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THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION IN SEARCH OF A MISSION:

NUCLEAR POWER

3.5. THE AUSTRALIAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION IN SEARCH OF A MISSION:

1970-1987

By the time the ALP won the 1972 federal election, the AAEC was floundering, as it had been before the flurry of activity in the late 1960s. The A A E C had cost some

$170 million (1972 value) over the previous two decades but had little to s h o w for itself. (Cawte, 1992, ch.6.) The accession of the A L P to government initially had little consequence for the A A E C . There w a s little direction from the responsible Minister, nor even m u c h communication between the Minister and the A A E C . Baxter retired from the A A E C in 1972, which further removed the Commission from political and public visibility. A major investigation and then a

reorganisation of the A A E C took place from 1972 to 1974; but none of this w a s informed by, nor did it lead to, any explicit, major shift in objective. The review criticised the excessive secrecy of the A A E C and the over-classification of

documents, but n o steps were taken to enable greater public scrutiny and debate though the A L P had argued for such changes w h e n in opposition. (Moyal, 1975.) In 1975, Ann Moyal (1975, pp.382-383) summed up the AAEC thus:

Basically the history of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission is an

object lesson in the problems and dangers of closed government. At root it is a case study of the framing of a national nuclear policy through the influence of one powerful administrator surrounded largely by silent men. Moreover in the Australian environment, Sir Phillip Baxter's exercise of a monopoly of scientific advice on nuclear matters was compounded by the weakness in our parliamentary system in failing to make adequate information available to

the Opposition. Throughout, there was insufficient opportunity for public debate and little for assessment and meaningful comment among the

scientific and public communities. Overall there was a disdain for public accountability on the part of a major scientific establishment.

Despite the sense of drift, the AAEC was entrenched as the focal point for all matters nuclear. In 1976, staff numbers reached a peak of 1354, of w h o m 1190

worked at Lucas Heights. The Commission had responsibilities in relation to the uranium mining industry; it w a s involved in setting standards for ionising

radiation; it w a s one of the available authorities on the licensing and regulation of nuclear facilities; it w a s the negotiating headquarters for Australia's international nuclear relations; and since the 1973 ratification of the N P T , it w a s the authority for control and supervision of N P T safeguards. (Moyal, 1975.)

Notwithstanding the centrality of the AAEC, the range of institutions involved in nuclear projects had expanded considerably. The Australian Institute of Nuclear

Science and Engineering w a s founded in 1956, and has played an important role in linking the research efforts of the A A E C / A N S T O with Australian universities.

The Australian School of Nuclear Technology w a s founded in 1964 as a joint venture between the A A E C and the University of N e w South Wales; it has provided training for m a n y Australian and overseas scientists in a range of nuclear fields. A n u m b e r of other universities have pursued nuclear R & D . The C o m m o n w e a l t h Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is

Australia's major scientific research and development organisation; m a n y of its 40 divisions were involved in nuclear-related research by the m i d 1970s. The

Australian Radiation Laboratory, part of the C o m m o n w e a l t h Department of

Health, played a significant role in the regulation of nuclear materials. The federal government's Bureau of Mineral Resources played a significant role in the

uranium industry. Several private companies also formed part of the nuclear infrastructure by this stage; apart from private-sector investment in the uranium industry, a n u m b e r of companies were involved in nuclear projects such as

applied research or radioisotope support services. ( A A E C , 1974.)

Through the 1970s the major area of work for the AAEC was at the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle - uranium mining, conversion, and enrichment. The

uranium mining industry underwent a revival from the late 1960s. B y the end of 1970 m o r e than 60 companies were exploring for uranium - m o r e than twice the n u m b e r of the previous year. S o m e promising deposits were uncovered in the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Queensland. (Falk, 1982, ch.ll; Cawte, 1992, ch.7.)

The A A E C had been involved in every facet of uranium mining since its

inception - exploration, mining, milling, conversion, safety and environmental regulation, securing export deals, and negotiating and overseeing safeguards agreements. Yet the Commission's involvement in the uranium industry varied according to government policy, no more so than during the 1970s. In October 1974, the federal A L P government announced that, through the vehicle of the A A E C , it would be the sole uranium marketing authority with a 5 0 % interest in any venture resulting from discoveries by private companies. The A A E C would be the only organisation exploring for n e w deposits in the Northern Territory -thus the A A E C set u p exploration operations from scratch, since m a n y years had passed since it had been involved in exploration. The Commission became a partner in the M a r y Kathleen mine in Queensland, the large Ranger mine in the Northern Territory, and it w a s also involved in a joint venture in the Ngalia Basin region of the Northern Territory. (Alder, 1996, ch.14; George and Walker, 1982; Brennan, 1985; Falk, 1982, ch.ll.)

During 1975 the ALP was increasingly under siege. Nuclear power was once again in trouble around the world, which dampened prospects for uranium exports.

W e a p o n s proliferation concerns, highlighted by the Indian test explosion in 1974, gave further impetus to non-proliferation initiatives. A n anti-uranium

m o v e m e n t w a s gathering strength. There were opponents of uranium mining within the A L P ; they were in the minority but sufficiently numerous and vocal to provide stiff opposition. Under pressure, the government established the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry in m i d 1975, which slowed uranium mining ventures even though the government w a s keen for sales to go ahead after some years of procrastination. The Ranger Inquiry w a s still in progress through the constitutional crisis of late 1975 which s a w the dismissal of the Whitlam

government and a landslide victory to the Liberal Party in the ensuing election.

(Alder, 1992, ch.14; Falk, 1982, ch.ll; Cawte, 1992, ch.7.)

From 1976 the Liberal government substantially reduced the role of the AAEC in the uranium industry. The Commission's exploration program w a s phased out,

and its financial interest in a number of uranium mines w a s sold to private

interests. The Commission's Uranium Branch w a s abolished in 1979, and then in 1982 the Uranium Resources Evaluation Unit of the A A E C w a s transferred to the federal government's Bureau of Mineral Resources. ( A A E C , 1981-82; 1983-84;

Alder, 1996, ch.16.)

The last major project for the A A E C w a s enrichment R & D . This w o r k had expanded rapidly from its c o m m e n c e m e n t in 1965. The Commission w a s

restructured in the early 1970s to put greater emphasis o n enrichment research. By 1977 - and perhaps earlier - the Centrifuge Enrichment Project Division (CEPD) was responsible for the Commission's largest research program. The C E P D

acquired considerable expertise in enrichment technology, but it always remained some distance behind the larger R & D programs in several other countries. Thus there were repeated efforts to collaborate with overseas enrichment programs towards the establishment of a plant in Australia. These overtures were generally well received. Apart from whatever technological sophistication the C E P D could offer, Australia w a s attractive because of the availability of suitable sites for an enrichment plant, large uranium reserves, a high level of political stability, and relatively cheap and abundant reserves of fossil-fuel energy (an important factor since enrichment plants generally consume large amounts of electricity). (Hardy, 1996; Alder, 1996.)

Over the years, negotiations, and sometimes joint studies, were carried out between the A A E C and various overseas enrichment organisations and consortia

- the U S Atomic Energy Commission (and its successors), teams from Japan and France, the German-UK-Netherlands U R E N C O consortium, and the short-lived Association for Centrifuge Enrichment which involved seven European countries plus Canada, Japan, and Australia. The prospects for a collaborative venture were strong, but were never realised for various reasons such as changes in

government and/or government policy, and fluctuating interest from potential overseas partners, s o m e of w h o m developed facilities elsewhere. (Hardy, 1996;

Alder, 1996.)

Several Australian companies were also interested in establishing facilities for uranium conversion (to uranium hexafluoride) and enrichment. In the early

1980s a "pre-feasibility study" w a s carried out into centrifuge enrichment technology by the Uranium Enrichment Group of Australia ( U E G A ) , a joint venture formed by four Australian companies with the assistance of the A A E C . Plans for a full feasibility study were approved by government. There w a s

considerable interest from overseas enrichment groups, and U E G A chose to collaborate with U R E N C O . H o w e v e r in 1983 the newly-elected A L P federal government put a stop to the venture. (Alder, 1996, ch.18; Hardy, 1996.)

By this time, enrichment work absorbed a quarter of the AAECs research effort.

Most of the effort concerned centrifuge enrichment, but there w a s also a small laser enrichment research project. The enrichment w o r k w a s scaled d o w n , under

direction from government, and it had terminated by 1985. For a year or two, the expertise and facilities developed through the enrichment work were redirected to enrichment safeguards projects. Proposals were developed within the C E P D to use the centrifuge enrichment facilities for separation of m o l y b d e n u m isotopes, which would then be used as targets to produce radioactive molybdenum-99 for nuclear medicine. H o w e v e r nothing came of those proposals - by that time considerable resources had been invested in a molybdenum-99 production regime involving irradiation and processing of H E U targets. (Alder, 1996, ch.18; Hardy, 1996;

Brennan, 1985; A A E C , 1981-82, p.14; 1983-84, p.ll.)

A recent review of the AAEC/ANSTO divides its history into three phases (Bain International et al., 1994, p.4.). The first w a s the development of nuclear power, which lasted until the early 1970s. The second phase focused on uranium studies and centrifuge enrichment, which w a s terminated in the mid 1980s. In the third phase, the main purpose of the A A E C has been, as the review euphemistically notes, "less clear".

A series of reviews and reorganisations of the AAEC took place through the 1970s, including a major reorganisation of the Commission in 1974 and a reorganisation

of senior management in 1978. In 1979 a committee of the National Energy Research Development and Demonstration Council ( N E R D D C ) reviewed the research activities of the A A E C . The N E R D D C review recommended a

diversification of energy research to include non-nuclear energy. The A A E C had been conducting some limited non-nuclear research, including solar energy

research, from the mid 1970s, but this work w a s limited by constraints imposed by the Atomic Energy Act. The terms of reference for the N E R D D C review also

mentioned commercial activities and spin-offs: from this point on commercial activities and collaborations would become increasingly important rather than tacked-on extras to the research program. (Hardy, 1996; A A E C , 1981-82, p p .52-53;

George and Walker, 1982; Brennan, 1985.)

In 1980 the federal government announced that an interdepartmental committee would undertake a review of the 1953 Atomic Energy Act and related matters. The Uranium Advisory Council also undertook reviews of the Act in 1980-81.

( A N S T O , 1993D, p. 1.4.) In June 1981 the government announced that, as a result of the various reviews, it had decided that far-reaching changes to C o m m o n w e a l t h legislation in nuclear matters were required, as the Atomic Energy Act did not provide an appropriate basis for the development, regulation, and control of nuclear activities. (National Energy Advisory Committee, 1981, p.6.)

The legislative changes were a long time coming however. In the meantime, the government announced that direct government involvement in non-nuclear energy research and development should remain the province of the CSIRO.

Consequently about one third of the A A E C s research staff w a s transferred to the CSIRO, including the entire Chemical Technology Division. A C S I R O facility w a s established adjacent to the A A E C s Lucas Heights facilities. (ASTEC, 1985, p.45;

Alder, 1996; ch.16.)

The decision to restrict the AAEC to nuclear work was significant. As a past Chairman noted, "The m o m e n t for the creation of an Australian Energy

Commission had come, and passed." (George, 1984.) H o w a revamped Australian Energy Commission would have dealt with energy issues, and within that the question of nuclear energy, is anyone's guess. It might have remained a white elephant, as the A A E C had arguably become, but a broader agenda for the A A E C might also have weakened and diluted its advocacy of dubious nuclear projects such as power reactors, P N E s , and weapons. The latter scenario w a s certainly a strong possibility if the A A E C w a s merged with the CSIRO, which w a s one option under discussion at the time.

With its reduced resources, the AAEC once again reviewed its programs and underwent a reorganisation. In 1982 the senior management structure at the

A A E C w a s reorganised again, and research management w a s reorganised yet again in 1983. S o m e programs in chemistry, and isotope and radiation applications, were terminated or transferred to the C S I R O along with the solar energy research.

Synroc, an experimental waste disposal technique, became a major focus. Synroc research began in 1979, and by 1985 it accounted for 1 5 % of the research effort of the Commission. S o m e speculative w o r k on nuclear fusion as a long-term energy source began in the early 1980s. The Commission's involvement in international safeguards and technical assistance w a s increased. M o r e effort w a s put into

bilateral and multilateral nuclear projects, especially with regional countries such as Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. Nuclear science programs continued in areas such as nuclear physics, materials, radioisotope applications, and environmental science. (George, 1984; Brennan, 1985.)

Radioisotope production assumed more importance in the scope of the AAECs activities. Indeed radioisotope production had slowly assumed greater

prominence within the scope of the A A E C s activities from the late 1960s. A national service for the production and distribution of reactor-based

radiopharmaceuticals had been established in the 1970s. This growth w a s slow but not imperceptible: radioisotope production, for medicine in particular, had been

continually milked as a public relations winner, beginning even before H I F A R was operational. The commercial use of H I F A R w a s extended in 1985 with silicon irradiation on behalf of Japanese companies. A A E C expenditure for 1984-85 w a s

$48 million, revenue from commercial operations w a s $2.5 million, and the Commission had a total staff of 1060. (George and Walker, 1982; Brennan, 1985;

A A E C , 1983-84, p.4; A S T E C , 1985, pp.45-46.)

The various changes in the early to mid 1980s led to a degree of industrial unrest.

This w a s in contrast to the early years of the Commission w h e n industrial disputes were virtually u n k n o w n . A shortage of staff in s o m e areas led to an increase in the incidence of demarcation disputes and also had an adverse effect on morale. Industrial unrest w a s exacerbated by the lack of a sense of direction in the A A E C , and the absence of an appropriate industrial relations strategy by the A A E C management. ( A A E C , 1981-82, p.91.)

The AAEC noted in its 1983-84 Annual Report that several years of financial restraint had resulted in a marked decrease in the funds available for capital

programs, to the point that the staff were not appropriately housed or equipped.

The same complaint w a s m a d e in the following years. ( A A E C , 1983-84, pp.17-18;

1984-85, p.17; 1986-87, p.7.)

By the time that the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC, 1984) was asked to review Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle in 1984, it w a s no

wonder that a commentator asked what m o r e a review could possibly say by that stage (George, 1984). Then followed the A S T E C (1985) review of nuclear science and technology in Australia.

The AAEC management was under siege through the 1980s, from tight-fisted and meddling governments, from unions, and from anti-nuclear activists. A n u m b e r of specific incidents only m a d e things worse. In 1983 significant quantities of

gelignite and a m m o n i u m nitrate were found inside the A A E C s boundary fence along with three detonators. Several incidents occurred in 1984: the accidental release of 1.5-2.5 kg of uranium hexafluoride; improperly sealed isotopes were driven through Sydney for five hours, and the driver w a s exposed to the

m a x i m u m radiation dose considered acceptable in a year; a ruptured pipe released 100 litres of radioactive sludge into stormwater drains with two workers

contaminated, and no notification of the general public. (King, 1985.) Also in 1984, a threat w a s m a d e to fly an aircraft packed with explosives into H I F A R a week later. The threat caused considerable media attention and concern in the local community. A person w a s charged and found guilty on two counts of causing

public mischief. ( A A E C , 1984-85, p.77.) In 1985 it w a s reported that low levels of radioactive tritium had been leaking from the Lucas Heights facilities into two stormwater drains over the previous decade. Also in 1985, after vandalism of a pipe, radioactive liquid drained into Woronora river, and this incident w a s not reported for 10 days. In 1986 an act of vandalism resulted in d a m a g e to the

sampling pit on the A A E C s effluent pipeline. This sparked widespread media coverage. ( A A E C , 1985-86, p.15.) In 1987 a serious fire occurred in the charcoal filters of a hot cell, burning for nearly two hours with two workers contaminated.

(Lucas Heights Study Group, 1986; 1993.) All through this period the problem of radioactive waste disposal w a s becoming increasingly embarrassing.

These were not happy days for the AAEC. It was time for a change of name, an eye-catching logo, and another review.

3.6. THE AUSTRALIAN NUCLEAR SCIENCE