Lucas Heights reactor contract signed

Issue 

Picture

Lucas Heights reactor contract signed

BY JIM GREEN

SYDNEY — Construction of a new nuclear research reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights is now due to begin in 2002, after the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) signed a contract on July 13 with the Argentinian company INVAP. Operation is scheduled to begin in 2005 or 2006.

Sutherland Shire mayor Ken McDonell said the fight was now on to stop the construction of the "bargain basement reactor".

"We've already had 50 years of being the nuclear waste dump for Australia, now we want to see an open public inquiry into this latest project", McDonell said.

The Democrats' deputy leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, said, "We believe [science minister] Senator Nick Minchin has thumbed his nose at the residents of the Sutherland Shire and he's shown absolute contempt for public consultation. It's never been fully explored whether a new reactor can be justified on health, environmental, medical, health or national interest grounds and the community has never had any real opportunity to have input."

The Democrats are planning to initiate a commission of inquiry into the reactor plan in the federal Senate.

Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Stephen Campbell claimed the true cost of the reactor would be over $500 million, a sum which could fund 1875 school teachers for four years, 1500 hospital beds for four years, 112,500 apprenticeships, or 125 new primary schools.

The familiar rhetoric from ANSTO and Minchin, that the reactor is needed to produce medical isotopes, was undermined by Professor Barry Allen, a medical researcher at St George Hospital's Cancer Care Research Centre.

Allen, who used to be ANSTO's chief nuclear scientist, said on ABC radio, "The thing that worries me is that a lot of money is being spent on this reactor which will not advance our ability to develop new methods and new techniques. The reactor will continue to product isotopes which we've been using in the last 10, 20 years."

Allen said that he was working with accelerator sources which could produce different types of radioisotopes, including alpha-emitting radioisotopes which are potentially valuable to cancer therapy but which are difficult to produce in a nuclear reactor.

"Most of the reactor isotopes are good for diagnosis and imaging but not so good for therapy", he said, "so the search is really for improved radioisotopes which will give better therapeutic results."

Documents obtained by the Sutherland Shire Council under freedom of information legislation have revealed how the federal government sought to deny information about the reactor to the public.

Briefing notes prepared by the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism (DIST) in April 1998 state, "Be careful in terms of health impacts — don't really want a detailed study done of the health of Sutherland residents".

The document then ponders the best euphemism to describe the health risks from radioactive emissions from the planned new reactor. "Don't say no extra risk — acceptable risk?? ... There are risks associated with everything", it says.

Spent fuel from the reactor is not "waste", according to the DIST document, it is a "resource".

The document also reveals that the government did not want to close off the option of building a domestic reprocessing plant at some stage in the future. "We may look at new technologies to deal with spent fuel at a later date", the document says. "Do not mention a reprocessing plant."

The DIST document says there is "no point in consulting with potential/hypothetical recipients of a new reactor. It was discovered through the course of inquiry into the new airport that such a course of action serves only to inflame the communities for no good reason."

The South Australian lower house of parliament voted 46-1 on July 12 to prevent the establishment of an intermediate-level waste store in the state. The bill has not passed through the upper house, but passage is expected in early October.

However, it is doubtful whether state legislation could prevent a determined federal government from dumping intermediate-level waste in SA. A law professor at Adelaide University said that on the surface the state law was invalid, "(but) normally, the states have retained authority to deal with their own land. ... There is, therefore, a question of whether the Commonwealth law is valid."

Regardless of the legal situation, the SA legislation substantially increases the political costs for the federal government if it tries to shift intermediate-level wastes from Lucas Heights and elsewhere to SA.

If the federal government is unable to find somewhere to store intermediate-level wastes from Lucas Heights, the plan for a new reactor could yet be derailed or at least delayed.

The puppet regulatory agency ARPANSA must be convinced that a "satisfactory" solution is in place for spent reactor fuel wastes before issuing licences to construct or operate a new reactor.

However, comments made by the head of ARPANSA, John Loy, suggest he will be easily satisfied. Having told me in February that "it would be stretching it" to issue a licence to construct a new reactor in 2002 if a site for an intermediate-level waste store had not been identified, Loy now says he may issue a licence to operate a new reactor (in or about the year 2005) even if a site for a store has still not been identified.

Anti-nuclear campaigners are likely to begin a campaign to get Loy sacked in the coming weeks.