Australian Senate Panel Urges Halt to Lucas Heights Reactor

SYDNEY, Australia, May 29, 2001 (ENS) - Environmentalists are delighted with the finding of a new Senate inquiry that calls for a halt to plans for a controversial new nuclear research reactor in suburban Sydney. The proposed reactor would replace one built in 1958 at Lucas Heights just outside of Sydney.

The seven member Select Committee chaired by Senator Michael Forshaw of New South Wales heard detailed evidence at hearings in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide. It found that "no conclusive or compelling case has been established to support the proposed new reactor and that the proposed new reactor should not proceed."


Senator Michael Forshaw chairs the Senate Select Committee for an Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor at Lucas Heights (Photo courtesy Parliament of Australia)
The Senate committee said that the current government headed by Prime Minister John Howard has continued to pursue its decision, taken in September 1997, to build a new reactor at Lucas Heights "without a full appreciation of Australia's broader scientific and medical needs and without a clear understanding of how best to develop the country's research and development base."

Saying the the government continues with its plan to build a new reactor without regard to the findings and recommendations of previous inquiries, this Senate Inquiry found that the government "has failed to establish a conclusive or compelling case for the new reactor, and recommends that before the government proceeds any further it undertake an independent public review into the need for a new nuclear reactor."


Industry, Science and Resources Minister, Senator Nick Minchin (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The Inquiry highlighted serious flaws in the reactor plan and concerns over the role of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and federal Industry, Science and Resources Minister, Senator Minchin.

The committee pointed to unacceptable levels of secrecy over key proposal documents and contracts. The report said the committee was never able to see the actual contract document with the Argentinian company INVAP to build the reactor. INVAP is a state owned company of the Province of Río Negro, Argentina that specializes in building nuclear research reactors.

"There is concern that the present government may have entered into a contract which seeks to bind future governments to build the reactor despite not having obtained the necessary approvals. The continuing secrecy over the terms of the contract, and in particular the termination provisions appear completely unjustified. The nature of the termination arrangements has nothing to do with INVAP commercial secrets and everything to do with the political convenience of the government," the committee wrote.

Its report faulted the government for its failure to adequately consult the scientific and wider community, and failure to address critical issues concerning radioactive waste.

There is no proven need for a reactor or examination of alternatives, said the Senate Inquiry, and it warned of inadequate project costings and the threat of a major budget blowout.


The Sutherland Shire Council, Greenpeace and People Against a Nuclear Reactor protest in Lucas Heights. (Photo courtesy Sutherland Shire Council)
"This Inquiry reflects the growing opposition to this ill advised and unnecessary reactor plan," Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear campaigner Dave Sweeney said. "The government is trying to rush it through before the coming federal election, and this report is further proof that this fast-tracking must end."

The Senate committee heard evidence of a wide range of Australian views on the Lucas Heights reactor strong support and equally strong objections.

Scientists and engineers, recent post graduates and those with years of research experience; nuclear medicine physicians from scientific and medical associations as well as a number of small and medium-sized enterprises have endorsed the new reactor. They focus on the benefits that nuclear technology brings to the Australian community, the committee reported.

With equal conviction, the committee wrote, conservation groups, the Sutherland Shire Council, experts in various fields and a number of concerned Australians from all walks of life across the country have denounced the proposal to build a new reactor.

"They question the claims promoting the benefits of a nuclear research reactor, raise concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the reactor, raise concerns about the impact and management of nuclear waste, and some dismiss outright the need for Australia to have such a facility. They regard it as an unnecessary and misguided use of resources that poses serious health and safety problems for the Australian people," the committee said.


Preliminary Safety Analysis Report for the Lucas Heights Research Reactor submitted as part of ANSTO's license application (Photo courtesy ANSTO)
Last week ANSTO formally applied to the federal nuclear regulator for a license to construct the new reactor. The new findings over problems with the reactor plan and process will be a serious blow to ANSTO's plans.

"On day three of their new license assessment process ANSTO have run into a wall," Australian Conservation Foundation spokesman David Noonan said. "They are in for an increasingly difficult time as the reactor plan is neither needed nor safe and has failed this independent scrutiny."

But ANSTO says the license application provides a full technical description of the replacement research reactor and a full assessment of its safety.

The application, prepared jointly by INVAP and ANSTO, contains details relating to the purpose, management and design of the facility, construction requirements, plans and schedule, inspection and test processes, and the status of compliance.

On receiving the application, Dr. John Loy, chief executive of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), said that public submissions will be called for in response to the application. In addition, it will be independently reviewed by a group of nuclear safety experts assembled through the International Atomic Energy Agency, who will report their findings to ARPANSA.

The complete report of the Select Committee for an Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor at Lucas Heights is available by clicking here.