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THE HIFAR REPLACEMENT CONTROVERSY

• continued biomedical research by maintaining 1) a research capability to support the development and production of commercial and potentially commercial radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals, and 2) a capacity to produce labelled ligands in support of a national program of emission tomography research;

• the appointment of a Director of Business Collaboration for improved communication with industry and other users of A N S T O ' s research and development and services;

• the appointment of a Canberra Liaison Officer to provide day-to-day

communication with government departments, to better enable A N S T O to stay abreast of political developments and to play a role in shaping nuclear science policy; and

• implementation of a range of structural changes to A N S T O to facilitate improvements in effectiveness and efficiency.

It is notable that ANSTO has maintained its central involvement in medical radioisotope production and nuclear medicine m o r e generally, contrary to the Bain report's recommendation that the Biomedicine and Health research program, Australian Radioisotopes, and the National Medical Cyclotron, be

transferred out of A N S T O . Even if those transfers had taken place, A N S T O would still have a central role in medical radioisotope production for so long as it

operates a reactor, but all the same it is to be expected that A N S T O will maintain as significant a role in nuclear medicine as it possibly can given that such activities provide an important ideological buffer against nuclear critics.

The most significant change in the political landscape since the Research Reactor Review w a s the election of the conservative Liberal/National Coalition in the 1996 federal election. A n open-slather uranium policy has been put in place, and several mines are set to open or re-open as a result. The missile tracking station at Pine G a p is to be upgraded and the treaty that governs its use is to be extended for a further 10 years beyond the scheduled closure date of 1998. The Nurrungar base is to be closed in the year 2000 because of outdated and redundant facilities. The Coalition government has agreed in principle to a U S proposal to establish a relay ground station for a U S space-based ballistic-missile early warning program.

(Sheridan, 1996.) Nuclear power has been ruled out by the Minister for Science and Technology, as has a resumption of enrichment research (Uranium

Information Centre, 1996).

There has been no clear indication from the Coalition government in relation to H I F A R and a possible replacement. O n e pointer m a y lie in the decision of the

government to cut every area of public spending (including science) with the one exception of defence spending. T o the extent that A N S T O is seen as just another part of the science and technology infrastructure, it will not be i m m u n e from cuts and it m a y not get its n e w reactor. H o w e v e r despite the trend over the past two decades to view Australian nuclear technology in just those terms, there are still aspects of nuclear science which are seen to be of considerable significance in relation to foreign policy and security. T o the extent that A N S T O and its allies can convince the government of the benefits of a n e w reactor in terms of foreign policy, military intelligence and security, and the sundry other aspects of the

"national interest" discourse, they will be on firmer ground, all the m o r e likely to secure government approval and funding for a n e w reactor.

ANSTO has been saying for some years - at least since 1990 and probably before that - that it is imperative that a decision on a n e w reactor be m a d e as a matter of urgency. This view is n o w widespread. The Nuclear Safety Bureau says that it will not authorise A N S T O to operate H I F A R beyond 2003 unless a major upgrade of safety-related equipment is carried out. A N S T O says that if an upgrade is to be carried out and completed by 2003, it must begin in the 1996-97 fiscal year.

( A N S T O , 1995-96.) Alternatively, if a n e w reactor is to be built, it will take

something like 8-10 years to build. Continuity of A N S T O ' s reactor-based programs m a y be interrupted even if a decision to proceed with a n e w reactor is m a d e soon.

In any case it is widely accepted that there is s o m e urgency to the matter.

In early 1997 there were media reports concerning the future of HIFAR and the possibility of a replacement reactor. A n interdepartmental committee review has

evidently been reviewing the issue, including officers from the federal

Departments of Science and Technology; the Environment; Health; and Foreign Affairs and Trade. The committee's review w a s held in secret with no requests for public submissions. (Rees, 1997.)

The (reported) deliberations of an interdepartmental committee raises questions about decision-making procedures and levels of public input and accountability. A few comments follow on these topics, although I will not go into any detail. A decision to proceed with a n e w reactor would almost certainly have to satisfy the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974. (The R R R w a s not formally established under the terms of the Act, but if the Review had

recommended that a replacement reactor should be built, a second stage,

concerning issues such as siting, would probably have had to satisfy the Act.) A n attempt to circumvent that Act would be likely to generate considerable

controversy and opposition within and beyond the federal parliament, and could be subject to legal challenge. In any case letters I have received from successive Ministers for Science and Technology, including the current Minister, are unequivocal o n the point that the Environmental Protection Act would be satisfied.

The Act allows for one of four levels of assessment. The most closed option is examination of an issue by the relevant government Department - from

conversations with personnel from the Department of Industry, Science and Technology, and from A N S T O , it appears unlikely that this level of assessment will be pursued in relation to the H I F A R replacement issue. There are two

intermediate options involving an Environmental Impact Statement or a Public Environment Report; these provide for s o m e level of public input though they are not nearly as open as a public inquiry. The final level of assessment is a public Commission of Inquiry.

It seems likely that one of the intermediate options will be pursued, involving either an Environmental Impact Statement or a Public Environment Report, with some level of public input. Nevertheless the Environmental Protection Act is sufficiently open-ended that there is considerable scope for government to manipulate the process to minimise public input if that is its intention. A 1996 letter from Peter McGauran, the current Minister for Science and Technology, suggests that the intention m a y indeed be to minimise public input. M c G u a r a n writes that the R R R said that a decision on the issue should be m a d e in about five years time, but that it "did not r e c o m m e n d that a n e w inquiry be undertaken."

H o w e v e r the Review (p.4) did indeed say that "if, at s o m e later stage, a n e w reactor

is envisaged, it should be assessed by a n e w panel possibly operating within the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act."

McGuaran says the government will make a decision on the replacement of H I F A R in 1997 or early 1998.61 His public statements have been non-committal to some extent, but he has argued that there is a good case for a reactor. Most of his comments in support of a n e w reactor have concerned the production of medical radioisotopes62:

We have full support for ANSTO and what it does. It plays a crucial role in Australia for both health and manufacturing terms. So many thousands of

Australians owe their lives to the research carried out at ANSTO. Remember that ANSTO is Australia's only producer of radioisotopes

A senior NSW Liberal Party politician, and the federal Democrats, are calling for a Senate inquiry into the future and possible relocation of the Lucas Heights

facilities. (Hogarth and Cleary, 1997.)

HIFAR's age is creating a sense of urgency surrounding the issue of its refurbishment or replacement. The issue of what to do with the spent fuel rods at Lucas Heights, and the issue of waste m a n a g e m e n t m o r e generally, is even more pressing. This is because A N S T O is likely to run out of storage space for spent fuel rods in late 1998, and also because of the political backlash that would probably greet a decision to proceed with a n e w research reactor before s o m e sort of

solution (however temporary and inadequate) is found to A N S T O ' s radioactive waste problems.

I will finish this chapter with some comments on the state of anti-nuclear opposition. Opposition to the open-slather uranium policy and the reinvigorated U S alliance has generally been tame. H o w e v e r there is still a large reservoir of anti-nuclear sentiment that could be mobilised against future nuclear projects, as demonstrated by the massive opposition to French testing in the Pacific in 1995.

Another variable is the Sutherland Shire Council, which w a s so important in the campaign during the R R R . The make-up of the Council has changed. The Liberal Party n o w has a dominant position following Council elections in 1995. That m a y result in a less critical attitude to A N S T O ' s operations, and it m a y affect the

^ A s discussed in the postscript to this thesis (chapter 10), in September 1997 the government announced a decision to replace HIFAR. However the decision is subject to an assessment under the Environmental Protection Act 1974, and it is also subject to an investigation b y a Senate Committee.

& Matters of Public Importance, 5 March, 1997. See also McGuaran, Questions Without Notice, House of Representatives, 6 March.

outcome of the controversy over the replacement of HIFAR. O n the other hand some Liberal Party members were opposed to a n e w reactor at the time of the RRR: it remains to be seen what role the Council will play in the controversy in the coming years.