'Poodle' nuclear regulator approves reactor

Issue 

BY JIM GREEN

SYDNEY — The head of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), John Loy, approved construction of a new 20-megawatt nuclear reactor in the southern suburb of Lucas Heights on April 5.

ARPANSA describes itself as the “nuclear watchdog”, but it is more like a poodle. The head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) sat on the panel which recommended Loy's appointment to the health minister. Moreover, ARPANSA and ANSTO are linked by a revolving door: six ex-ANSTO employees now work for ARPANSA.

The announcement was accompanied with by the usual propaganda about the “need” for a reactor to produce medical isotopes. There was no mention of the fact that few doctors noticed the three-month closure of the existing reactor from February to May 2000.

ARPANSA has back-tracked from previous “commitments” that a licence to construct a reactor would not be issued unless ANSTO demonstrated progress on radioactive waste management.

All the “progress” on storage of intermediate-level waste has been in the opposite direction. The federal government has given up on its previous plan to store waste in South Australia because of overwhelming public opposition and state legislation prohibiting such storage. The federal government has gone back to the drawing board by establishing an “advisory panel” to suggest siting options later this year.

Loy says in his latest statement that a licence to operate the reactor (about 2005) will not be issued unless “significant progress” is made on waste management plans, but this may prove to be as hollow as his previous commitments.

Plans for a national low-level waste dump in South Australia also face fierce opposition, with 86-93% of South Australians opposed to the planned dump. The new state Labor government also opposed. The federal government will release an environmental impact statement justifying the planned dump in the near future.

Perhaps the greatest uncertainty facing the reactor project concerns Invap, which won the contract to build the reactor. Invap is in a perilous financial situation and recently had to apply for a US$10.5 million loan from the Argentinian government.

Invap is also facing legal action over the constitutionality of the reactor contract, which contains a provision for conditioning spent fuel from the Lucas Heights reactor in Argentina as a fall-back option if reprocessing contracts with the French agency Cogema fall through.

This provision appears to breach Argentina's constitution, which explicitly prohibits importation of radioactive waste. ANSTO and Invap make the unlikely claim that spent reactor fuel is not radioactive waste and thus the constitutional prohibition does not apply.

Local residents and anti-nuclear activists held protests at the reactor site on April 5. Another protest on April 7 was attended by activists from the Women and Earth conference held in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
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