The truth about Lucas Heights

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The truth about Lucas Heights

By Dr Jim Green

A spokesperson for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) confirmed on March 10 that there had been a series of "mishaps" at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor over the last month. ANSTO has confirmed three "incidents" at the reactor, including the release of large amount of radioactive gas into the atmosphere which may have contaminated some workers.

Sutherland Shire Councillor Genevieve Rankin has accused ANSTO of covering up the problems. "ANSTO is misleading the community when it says that these releases are within permitted levels of emissions. It is only within permitted levels if you average it out on a yearly basis."

These "mishaps" are only the latest in a multitude of accidents at Lucas Heights.

In September 1997, the federal Liberal government decided to build a new nuclear reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights. The decision-making process was shrouded in secrecy. A senior government official described the government's strategy like this: "Because the government couldn't win the debate on rational grounds ... it decided to 'play the game' and in the lead-up to the announcement catch the opponents totally unawares, catch them completely off-guard and starve them of oxygen".

Despite the government's efforts to keep a tight lid on the debate, the truth has gradually come out. Environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists and residents of Lucas Heights have raised numerous objections to the proposal.

What is more surprising is the level of opposition expressed by scientists, doctors and former employees of ANSTO (the organisation which operates the Lucas Heights reactor).

The government and ANSTO continually push the argument that a new reactor is necessary to produce "life-saving" medical isotopes. Yet when Dr Geoff Bower, head of the Association of Physicians in Nuclear Medicine, was asked if it would be a life-threatening situation if Australia did not produce medical isotopes locally, he said: "Probably not life-threatening. I think that's over-dramatising it, and that's what people have done to win an argument. I resist that."

Another medical professional, Dr Harry Cohen, said, "We now have absurd statements in the media that Australians will die as a result of not having their own reactor, such is the power of the nuclear lobby".

Murray Scott, who worked at ANSTO for 15 years, explained the dangers associated with the production and processing of medical isotopes: "The most publicly appealing rationale for a replacement reactor is the production of medical isotopes. But of all the programs associated with the replacement reactor, this operation also carries the greatest risk, the greatest potential for massive radioactive contamination release and the most significant future weapons proliferation potential."

Professor Barry Allen, former chief research scientist at ANSTO, said, "The new reactor will be a step into the past. It will comprise mostly imported technology, and it may well be the last of its kind ever built. Certainly the $300 million reactor will have little impact on cancer prognosis, the major killer of Australians today."

Another argument pushed by the government and ANSTO is that the new reactor will be used for "world class" scientific research. However the CSIRO, Australia's largest scientific research organisation, said, "CSIRO is of the general opinion that more productive research could be funded for the cost of a reactor".

Professor Ian Lowe, from the science and technology department at Griffith University, said, "Science policy considerations strongly suggest that a new nuclear reactor should not be a high priority for Australia's small public sector research budget".

Former ANSTO scientist Murray Scott said a new reactor "would continue to drain students, research effort and money away from more productive fields for many decades".

A number of current and former ANSTO employees have expressed their disgust at ANSTO's dishonesty. For example a nuclear engineer employed at ANSTO for over 25 years said, "It is an unfortunate state of affairs that dear old ANSTO, which lives off taxpayers' money, is feeding us all this propaganda and very little objective information. I thought government agencies are there to serve the public — not just to perpetuate themselves."

Dr Tony Wood, who used to be head of ANSTO's engineering and reactors section, commented on the environmental impact statement produced by ANSTO: "If it is normal for the proponent [of an EIS] to tell the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth, then ANSTO's presentation is normal. Sometimes the difference between the truth and the whole truth is quite remarkable."

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

[Dr Jim Green is running for the Democratic Socialists for the seat of Heffron in the NSW election.]