By Jim Green
The campaign against the new reactor and reprocessing plant proposed for Lucas Heights in NSW has been stepped up. At a recent meeting Friends of the Earth, the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, People for Nuclear Disarmament, the Total Environment Centre, the Nuclear Free Zones Secretariat and other groups reaffirmed their opposition and began planning protest actions.
According to a report in the July 15 Sydney Morning Herald, the government has engaged independent consultants to assess the viability of alternative sites all around Australia in an effort to pacify voters in Liberal seats surrounding Lucas Heights. However, the preferred option remains the current site.
Professor Helen Garnett, executive director of Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), says that the reactor is part of an integrated complex, and building a new reactor elsewhere would require the relocation of a substantial part of the Lucas Heights facility, comprising 76 buildings and 1200 staff.
Garnett says there are no safety reasons for locating the new reactor anywhere other than Lucas Heights. Yet Sutherland Shire has 200,000 residents. There are huge debates, within and beyond the scientific community, about the health effects of low-level radiation such as is emitted daily from the HIFAR reactor, not to mention the possibility of a serious accident.
Moreover, the Sutherland Shire already hosts a toxic waste dump and Australia's largest capacity waste tip. Residents are also fighting proposals to site Sydney's second airport at nearby Holsworthy.
The mayor of the Sutherland Shire Council, Kevin Schreiber, said he was shocked that a decision is expected so soon on the new reactor, particularly as it is not yet known whether an airport will be built at Holsworthy.
The Sutherland Shire Environment Centre opposes a new reactor anywhere in Australia. Similarly, there are signs that campaigners against a second airport at either Badgerys Creek or Holsworthy have linked up.
As for the proposed reprocessing plant, Garnett says it will be a "very, very small" facility and will not reprocess waste from overseas. But this could very well be the thin edge of the wedge. Minister for science and technology Peter McGauran has refused to rule out reprocessing of overseas waste, although this is unlikely in the near future.
Downplaying the significance of the reprocessing plant, Garnett says it would generate less radioactivity than the production of isotopes at Lucas Heights. Small comfort. Isotope production and processing is the single most hazardous operation carried out at Lucas Heights.
In 1991-92, staff from ANSTO's isotope business, Australian Radioisotopes (ARI), accounted for 35% of the total radiation exposure to all ANSTO employees, although ARI had only 8% of the total staff.
In addition, radioisotope production accounts for more than three quarters of the low- and intermediate-level waste generated at Lucas Heights and about 10% of the high-level waste.
In one of ANSTO's clumsier PR exercises, Garnett has been talking up the industrial applications of the proposed new reactor.
The proposed new reactor would allow ANSTO to pursue new commercial and industrial projects. But it is highly unlikely that the new reactor could cover its own costs. The capital costs alone would be $250-450 million. Extra costs would be maintenance, decommissioning and waste disposal.
The 1993 Research Reactor Review concluded that a new reactor could not be financially self-supporting and that there did not appear to be any prospect of commercial or industrial equity capital for a new reactor.
ANSTO has recently commissioned a study which shows a net economic benefit in having a new reactor. Max Brennan, former chair of the ANSTO board was asked on the ABC's Lateline program how this figure was arrived at. Probably the same sort of "shonky" economics that usually underpin these studies, he said!