Accusations of poor nuclear safety

Australia does not (yet) have nuclear power but its most prominent nuclear reactor is at Lucas Heights in Sydney.  On 21 October 2009, the Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was told that several incidents had occurred at the reactor since 2008.

According to a media release from the Greens, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) revealed that

  • “A major recent event involving a vial being dropped and left unreported for up to three hours leading to exposure by workers.
  • An internal audit found gross deficiencies in safety procedures.
  • Management was unaware some workers present during the incident had not completed OHS induction training or a radiation safety course.
  • Procedures required upgrading since the incident.
  • Other incidents have occurred since and procedures are constantly being upgraded.”

A short AAP article on the comments is also available online.  The article is likely to gain considerable media attention through the inclusion of the following comment

“A spokesman for Senator Ludlam told AAP that if safety procedures could not be followed at Australia’s nuclear reactor, “God help” Australia if ANSTO was put in charge of a full scale nuclear power facility.”

It seems unfair to put out this story without some response from ANSTO.  Late this afternoon ANSTO released a detailed response to the Greens claims and AAP story which it claims were full of inaccuracies.  Below are some extracts of the statement which is available here in full.

“No incident of the type reported took place at the OPAL reactor.  An incident did take place on 28 August 2008 at ANSTO’s radiopharmaceutical production facility.   This was not a spill and no staff were exposed to significant radiation doses.   The incident took place in a shielded manufacturing enclosure.”

“ANSTO acknowledges that conservative decision making was not used at the start of this incident. Procedures have improved since as acknowledged in the Greens’ press release.”

“The quantity of medical isotope in the vial was 1/10 of a teaspoon and when the vial was dislodged the worker initially attempted to retrieve it and notified his supervisor within 30 minutes of the initial incident.   The vial was finally retrieved after three hours.   Molybdenum-99 production did not continue following the incident.”

“Incident reporting is a standard practice in the radiopharmaceutical manufacturing environment.   Senator Ludlam appears to have confused the reporting of incidents with an assumption of these incidents being severe or hazardous to workers.  This is not the case.”

Nuclear issues always need to be taken seriously and, as with any incident, must be investigated appropriately.  The Greens have made, understandable, political mileage out of the information revealed in the Senate hearings.  The comments match the interests of its constituents and members.

What it also indicates is that Australia has yet to enter a nuclear energy debate that has already been experienced in Europe and elsewhere over the last thirty years or so.  As nuclear energy becomes an increasingly important option for Australia in response to climate change, the debate is likely to be furious.

Kevin Jones

Categories government, OHS, politics, radiation, safety, training, UncategorizedTags , , ,

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