support for a reactor at Lucas Heights. Wrong again! There have been three public opinion polls since 1993, which included questions as to the preferability of Lucas Heights as a site for a new reactor. All were overwhelmingly against it. They included a recent (1998) poll commissioned by Sutherland Shire Council in which 77% said that they were concerned at the suggestion. ANSTO commissioned another in 1997 in which 83% of the Sutherland people polled and 88% of those from Liverpool/Bankstown said that it was not a preferred site. That poll cost the taxpayers $40,000.

In an earlier poll taken by the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre in 1993 at the time of the Research Reactor Review, 81% said that any new reactor should be sited well away from residential areas. A figure remarkably similar to that obtained by ANSTO!

The results of these polls were ignored by the Minister and all but dismissed in ANSTO's EIS. It preferred to use the comments taken from focus groups during the Research Reactor Review. Even though the pollsters at that time, Morgan and Reark said that their results could only be seen as preliminary and that a lot more work was needed.

Will Environment Australia take ANSTO's opinion (advice) on community opinion? Has it access to those quantitative polls? If not, why not?

The Minister also stated in the interview that all the spent fuel used by HIFAR which came originally from the USA had been returned to that county. Hopelessly incorrect. But this is the person who will make the final decision on the status of Lucas Heights for the next 150 years. How can the community have any confidence in either the EIS process or the main players in the game?

Comments on Volume 3 / Supplement to the EIS


Pages 1-18/19 Concerns over insurance and liability issues. ANSTO's comments, not unexpectedly, miss the point. The standard exclusions from Australian insurance policies include only one industrial or scientific area. That "arising from radio-activity or the use, existence or escape of any nuclear fuel, nuclear material, or nuclear waste". We are talking about the ability of the local community to take out personal and property insurance, not having to take the government to court under common law.

The common law option would involve individuals taking ANSTO/the Commonwealth to a high court and proving negligence. The costs would be enormous and would involve the admission of evidence from senior scientists, who would all need paying for their services. In turn, the Commonwealth, which has boundless funds, would contest the case. There are several well known cases of this. Some have dragged out for many years.

ANSTO, now boasts of a Deed of Indemnity (an insurance?) signed between it and the Commonwealth which protects ANSTO and its staff if it should lose a common law claim. This does not reassure the local community. Page 1-19 implies that individuals would be better off having a fifteen year battle against the Commonwealth in the high court than merely filling out an insurance claim form - that is if the insurance companies here would cover them.

A challenge to Environment Australia. Send details to one or more Australian insurance companies of ANSTO's claims in the EIS, on its emissions, its health studies, its claims as to the safety of the new reactor and that, even in the most extreme accident, nobody could possibly come to any harm. End it with the paragraph on page 11-63 as to the suitability of Lucas Heights as a site for nuclear facilities. Ask them, in light of this overwhelming confidence expressed by ANSTO, if they would reconsider insuring local residents.

If they will not agree, ask them their reasons. If they will not agree then perhaps you will see that ANSTO's argument cannot meet commercial risk standards and the project should be scrapped.

Background to the proposal

Activities of ANSTO. Pages 3-5 and 3-7. In view of the recent release of Government papers following their embargo for thirty years, the comments made in the section dealing with concerns about the military use of research reactors show either extreme naiveté or worse, cynicism. Of course it would take a deliberate covert act by the Australian Government in contravention of its international agreements. That is the nature of our concern!

Several countries have acted in this way in the recent past (e.g. South Africa, Israel, North Korea). None advised the international overseers. Only North Korea has been taken to task on the suspicion that it might be interested in weapons manufacture. Australia was seriously considering the proposition thirty years ago. If it had decided to go ahead it would have been a covert action. If military research were to be reconsidered in the next 40-50 years, the life of a new reactor, it would still be a covert action. All the technical expertise would be at the Lucas Heights site. The staff would be sworn to silence and it is doubtful that many would sacrifice their jobs on principal.

In our submission on the Draft EIS it was suggested that Environment Australia obtain an opinion on the equipment which remains on site from the Safeguards Office as to whether its retention is detrimental to our position on the NNP treaty. It was also suggested that a time-table for its scrapping be tabled so as to send a positive message to our neighbours on our non-proliferation. ANSTO has delicately but pointedly ignored this. To blithely quote the ANSTO Act and its prohibitions shows that the producers of the EIS are not living in the real world.

Response to concern over status of Australian nuclear legislation. Page 3-7

ANSTO has made no attempt to reply to the three pages of criticism of the ARPANSA legislation contained in our submission. Nor should it do so, as ARPANSA is meant to be independent from the nuclear industry which it will regulate. Those comments are for Environment Australia to consider. Since then, over the Christmas / New Year period, the Regulations for that body have been released. Attached are our comments on those Regulations.

But will ARPANSA be independent? As recently as 10 February we have learnt that Professor Helen Garnett, the head of ANSTO, is one of three people interviewing and finalising the short list of applicants for the position of CEO of ARPANSA! Was she there to protect her industry or to ensure that the local community and her employees were adequately protected? A person in her position is the last that should have any input into the new regulatory body.

Description of the proposal

Response on the meaning of the term "conditioning" when referring to spent fuel. Page 5-5. In its waste management policy, ANSTO has two options for dealing with its spent fuel. Overseas reprocessing and domestic conditioning. Dounreay has gone, La Hague may not last for the life of a new reactor. Which leaves domestic conditioning or processing, (any word but reprocessing). In the response, ANSTO makes light of the glossary term for conditioning. Merely a general term etc.

This is supposed to be a scientific study, full of details. Let ANSTO publicly describe exactly what process it would have to carry out so as to condition its spent fuel for handling, storage, transfer or disposal. Let us then compare that process with that of reprocessing.

Response to comments that the EIS is flawed because there is no detailed reactor specification Page 5-9. Of course it is flawed. The independent peer review no. 24 clearly says so. The fact that "the EIS has been prepared in accordance with the relevant Australian legislation and guidelines" is no reason to claim that it tells the full story. If the legislation and guidelines are so poor as to prevent ANSTO from performing its task then the Minister for the Environment must order a public inquiry.

It is fatuous for ANSTO to suggest that Environment Australia should pass this shoddy attempt to conceal, give it the go ahead for the site and then let the new ARPANSA regulator - which is still struggling to get its regulations right - sort things out later. This really is reverse engineering and is not an acceptable argument coming from what we are told is one of Australia's top scientific establishments.

Alternatives to the proposal

Alternative Spent Fuel and Waste Management Strategies

Our comments in the submission to the Draft EIS, pages 6 / 7 section 6.9 have been completely ignored by ANSTO in the Supplement. These comments go to the heart of the proposal and deserve the attention of Environment Australia - whether or not "it comes under the terms of the Act".

Management of Reactor Products, Spent Fuel and Wastes

Response to concern over lack of contracts for spent fuel reprocessing. These are ANSTO's words. However the Centre believes that the concept of sending our spent fuel overseas is irresponsible. The Commonwealth Government, supported by the Member for Hughes and a majority of one on the Sutherland Shire Council, have expressed strong objection to any reprocessing of spent fuel at Lucas Heights because of its history of health and environmental damage to communities and areas surrounding overseas plants (and for the political fall-out that they know would accompany such a decision). But they are all eager and willing to send it to any foreign country which will take it.

In fact the whole scenario for Lucas Heights as a suitable site for a new reactor is dependent on getting rid of the on-site waste at any price. Our concern is that ANSTO's policy regarding spent fuel is to:
  1. First take the soft option and send it away for several years. Exactly how many years will doubtless be made clear in the "agreement" with COGEMA - but will this be made public?

  2. When it is returned to Australia, larger in volume and containing almost the same amount of radioactivity, it is proposed to send it to a category S facility for long term storage. That facility may or may not be built as it is in the "to be considered" category. Such a facility is seen by the Department of Primary Industry as merely an interim store.

And interim is as far ahead as ANSTO is planning as outlined in their EIS.

At a community liaison meeting with ANSTO in October 1998, Mr Ross Miller gave an excellent presentation on the tendering process for a new reactor. The segments, which set out the constraints that would be placed on tenderers, included that it be a pool type reactor - it should use low enriched uranium fuel - it should be not more than 20 Mw - and that there be an established route for fuel disposal. (Emphasis added). At that time it was pointed out that the route for that particular type of long lived intermediate level waste was deep geological burial. This question was deemed to be "political" and handed over to ANSTO's Director of Public Affairs. His answer was evasive, so far as final disposal was concerned, and it was obvious that there are no plans for it.

Page 10-6 of the supplement pronounces that ANSTO is fully confident of the spent fuel disposition strategy adopted in the Draft EIS. Merely stating a degree of confidence is no substitute for a firm plan, for all to see, in particular the terms and conditions. The community has, for many years, heard of contracts and agreements for the treatment of its spent fuel stocks. Indeed, Professor Garnett was advising the Senate of her confidence in the Dounreay contracts on a handful of days before the plant closed. The manager of Dounreay said at the closure that all outstanding contracts would be honoured - but that Australia did not have one.

The United States began taking back foreign research reactor fuel containing US high enriched uranium in 1958, when HIFAR was commissioned. That programme stopped in 1988. During that period no Australian spent fuel was returned to the US. Why? Because it was believed that there was an agreement with no time limit. Between 1991 and 1993 the US Department of Energy carried out an EIS on whether the US should take back such fuel once more. During that EIS both the Australian Government and ANSTO made submissions which included reference to the "agreement" which was still valid with the US. The terse reply was that there was no obligation on the part of either the US Government or the USDOE to accept Australian spent fuel. It was only in 1996 that the final EIS agreed to take back the material from a number of countries, including Australia.

The purpose of this summary, the details of which you will know, is to point out that "agreements" mean little, contracts may include escape clauses, and reprocessing plants can close at short notice.

Response to concern on spent fuel remaining on-site for long periods. Page10-7 Our local Member for Hughes and a majority of one on Sutherland Shire Council support a new reactor providing that there is no long term storage of nuclear waste on site. The wastes (spent fuel) from HIFAR will take up to 2008 to be finally removed from Lucas Heights (Reply by the Minister for Science Nick Minchin to a question from Mr Robert McClelland MP). At that time there may be, if a new reactor is built there, three years spent fuel arisings from its operation. Over time the amount stored will rise and fall, depending on shipments overseas, but there will be waste on site for the half century of its operation. Add to that an old reactor being decommissioned for between 30 and 120 years (ANSTO estimates) and perhaps permanently, depending on the final decision at the end of the decommissioning process, plus a decommissioned HIFAR. Lucas Heights will remain a nuclear waste dump for a long, long time.

If the overseas spent fuel option disappears or there are delays longer than anticipated, and/or the category S interim waste store is not built, what is ANSTO's fall back option? This should be an essential ingredient for a fifty year site plan.

Response to concerns over the Little Forest Burial Ground. Pages 10-15/16

The question was, if and how ANSTO would attempt to clean up the site and how it sees the medium/long term future of the area. The answer was that ANSTO would continue its monitoring programme and see that the security guards patrolled the perimeter fence. Another irresponsible reply. ANSTO boasts of its technical help in cleaning up the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site but is unable or unwilling to clean up a local mess of its own making.

Response to concerns about the accumulated waste on-site of 40 years of HIFAR operation. page 10-17

The throw-away line at the end of the page that there would be no permanent storage of radioactive waste at the Lucas Heights site ignores the decommissioning option of encasing the reactor(s) in concrete and leaving them on site.

Response to claims that waste minimisation principles have not been applied. Page 10-33

To call the uranium and thorium waste calcification an "initiative" is to bend the use of the English language. The task was forced on ANSTO over a period of nine years (refer Annual Reports of the Safety Review Committee since 1988). As was the solidification of the liquid wastes from Molybdenum 99 production. Both were described as situations which, in the event of an accident, had the potential for off site contamination. The latter task is still in the "coming shortly" phases - after 10 years.

Hazards and risks

Response to local schools not being considered in emergency plans. Page 11-50

The response shows that ANSTO has given away the task of trying to convince local teachers that the emergency procedures expected of them would be either practical or effective. Merely that "schools, like other organisations, have a duty of care". ANSTO of course did not answer the points raised in our submission to the Draft as, indeed it is not its responsibility. But it is the responsibility of Environment Australia to place this matter above that of ANSTO's claims of being risk free. Or, as it would prefer, risks but very slight.

The reference to the second edition of the leaflet "What to do in the Case of An Emergency at Lucas Heights STC" in reply to a request for practical information will be seen as an insult. Have you seen that leaflet?

Response to concern over poor quality of emergency planning Page 11-51

Our references to public knowledge of emergency plans is valid. Just ask a selection of local people and see what they know. That "plans have always been available to the NSW Combat Agencies" does not point to public awareness. These plans, a copy of which is held by this Centre, do not contain any practical information. Requests to combat agencies are refused (Police and Fire Services) and are limited in scope (Health Department).

Traffic in the area of the LHSTC

A week before Christmas I was visiting friends at Barden Ridge. (the suburb was formerly called Lucas Heights but the name was changed by Council because of the bad connotations with the Waste Disposal Depot and the Reactor site). I left at 5pm and joined the Illawarra Road, only to find it blocked, in both directions, as far as the eye could see. Someone with a mobile phone in a nearby car told me that there had been an accident on the bridge over the Woronora River on the Heathcote Road. I chose to go in the opposite direction via the River Road past Bangor, Woronora and Sutherland to my home in Engadine. Normally a 15 minute drive. I arrived home at 7.20pm.

The Illawarra Road is the only road past the LHSTC and it is common for blockages of this kind to occur. And this is an ideal site for a new reactor? There are no plan to upgrade this road and, as it has been noted over the years that the roads in either direction pass over bridges susceptible to accidental blockage.

There has been no response to my talk with the representative of the IAEA during his visit to Sutherland Shire Council when I told him that the residents of Woronora Heights would have to travel towards the reactor to get away from it in the event of an accident. He said that sites for reactors had been turned down by the IAEA for that reason.

But aren't the Emergency Agencies and local residents all relying on ANSTO's word and promises and commitments that there cannot be an accident which would have any effect off-site?

Response to concern of the security of the site. Page11-57/59

The question of sabotage has been dealt with in a most naive manner. It is not that specific details are required but that the subject is discussed as a possibility. ANSTO says that " a sabotage scenario could only be substantiated if there was a plausible demonstration that a motive, an opportunity and an ability to accomplish the necessary physical destruction were coincident possibilities." (Emphasis added). Well of course those factors would be necessary. They were when the government building was destroyed in Oklahoma, or the block of flats in Saudi Arabia housing US military, or the US Embassies a few months ago in Africa.

In the event of political disorder in this region or any situation in which Australia was involved (the Persian Gulf) with a United Nations force, the LHSTC would become one of only a handful of potential targets. ANSTO claims that "such a scenario does not offer an attractive sabotage target". But when the US and UK carried out air raids on Iraq recently, security was stepped up at the site ( Australian Safeguards Office). Is ANSTO unaware of this?

To deliberately set a potential sabotage target close to schools and residences would be a gross dereliction of duty by the Commonwealth.

Page 11-59 . The reference to former staff not having unaccompanied access to the plant is strange indeed. What is the implication here?

Millennium Bug. Page 11-61

Whilst HIFAR is said not to operate on computers what would happen if there was a shut down of both electrical power and town water? Am I correct that in the US there is a recommendation to operators of nuclear plant to have available, at the end of 1999, two diesel generators and 60 working days supply of diesel fuel?

Cumulative impacts and ecologically sustainable development

Response to the issue of uranium mining and future generations. Page 20-10

ANSTO cannot be serious when it claims that a National Waste Repository will provide both a safe and long term solution to waste storage and disposal. Its major problem, that of its long lived intermediate level wastes, will only be put off for a period of fifty years or so before another decision will have to be made.

When ANSTO mentions its commitment to the ALARA principal - As Low As Reasonably Achievable - it has deliberately omitted the usual offensive qualifier of "having regard to economic and social factors". This caveat allows procedures which could be carried out in a better or safer manner but which might cost more and are therefore passed over. But doubtless you will have noticed that.

The Appendix C Site characteristics and site related design bases

Page 45. Bushfires. This section states that the Lucas Heights site lies where large bushfires can be expected every 8 to 12 years. But the most recent serious fires have occurred in 1994 and 1997. Both incurring fatalities. It is accepted that there has been an increase in the temperature of the earth and that all the hottest temperatures on record world wide have been in the past ten years. Even if the very worst fires could not, as claimed, affect the safety of the reactor it does appear that the site is not as perfect as ANSTO describe.

Ask the question, Does it make sense to build a new nuclear reactor in an area regularly subjected to serious bush fires?

Page 46. Aircraft Crash. This section only applies to a small plane. What would happen if the plane was a medium to large one? No problem? Or could it not happen?

Page 52. Conclusions. " On the basis of the site characteristics information (section 2) and the specific site related design considerations (section 3), it is concluded that the proposed site for the Replacement Reactor, within the LHSTC site, does not have any negative features which cannot be overcome by the high standard and quality of engineering design and construction which are required by ANSTO" (Emphasis added)

What a breathtaking conclusion!

It should be noted that these comments on the Supplement form only a small number of the many areas in which ANSTO has not replied to concerns about the Draft. To cover them all would take more time than is available to us. And of course, as has been explained, Environment Australia is not obliged, under the restrictions of the Act, to either read them or to act on them. It is in such a manner that Environmental Impact Studies are bludgeoned through in favour of industry and at the expense of the people.

Still we live in hope.

Michael Priceman
Nuclear Study Group

Telephone 02 9520 3115
Back to Submissions Index