AUSTRALIA’S TRACK RECORD WITH NUCLEAR PROJECTS

The Switkowski Report (2006) states: “There is every reason to be confident that Australia’s health and safety systems will continue to provide a sound framework for the management of the uranium mining industry and would enable any other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle envisaged for Australia to be equally well regulated, ensuring the highest levels of health and safety.”

However there is a wealth of contrary evidence concerning the record of organisations involved in the nuclear sector in Australia.

Uranium mining

A report by a federal Senate References and Legislation Committee (2003) found “a pattern of under-performance and noncompliance” in the uranium mining industry. It identified many gaps in knowledge and found an absence of reliable data on which to measure the extent of contamination from the uranium mining industry, and it concluded that changes were necessary “in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from serious or irreversible damage”. The committee concluded “that short-term considerations have been given greater weight than the potential for permanent damage to the environment”.

Nuclear radiologist Dr Peter Karamoskos (2010), the public representative on ARPANSA’s Radiation Health Committee, states: “On several occasions in recent years uranium mining companies have brought guest speakers to Australia to argue that low-level radiation exposure is not only harmless but actually good for you. To promote such marginal views without any counter-balance is self-serving and irresponsible and it may be time for governments to step in to provide that balance. Recent research has heightened rather than lessened concern about the adverse health impacts of low-level radiation. Moreover the latest science − concerning the health impacts of exposure to radon gas − is important in the context of the ongoing debate over uranium mining in Australia.”

ARPANSA

In the late 1990s, the federal government undermined the independence of the newly-created regulatory agency, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), by allowing the chief executive of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to sit on the panel which interviewed applicants for the position of CEO of ARPANSA.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO, 2005) wrote a report critical of many aspects of ARPANSA’s operations. The Audit Office’s overall conclusions were as follows:

“The ANAO concluded that improvements are required in the management of ARPANSA’s regulatory function. While initial under-resourcing impacted adversely on regulatory performance, ARPANSA’s systems and procedures are still not sufficiently mature to adequately support the cost-effective delivery of regulatory responsibilities.

“In particular, deficiencies in planning, risk management and performance management limit ARPANSA’s ability to align its regulatory operations with risks, and to assess its regulatory effectiveness.

“As well, procedures for licensing and monitoring of compliance have not been sufficient, particularly as a licence continues in force until it is cancelled or surrendered. Current arrangements do not adequately support the setting of fees in a user-pays environment, nor ARPANSA’s responsibilities for transparently managing the potential for conflict of interest.”

ARPANSA illustrates a problem common with nuclear regulators − potential conflicts and biases arising from a ‘revolving door’ between regulatory bodies and the organisations they regulate.

Federal government

The Coalition government comprehensively mismanaged the Maralinga nuclear ‘clean up’ project in the late 1990s. Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson (2002) commented: “The disposal of radioactive waste in Australia is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights. The government applies double standards to suit its own agenda; there is no consistency, and little evidence of logic.”

An ARPANSA officer complained about a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups” by the federal government during the Maralinga clean-up. (ABC Background Briefing, 2000.)

The Coalition government’s handling of its plan for a national radioactive waste dump in SA from 1998-2004 was the subject of sustained, informed criticism. For example nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston (2004) commented on the federal government’s Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST): “… DEST is responsible for the Former Nuclear Test site at Maralinga, as well as the Repository project. DEST was an ineffective manager of the Maralinga Cleanup in a number of key ways. The pattern of contracting required services for the Repository project is similar to the Maralinga cleanup. … The applicant has inadequate technical competence to manage its contractors.” (For more information see Friends of the Earth, 2005)

DEST was notorious for misleading the South Australian public about its nuclear dump plans from 1998-2004. For example, its claims that SA was the “best and safest” site for a dump, that most of the waste was of medical origin, and that the dump would accept only low-level waste, were all demonstrably false yet they were repeated ad nauseum.

Many of the problems evident with the abandoned plan for a dump in SA are now evident with the plan for a dump at Muckaty in the Northern Territory. That plan was conceived by the Coalition government and has been pursued by the Labor government since the 2007 election. Among other problems:

  • the government has put the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill before Parliament, draft legislation which overrides all state/territory laws and overrides key federal environmental protection and Aboriginal heritage protection laws.
  • the government is pursuing enactment of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill despite unresolved legal action in the Federal Court initiated by Muckaty Traditional Owners.
  • the government has adopted a selective approach to consultation with Traditional Owners − those who support a dump are consulted, those opposed are ignored.
  • the government has not established the need for a national repository
  • Muckaty was not even short-listed when scientific and environmental criteria underpinned a preliminary site selection process in the 1990s.
  • the approach is in conflict with federal ALP policy and clear promises made before the 2007 federal election.

ANSTO

ANSTO has a poor track record in many respects. Tony Wood, former head of the Divisions of Reactors and Engineering at ANSTO’s reactor plant in Sydney, has criticised ANSTO for its “misleading public statements” and for “sugar-coating” its information. Mr. Wood said in 2001: “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.” (Wood 2001; 2001b)

Mr. Wood said: “Another document called the Sutherland Shire Local Disaster Plan is needed to cater for the public. This plan is a most remarkable document. In this case the vulnerable community represents the people in the Sutherland Shire who would be exposed in the event of a reactor accident and it lists a number of hazards to which they might be exposed, such as bushfires, earthquakes, oil spills and aircraft crashes, but there is no mention of radioactivity, among the hazards. 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.”

A culture of secrecy undermines community confidence in ANSTO’s waste management (and more generally). This culture has been the subject of frequent criticism, e.g.:

  • the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor at Lucas Heights, Final Report, May 2001, said: “The Committee is highly critical of ANSTO’s approach to providing documents. Its attitude seems to stem from a culture of secrecy so embedded that it has lost sight of its responsibility to be accountable to the Parliament.”
  • Ex-ANSTO scientist and then President of the Australian Nuclear Association, Dr. Clarence Hardy, complained about the “culture of secrecy” at ANSTO when giving evidence to a parliamentary Public Works Committee inquiry in 1999.
  • In 2000, the Sydney Morning Herald and Greenpeace were told that to acquire two and 22 pages of information respectively under Freedom of Information requests, they would be charged $7099 and $6809.
  • The government/ANSTO PR strategy in relation to the OPAL reactor was discussed by a senior government official on ABC radio: “The government decided to starve the opponents of oxygen, so that they could dictate the manner of the debate that would follow the announcement. Because they couldn’t win it on rational grounds … they decided, right, we’ll play the game and in the lead up to the announcement catch them totally unawares, catch them completely off-guard and starve them of oxygen until then.” (ABC Background Briefing, 1998)

ANSTO (then called the Australian Atomic Energy Commission) was heavily involved in Australia’s one and only serious push for a power reactor in Australia, pursued from the late 1960s until the early 1970s. It was later revealed that the plan for a reactor at Jervis Bay on the east coast was driven by a hidden agenda to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

ASNO

Lastly, the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) is a dishonest and unprofessional government agency and arguably has an even worse track record than the organisations mentioned above. (EnergyScience Coalition, 2007)