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Comments on the Application from ANSTO for a licence to Construct a New Nuclear Reactor At Lucas Heights

Introduction and the Process

The process for public comment has, as usual, started from the end and is still working backwards. On 1 st June we were invited to comment on the application to construct a new reactor at Lucas Heights based on the information contained in the PSAR. We expected that document to be the detailed engineering specification of the new reactor but it was closer to a description of how INVAP intended to build it. As with many of the documents that ANSTO has placed before the Government and the public, there were many promises and commitments but the document was indeed preliminary.

Rather than ploughing through the many volumes we deemed it better to wait for the report of the Experts Mission from the IAEA who had a brief examination of the documents between 28th May and 8th June . The final report was dated 10th July but it was not available to the public until the end of July. It contained several references to the PSAR being a preliminary document. At the meeting held at ARPANSA's office on 8th July I asked Messrs Voth and Gürpinar if this is the Preliminary SAR, when could we expect to see the Final SAR? The answer, to my dismay, was 'When the reactor is built'. I suggested that this is somewhat late but was told that 'This is the way that it is done'.

Ever the optimist, I examined the Experts' report to which I will refer later. Then on 31st July the Centre received a letter from ARPANSA enclosing a PSAR Errata document with the cheery message that 'we may wish to keep this document alongside the PSAR, as the public has the right to know what minor changes the reactor supplier. INVAP, has identified in its revision of the PSAR'. The PSAR document was beginning to look misty indeed.

On 20th August, a fortnight before the public submissions were due, ARPANSA released the first batch of answers to 177 questions from ARPANSA to ANSTO based on its examination of the 11 volumes. Presumably there will be more to come..

Whilst this constant updating of information is going on a key piece of information - the updated, revised and probably less than overly conservative, seismic report is somewhere around. Promised a week ago, it has still not reached my mailbox as at 30 th August. (It arrived by the afternoon post.)

In fact, if 'this is the way it is done', to quote the Experts (who should know) it is just not good enough. Unfortunately it is what we have come to expect from government organisations such as Environment Australia and ARPANSA. Both organisations operate to carry out the decisions of the Government. Public comment is required 'under the terms of the ARPANSA Act, the CEO 'takes note of it. Nevertheless we doggedly participate, in the hope that someday, it will change.

Is ARPANSA capable of overseeing the process?

At the meeting with Messrs Voth and Gürpinar on 8th July, the question of INVAP's role in the replacement reactor was raised. I think that it was Mr Gürpinar who said that INVAP was the designer not the builder of the reactor. Nowhere in the PSAR or the current licence to construct can I find out where the actual builder is mentioned.

Whilst I understand that the builder has many outside parts suppliers but the final vehicle is the product of the builder. This must be the same if one is to buy a fully operational nuclear reactor. I realise also that the John Holland/Evans Deakin conglomerate do not make reactors and that, in spite of the licence application from ANSTO to construct the new one it is not capable of doing so.

Intrigued, I approached JHEDI to ask what part it would play in the contract. True to the form to which we have become accustomed it declined to answer and referred us to ANSTO. On 31 st July Mr John Rolland of ANSTO replied that:-

"INVAP is the Contractor for the design, construction, commissioning and performance demonstration of the facility, and JHEDI is the principal Australian subcontractor. In this role, JHEDI will effectively manage the site construction activities, reporting directly to INVAP.”

A similar request addressed to Dr Loy included the following comments.

"As to your question about who is the 'builder', ANSTO has a contract with INVAP (and the JHEDI consortium) to design and construct the reactor and building and associated components.  I understand that INVAP is the designer of the reactor and most of the nuclear-related components and JHEDI of the civil works. INVAP may actually directly construct some components and commission sub-contractors to construct other parts against its design.

In normal parlance INVAP/JHEDI are the 'builders' on behalf of ANSTO.  As Commonwealth contractors, they are caught by the ARPANSA legislation and if a construction licence is issued to ANSTO to construct the reactor, all Commonwealth contractors will be named as "a person covered by the licence" on the licence

The reply did clarify the matter somewhat although the second paragraph is legalese and not the normal parlance which I am used to. INVAP's role could and should have been pointed out at the meeting. Which leads me to the conclusion that the Experts were wrong - which is a worry - and that both Dr Loy and Mr Macnab were uncertain enough at the time not to contradict them.

Ability of ANSTO and ARPANSA to monitor the components that may be obtained for the construction of the reactor

The reason for bringing the matter up in the first place was an attempt to find out how much subcontracting was to be carried out on behalf of INVAP in the construction of the new reactor, the quality of the components that would be out-sourced and how it would all be overseen by INVAP and by ARPANSA. All pretty basic stuff to which straight answers should be provided at the outset. When I questioned whether ARPANSA had the technical engineering staff to oversee the construction I was told that, if it were necessary, ARPANSA would call in outside consultants.

As the PSAR does not designate which parts INVAP will construct and which will be subcontracted, the distance between the signature on the contract and who will build the first reactor of its type attempted by INVAP, gets longer and longer, finally disappearing into the mist. The map that ARPANSA has decided to follow is dotted with International Standards numbers and lots of the usual promises and commitments.

So how will ARPANSA police it? We are told that the Final Safety Assessment Report (FSAR) will be when the reactor is built . ARPANSA's Family Tree is typically bureaucratic. It has some 40 people in the Standards, Policy and Corporate Support Branch and only 9 places in the Regulatory Branch. I suggest that outsiders will do most of the overseeing, as ARPANSA is too thin on the ground to fulfil the tasks ahead. Will these consultants come from Australia? Who in Australia has the expertise? Could current or former ANSTO staff be involved? Might they be from Argentina?

I fear that ARPANSA, as well as ANSTO and INVAP may be out of their depth in this whole affair.

What does the Expert Panel think?

Page 39/79 refers to quality assurance and who will check it. It called for more detail as to the eventual treatment of non-conformances and the indication of important 'hold points' during design, construction and commissioning. Also that the management of interfaces between different parties should be clarified.

ANSTO replied that all such review and verification has been and will continue to be undertaken by ANSTO staff because they have demonstrated that they have the necessary skills to perform the functions properly. It adds that this does not preclude the use of any other resource that it sees fit at any stage of the design process. Note that there is no mention of ARPANSA here.

The point here is that it confirms that the PSAR is an unfinished document and one that does not show the final detailed design. Surely ARPANSA needs a completed document before it can consider issuing a licence to construct.

Also does the ANSTO staff really have all the necessary skills to follow through on such a project? It covers itself by referring to the Contract - yet unavailable to public scrutiny - in which the Contractor is responsible for the whole job anyway and if it doesn't work then INVAP has to fix it.

Page 21/79 refers to the Detail Engineering Design Stage of the reflector Vessel, 'when the stresses will be re-evaluated'. Once again the PSAR is an unfinished document. So how is ARPANSA to assess it as the design is incomplete? One can only suggest that, as before, it will accept the lists of conformance to 'Standard xyz' as probably being satisfactory but with nothing but the promises and assurances supplied by INVAP/ANSTO to back it up.

Does ARPANSA expect the local community to agree that this is a competent and honest way to proceed?

Seismic Reports and PSAR Specifications

Whenever risk associated with the plant on the Lucas Heights site is discussed the community has always been assured that the Nuclear Safety Bureau (RIP), ANSTO and now ARPANSA always use the most conservative criteria when assessing safety features. Until that is, the SAR of HIFAR was carried out by IGNS and the seismic assessment of peak ground acceleration was updated from 0.23 to 0.41g. When that reassessment came in with a much higher figure than previously been allowed for, ANSTO cried foul and, for the first time we heard the new term 'overly conservative'.

For some reason the organisation that thought it proper to get a third - or is it a fourth - assessment was ARPANSA. Not the Minister for Science or the Minister for the Environment who might have been seen to have some interest. Not ANSTO who were not the referee but ARPANSA. Why should an 'independent regulator' go out of its way to assist a customer? It was certainly due to the report ' Re-Assessment of the siting of HIFAR ' produced by the NSB in December 1995. Supposedly aimed specifically at the suitability of the site for HIFAR (after four decades) it was no coincidence that its timing laid the groundwork for the 1997 decision by the Federal Government to build a new reactor at the same site. That report said that HIFAR has been assessed as being able to withstand a peak ground acceleration of 0.23g.

When the application to operate HIFAR was being considered by ARPANSA the question was asked 'what were the engineering safety factors built into HIFAR to deal with an earthquake'? No reply was received and, that the licence was granted is now history. So the question is asked once again.

Prior to the revised and re- revised, seismic assessment being released, the Experts' review reported, Page 9/79 'the expectation that the seismic hazard will substantially decrease as a result of the new study'. An uncanny prediction and this time they were correct. It dropped from 0.41g to 0.37g.

However, on Page 10/79 , INVAP/ANSTO states that the PSAR shows that the structure has 'considerable capacity' beyond 0.3g to a factor of two. As the final revision produced a compromise figure of 0.37 the 'considerable capacity' is reduced below the estimated factor of two. Which once more raises the question, what is the usual seismic engineering safety factor that is built into a nuclear reactor, situated near a growing urban population? To be frank it is of no importance to this community whether nuclear plants in China, the former USSR, Korea or even Argentina have lower standards than Australia. That is their problem and it is expected that their local communities have even less input to the process than is badly legislated for here.

Page 11/79 of the Experts' review calls on ANSTO to undertake yet another study for the seismic hazard assessment of the site 'in line with the IAEA Safety Guide 50-SG-S1 (Rev. 1). As an alternative it offers ANSTO the alternative of demonstrating that the design basis for a new reactor is sufficiently conservative with respect to the new study, taking into account the uncertainties in an adequate manner. In either case I am sure that they will come up with another commitment in words that ARPANSA will accept.

Chapter 8, Instrumentation and Control

Zero Emissions

ARPANSA queried ANSTO's claim of controls of the RCMS as better than 99.9% (question reference 8.67). The reply was that it was part of the contract conditions. INVAP has to supply to that standard. This is indeed a worthy aim and should be applauded. But it raises the question of why should emissions of radioactive gases to the atmosphere be anything less? Doubtless ARPANSA will quote ALARA and that at the cost involved would not be worth it. To ANSTO that is. If the community were given the option it would be sure to demand it but of course it will be ignored.

Questions. Are zero emissions from such a small, insignificant reactor possible from an engineering point of view? The answer should ignore the ALARA principle.

Who decides whether the ALARA qualifying mention of 'taking the economics into consideration', ANSTO or ARPANSA?

If zero emission is feasible but costly, does the nearby community deserve to have it included as part of the design?

Operator Error

ANSTO question reference 8.9. ANSTO's reply that 'the discussion is about operator actions being based on clear and accurate information that would minimise operator error' appears to be typically arrogant and it is hoped that the question will be asked again by ARPANSA. Most accidents in engineered plants are caused by human error. ANSTO's operators, however clear the information might be, are human and therefore subject to errors.

Question . Does ARPANSA accept the answer or will it press for a better response?

What is possible? What is unlikely?

ANSTO question 8.36 asks, 'If there is gross failure of Fuel Cladding, will the control rods be able to drop?' The answer describes what could occur and then dismisses it by adding; 'this event is sufficiently unlikely as to render it beyond design basis'. Having attended the recent seminar on Hazardous Industries, along with several ARPANSA staff, it should be apparent that whenever a major accident occurs, its causes and effects were never written into the operational handbooks before the event. The subsequent inquiries point out what should be taken into consideration to prevent the next disaster and blame might be apportioned.

Question. Who takes the blame if the unlikely event occurs? The operator, the management, the supplier of the licence?

Inability to obtain commercial - or any other - Insurance

Hypothetical question . Suppose the ARPANSA CEO and his entire licensing were transferred to posts in the new Commonwealth Department of Insurance, offering commercial accident insurance cover to the public. Armed with their years of experience, would they provide cover for radiation and/or nuclear accidents? Or would they look after the Commonwealth's money for which they would be responsible?

Please don't smile. Inability to take out insurance is a very serious question and one that is a major concern about the whole project. Our views on this are on record. The Government offers a worthless Deed of Indemnity, it is nothing to do with ANSTO, and it does not fall within the badly written ARPANSA legislation. The only group that is frank is the Australian Insurance Industry that won't have a bar of the idea. 'Low probability but huge financial consequences', it confirms.

Neither has anyone responded to the effects of social disruption in the case of a major accident. Once again no government Department wants to discuss this. It can't be set out in a computer spread-sheet so obviously it doesn't exist. The community remains in limbo, its only means of comment is through this minimalist form of 'consultation process'; one in which it is heard and inevitably ignored.

Commissioning and dual operation

ANSTO question 15.10 refers to the personnel that would operate a new reactor during commissioning would, substantially come from the HIFAR operations. The matter of coordinating this brought out yet another promise that all would be right on the day. Comment has been made at other inquiries of the shortage of trained staff combined with the advancing age of present staff running HIFAR.

Question. What evidence has ARPANSA that two reactors could be operated safely for an unknown running-in period?

Radioactive Waste storage, disposal, conditioning/processing and/or reprocessing

Page 12 of the SER on the Lucas Heights site for a new reactor contained the section;

'Contingency plans describing alternative strategies for disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel will also be required with the application for licence to construct the replacement reactor. A licence to operate the reactor would not be issued by ARPANSA without here being clear and definite means available for the ultimate disposal of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel'. (Emphasis added)

There are so many outstanding uncertainties concerning the use, storage and ultimate disposal of fuel that might be used in a new reactor. These include:
  • The alternative types of fuel - silicide or molybdenum

  • Whether they will exist at the time of commissioning

  • Whether they will be suitable for reprocessing or conditioning or processing

  • Where they might be reprocessed or conditioned or processed

  • Whether Argentina has the means or plant to carry out either process

  • Whether France would be able to carry out these processes

  • Whether either is legally able to accept the fuel

  • What exactly is understood by conditioning or processing.

Unless ARPANSA is privy to information from ANSTO that is kept hidden from the public (and Parliament) it is obvious that it must deny a licence to construct a new reactor. Should ARPANSA grant a licence to construct based on the information that is currently available to the public then it would be breaching the terms of both its Act and the conditions it imposed in its SER.

However, based on its short record of granting licences to ANSTO, we fully expect that a licence to construct will be granted. Doubtless a form of words will be negotiated between the two parties that will enable ARPANSA to state that its objectives have been met.

Ultimate disposal of radioactive waste

ARPANSA must provide a clear definition of what it understands 'disposal' and 'ultimate disposal' to mean. Unless this is clarified the public and the regulator may be working on different planes (Venus and Mars?)

The matter is even more confused by the information provided by the Department of Science, Industry and Resources when it refers to the proposed store for long-lived radioactive waste. It recently issued a discussion paper on the store and the following points were raised in our response:

Page 3. Summary. " In time, Australia will need to develop a national geological repository for the disposal of its long-lived wastes." What is meant by " in time "? The reason given in the past by ANSTO and DISR for not examining this option has been that Australia does not have enough of the appropriate waste and the great but unspecified, cost for a geological dump. When might we have enough to justify it?

The proposed store will last for a period of " up to at least 50 years ". This is a contradiction. Will be up to 50 years or at least 50 years. If at least 50, what might its maximum expected life be? At the same time, what is the period of time that waste (such as will be returned from spent fuel reprocessing) will require shielding? What would the minimum and maximum half lives of this waste be?

Page 4. Commonly Used Terms. The description of High Level Waste says that no high level waste is generated in Australia. However it does not point out that its management is the same as for long-lived intermediate level waste and that the ultimate aim is for a deep underground geological repository.

With regard to the expected life of the store I recall that Dr Loy was asked a similar question at a Senate Inquiry hearing. After some careful consideration he estimated it at maybe 100 years.

When Environment Australia approved the EIS on the suitability of the Lucas Heights site for a new reactor one of the criteria that it had to pass was that of intergenerational responsibility. The store that the government has approved in principle is most certainly 'interim'. ARPANSA specifies 'ultimate disposal'. Unless the people who make the decisions answer these straightforward questions about comparative life spans of the waste and the store, then further discussion is meaningless.

Conditioning in Australia?

Conditioning spent fuel in Australia remains on ANSTO's list of possible options. How ANSTO understands the term has never been spelled out. At its worst it could be similar to reprocessing (banned in Australia) but without the separation of any unused uranium. Such conditioning could slip through the net and be licensed by ARPANSA, as it is not presently illegal.

Only recently ANSTO was granted exemption by Environment Australia for a new waste treatment and packaging facility to be built at Lucas Heights (Referral 2001/342 20 th July 2001). Environment Australia agreed that the building did not constitute a Controlled Action and granted the referral. ARPANSA was therefore taken out of the process.

The building would, in part, be used for the treatment of the liquid wastes from the radioisotope production plant. The treatment is similar to the conditioning that might be referred to in connection with spent fuel management.

Emergency Planning

The Local Emergency Management Committee (LEMC) now includes 3 members of the local community. At the first meeting they were greeted with suspicion, after all, the committee was replete with experts in the field of dealing with all kinds of emergencies. And it should be said that they perform in a most professional and expert way with all the difficult events that happen, almost daily, in the Shire. However the new members were not at all convinced that they would be able to cope with a radiation accident that might affect communities in the neighbourhood of ANSTO's site.

The atmosphere at the second meeting was much different and most members were referring to 'informed communities' and 'the right of people to have good information'. It was even admitted that the present ANSTO DISPLANS were 'not user friendly' and should be revised to improve them.

What also became clear was that there was no specific plan to deal with an accident that involved radiation off site. A point that we have been making for the past twenty years! This is being examined by an outside consultant at the moment and it is hoped that something good will come from it. If it does it will be due to the presence of those community representatives, not I stress, of the new nuclear regulator.

The point that I wish to make here is that ARPANSA appears to base its licence approvals on its belief that there is a plan in place that adequately covers the effects of an accident at ANSTO's site that affects the local population with radiation. Whilst it may have confidence with ANSTO's on-site emergency plans it should be fully aware that the emergency agencies do not have plans specific to a nuclear accident with off-site consequences.

I am not sure whether this has any place in your licence requirements (do you consider off-site requirements at all?) or if you only assess the on-site plans. Your confirmation of this would be appreciated.

We have made comment before on the lack of planning by the local schools and pre-school centres. The responsibility is clearly that of each individual school or centre. However, how can you grant licences without checking the situation at each place where children are cared for? Again, due to action at community level this has, slowly, begun to change. But it has taken great effort to get the State Government involved and this has not been across the whole spectrum of the area. What happens with private schools etc?

Question . Is this outside the ARPANSA legislation? If so how can you rest easy with the knowledge that you are ignoring the problem?

In conclusion there is still the perception at community level that ARPANSA is there to grant licences to ANSTO regardless of the vagueness of their applications. Less important is the health and safety of the local community. When this is placed before you we are told that you are doing your job in accordance with the legislation. It is just not good enough.

Prepared by Michael Priceman
Nuclear Study Group
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