Lucas Heights

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) operates Australia’s one and only nuclear reactor — the  20 MW(t) ‘OPAL’ research reactor at Lucas Heights, approx. 25kms south of Sydney.

Successive governmens have claimed that the reactor is necessary for medical and scientific applications though the evidence for such claims is very weak. The desire to continue to operate a reactor is driven by questionable foreign policy objectives (see Jean McSorley’s paper).

A non-reactor future for ANSTO is viable based on a range of technologies, the most important being particle accelerators including cyclotrons. These options ought to be explored given the problems with research reactors, in particular their use in numerous nuclear weapons programs around the world, and the small risk of serious accidents (there have been 5-6 fatal research reactor accidents). ANSTO was heavily involved in the push to build nuclear weapons in Australia in the 1950s and ’60s.

As at September 2012, ANSTO fully supports the government’s crude, undemocratic, racist plans dump ANSTO’s nuclear waste on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. Previously, ANSTO fully supported the Howard government’s racist plan to impose a nuclear waste dump on Kokatha land in South Australia.

ANSTO is notorious for its dishonesty. For example, Tony Wood, former head of the Divisions of Reactors and Engineering at ANSTO’s reactor plant in Sydney, has criticised ANSTO for its “misleading public statements” and for “sugar-coating” its information. Mr. Wood said in evidence to the Senate Select Committee Reactor Inquiry in 2000/01: “If I had to sum up my concerns in one sentence, it would be that for the first time in my long association with the AAEC and ANSTO I do not feel comfortable with what the organisation is telling the public and its own staff.”

Mr. Wood said in verbal evidence to an ARPANSA Public Forum on 17 December 2001: “I believe that it is very important that the public be told the truth even if the truth is unpalatable. I have cringed at some of ANSTO’s public statements. Surely there is someone at ANSTO with a practical reactor background and the courage to flag when ANSTO is yet again, about to mislead the public.”

The Commonwealth regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) was established in the late-1990s after decades of public pressure for a genuine independent regulator. There was discussion about an independent board with overall responsibility for ARPANSA. The Howard Coalition government watered down that idea − instead the government appointed an all-powerful ARPANSA CEO. Incredibly, ANSTO was allowed to participate in the interview panel for the ARPANSA CEO job − ANSTO’s then Communications Manager John Mulcair acknowledged that this was indefensible.

A culture of secrecy undermines community confidence in ANSTO. This culture has been the subject of frequent criticism, for example:

  • the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor at Lucas Heights, Final Report, May 2001, said: “The Committee is highly critical of ANSTO’s approach to providing documents. Its attitude seems to stem from a culture of secrecy so embedded that it has lost sight of its responsibility to be accountable to the Parliament.”
  • The same Senate Committee also said: “The Committee is highly critical of ANSTO’s attitude which seeks to make a parliamentary committee subordinate to the whims of a government agency and prevents that committee from exercising its responsibility to scrutinise the executive. The Committee therefore appreciates the frustration experienced by the Sutherland Shire Council and members of the public who have experienced a similar attitude.”
  • Even Liberal and National Party senators on the Senate Committee said “… that ANSTO could have been more helpful in providing certain less commercially sensitive information to the Committee and could have been more willing to seek a compromise when sensitive material was involved.”
  • Ex-ANSTO scientist and later President of the Australian Nuclear Association, Dr. Clarence Hardy, complained about the “culture of secrecy” at ANSTO when giving evidence to a parliamentary Public Works Committee inquiry in 1999.
  • In 2000, the Sydney Morning Herald and Greenpeace were told that to acquire two and twenty-two pages of information respectively under Freedom of Information requests, they would be charged $7099 and $6809.

Inadequate safety practices at Lucas Heights and inadequate regulation by ARPANSA

Since 2007, a saga has been unfolding regarding contamination accidents at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), ANSTO’s handling of those incidents, ANSTO’s treatment of whistleblowers, the handling of the matter by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), and the independence or otherwise of ARPANSA.

The saga has exposed inadequate safety practices at ANSTO and an inadequate performance by the regulator ARPANSA. The problems would not have been exposed and partially rectified if not for a number of ANSTO whistleblowers.

A few snapshots of this saga are noted below and more details can be found on the Friends of the Earth website:

  • 28 August 2008 − Incident at ANSTO involving a vial of molybdenum-99. An audit found that proper processes were not followed: evacuation of the area did not occur, timely communication and event reporting, thorough investigation and follow-up did not occur. The staff member in question had not completed occupational health and safety induction training or a radiation safety course.
  • June 2009 − David Reid, an ANSTO employee and staff-elected health and safety officer, was suspended in June 2009 and sacked in June 2011. He repeatedly raised concerns about contamination incidents and some of his concerns were later vindicated. ANSTO states that his suspension and dismissal were unrelated to his statements regarding safety problems at ANSTO.
  • 5 May 2010 − An ABC Lateline report states: “ARPANSA is Australia’s nuclear industry watchdog and Lateline has obtained a copy of its report into the accident. It largely supports David Reid’s concerns and raises further questions about safety at Lucas Heights. … ARPANSA’s investigation found that radioactive vials are regularly dropped, something that’s been tolerated for years. There have been no apparent attempts to introduce improved handling systems. Supervision and training have not been effective in delivering the standard of safety required at the facility. And there’s been a lack of management awareness about difficulties and failures at the facility.”
  • 1 June 2010 - ANSTO’s CEO Dr Paterson acknowledges that investigations into contamination incidents found that “management arrangements in place at the time were deficient in a number of respects.” Dr Paterson praises Mr Reid for his “valuable”, “very useful” and “very positive” role in raising safety concerns.
  • 8 February 2011 − ABC TV Lateline reports that: “Australia’s workplace health and safety regulator, Comcare, has been called in to investigate the incidents. Lateline’s obtained a copy of its report. It goes even further, finding that ANSTO has breached health and safety laws. It says ANSTO did not take all reasonable steps to provide and maintain a safe working environment. It didn’t take all reasonable steps to inform, instruct, train and supervise ANSTO Health employees. It failed to comprehensively risk assess its radiopharmaceutical production process and it failed to notify Comcare of safety incidents.”
  • 28 February 2011 − The Australian reports that at least six ANSTO employees claim they were bullied by management and, in some cases, suspended from work after expressing concern about the safety of the plant’s operations.
  • 3 March 2011 − The Australian reports that: “Two employees of Australia’s only nuclear reactor facility who were suspended after raising safety concerns will return to work in what amounts to a tacit admission by the plant’s administrators that the accusations against them were overstated.”
  • 30 March 2011 − the ABC reports: “Australia’s nuclear industry regulator, ARPANSA, is under review over its handling of safety breaches at the nation’s only nuclear reactor. … The Chief Auditor is investigating how ARPANSA handled the original allegations of safety breaches and bullying at the nuclear site. ARPANSA last year released two conflicting reports on the claims at the Lucas Heights facility.”
  • 31 May 2011 − The Australian reports that a Government-appointed panel found that ANSTO’s facilities are ageing, staff were worried that maintenance occurred only for the most urgent matters, and a more open approach to reporting health and safety problems should be adopted.
  • 7 July 2011 − Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing Catherine King said in a media release that the Department of Health and Ageing will review the regulatory powers of ARPANSA. This review follows the receipt of an independent audit by the Audit and Fraud Control Branch of the Department of Health and Ageing into ARPANSA’s handing of two safety incidents at ANSTO in September 2007 and August 2008. The audit, requested by the CEO of ARPANSA, found that there was a lack of consistency in evidence and transparency in the handling of one of the incidents.
  • 19 October 2011 − ANSTO’s Dr Paterson comments on the frequency of contamination incidents at ANSTO: “In a typical month we would be talking about between three and perhaps 10, if there had been a significant number in relation to particular production activities.”
  • 16 March 2012 − The Australian reports that: “[ANSTO] used findings of an inaccurate, biased and partially fabricated in-house report as the pretext to suspend − and recommend the dismissal of − two employees who raised health and safety concerns over the mishandling of radioactive materials. The conclusion comes from an investigation by the national workplace regulator, Comcare, into events surrounding an incident in September 2010 in which a third employee was contaminated with radioactive yttrium-90 at the radioisotope production facility (ARI). … The Comcare investigation report, completed last December and obtained by The Australian, confirms long-running claims of bullying and cover-ups at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Lucas Heights facility in Sydney’s south. … Comcare found the ANSTO investigator’s report “was not impartial or reliable” [and] that the investigator included fabricated statements and “relied on hearsay and opinion from personnel … in the form of emails, conversations and handwritten notes”.”
  • 19 June 2012 − A KPMG report commissioned by ARPANSA on September 2007 contamination incidents at ANSTO states that “we find that it is possible that the version of events in Mr Reid’s allegations did occur.” The KPMG report also finds that neither the interim report nor the final report by ARPANSA “sufficiently examined Mr Reid’s allegations that a contamination incident … occurred during the morning of 3 September 2007.”

More information about ANSTO:

More information on inadequate safety practices at ANSTO and inadequate regulation:

[This webpage last updated August 2012]