Bushfires highlight reactor madness

March 4, 1998


Bushfires highlight reactor madness

By Jim Green

SYDNEY — On December 2, bushfires swept through the Sutherland Shire/Lucas Heights region in Sydney's southern suburbs, burning on three sides of the $500 million nuclear reactor facility operated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

In a report delivered to the Sutherland Shire Council on February 23 about the fires, ANSTO acknowledged a host of problems: risks in and around buildings where flammable materials have accumulated; failure to monitor information from the Sutherland Fire Control Centre (despite having an ANSTO liaison person there); failure to monitor information on the local radio station; an inadequate hazard reduction/clearance program around buildings B72 and B75; that "most" ANSTO staff followed instructions, but "difficulties were experienced with some tenants on site"; a fire was discovered inside building 77, caused by spontaneous combustion of rubbish; public address announcements were misinterpreted by the announcer because they were not written down; staff did not have adequate information on road closures; lack of coordination of volunteer fire-fighters; and poor visibility of some fire hydrants.

ANSTO's safety division admits that it needs external advice to deal with some of these problems.

The most alarming part of the ANSTO report is the euphemism: "Only a few small spot fires at effluent tank in Waste Management Area were reported". ANSTO's waste stockpile includes liquid molybdenum waste arising from radioisotope production. As far back as 1989, this "moly" waste was identified as having the potential for off-site consequences in the event of a major fire.

It is unclear how close the fires came to the moly waste; ANSTO refused to answer questions when contacted.

The federal government's Safety Review Committee has repeatedly criticised ANSTO for delaying the solidification of the liquid moly waste. Even when it is solidified, there is nowhere to dispose of it until a national waste repository is established.

Residents have raised other concerns about the bushfires. They want information about the extent to which resources were diverted to fight the fires in and around ANSTO, resources that might otherwise have protected people and property in the shire.

Residents from Barden Ridge and Menai were evacuated, but faced traffic jams — a problem identified decades ago. The Barden Ridge School was evacuated, partly because of the presence of LPG cylinders, and there are unanswered questions about the impact of an explosion of LPG cylinders on the nearby ANSTO facility.

The mismanagement of the bushfire crisis reflects the head-in-the-sand approach ANSTO has adopted since it was created in 1953. It has been politically expedient to trivialise the risks instead of acknowledging — and thoroughly preparing for — the dangers associated with operating a nuclear reactor in a suburban region.

On February 23, local councillor Genevieve Rankin moved a motion that Sutherland Shire Council oppose the operation of the existing HIFAR reactor, and the construction of a new reactor, in the Lucas Heights region. The motion was lost, seven to six, with the Liberal Party turncoats still supporting the new reactor despite their opposition last year.

"There is always human error in any disaster. We can no longer afford the risk to the health and safety of residents of a nuclear reactor in the middle of a suburban, bushfire-prone area", Rankin said.

The federal government has given ANSTO $6 million to prepare an environmental impact statement into the planned new reactor. Needless to say, there has been no funding for opponents.

ANSTO has hired PPK Environment and Infrastructure to help prepare the EIS. PPK was severely criticised by an independent auditor during the Holsworthy airport EIS. The PPK project team has no expertise in nuclear sciences and has therefore subcontracted the UK-based National Nuclear Corporation (NCC).

PPK met with the People Against a Nuclear Reactor (PANR) campaign group on February 25. It quickly became clear that PPK's aim is to co-opt and pacify anti-reactor campaigners.

PPK refuses to organise a public meeting at which both proponents and opponents would speak. PANR also asked for access to research documents being produced by ANSTO and NNC, but was refused. ANSTO and PPK will, however, be able to manipulate and/or ignore information provided by opponents of the reactor.

PPK refuses to say how much it is being paid by ANSTO. It even refuses to provide contact details for NNC.

While the "community consultation" rhetoric was laid on thick at the meeting, PANR members have cut their political teeth on a range of campaigns over the years, including campaigns to stop the Holsworthy airport, a mega-waste tip and the development of the Helensburgh national park. The group is threatening to boycott the EIS unless there is a clear indication in the near future that it will be more than a bureaucratic whitewash. Members have agreed that the first priority is building the community campaign.

PANR is organising a protest rally to oppose the new reactor on Sunday, March 8 at 11am outside the front gates of ANSTO on New Illawarra Road, Lucas Heights.

The rally will release balloons with "no reactor" messages on them to demonstrate how far radioactive gases travel. There will be several speakers discussing radioactive waste problems, the dubious rationale for the reactor, the EIS sham, and an exposé of the endless stream of misinformation from ANSTO and the politicians. If you can help promote the rally (or the broader campaign), telephone PANR on (02) 9545 3077.

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