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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1129


Mr SCOTT(1.54) —Mr Deputy Speaker, the accident at the Lucas Heights Australian Atomic Energy Commission Research Establishment last night will cause increasing concern for immediate residents and all responsible and concerned Australians. The public could be forgiven for thinking that Australia has only one establishment which contains large amounts of radioactive substances. However, this is not the case. There are at least three other establishments which contain radioactive substances of some note. I refer to the irradiation plants-one in Sydney, at Wetherill Park; one in Melbourne, at Dandenong; and one at Botany in New South Wales. These irradiation plants, operated by the Steritech company, have been in the news of late concerning the introduction of food irradia- tion into Australia.

It is to these plants and their radioactive source material that I wish to refer. The irradiation plant has a massive concrete bunker with walls six feet thick. This is necessary to contain the vast amounts of gamma rays being emitted by the radioactive cobalt 60. An accident in any of these plants could be just as dangerous as the recent accident at Lucas Heights, but the most alarming thing is that in the event of an accident involving this radioactive cobalt 60 we have to call in the Mounties. Yes, in the event of an accident we have to rely on the Canadians. The company's procedure in the event of an accident says:

For emergency service, contact Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Radiochemical Company Ottawa, Canada. Cable: Nimota Telephone (613) 592-2790 Telex 053-4162.

Let me read just part of the warning sign posted in these plants here in Australia:

Emergency Conditions

If radiation monitor alarm signals (loud klaxon) or a source movement bell sounds take the following action: (A) Personnel in maze or irradiation room. Pull safety cable on wall and leave facility immediately. Close maze door behind you. (B) Personnel in the control area. Push the red emergency button on the control console panel.

For emergency service, it says to contact Canada. It goes on to give the details of the telephone and telex numbers to be used in the event of an accident. Here in Australia we have to call in the Mounties. We had better hope that they can get a seat on a jumbo out of Canada, and of course we need to hope that they do not have any other emergencies in Canada or elsewhere.

In case there are some who do not understand the potential radiation hazards contained in these concrete chambers in irradiation plants, the gamma rays inside these concrete chambers total the equivalent of in excess of two million chest X-rays. I will come back in more detail to the cobalt 60 source. There have been a number of accidents at these irradiation plants. In two accidents here in Australia-one in the Botany plant of Johnson and Johnson Australia Pty Ltd and one in the Steritech plant at Dandenong, Melbourne-they had to call in the Mounties. The Canadians had to be brought in. Australia just does not have the qualified technicians to cope with an emergency in these types of irradiation plants in Australia. Deaths have occurred in accidents in irradiation plants. Ten accidents are recorded. In Italy in May 1975, an operator died after 12 days. In Oslo in September 1982, an operator died after 13 days. It is very strange that in the figures and details recently provided on these accidents there is no mention of the accidents in Australia. In an irradiation plant there is radioactive cobalt 60 totalling over one million curies-as I said before, equivalent to more than two million chest X-rays. If the cobalt 60 rods were to be taken from the concrete chamber it would cause massive danger to the public. Just one rod contains 4,000 curies. Just one minute's exposure to one rod would provide a lethal dose of radiation. One rod of 4,000 curies will emit gamma rays over a distance of 100 metres or more in all directions. In the event that one cobalt 60 rod exited from that concrete chamber there would be potentially a lethal dose of gamma rays over 100 metres in all directions until the Canadians can be contacted and brought out in the first available jumbo.

The Steritech irradiation plant in Dandenong had an accident causing a five-day shutdown and they had to call in the Canadians. The same company recently had an inspection of sorts conducted by the Victorian Government and more than 15 problems were detected-problems which were minor or serious, depending on who one asks. The expert group did not ask about any accidents, nor was it told that there had been accidents. The expert group did not ask for the maintenance log books, nor was it shown them. Had it inspected the maintenance log books it would have found that three, four or five plant stoppages per shift had occurred. To give a comparison of the lethal dose of radiation from cobalt 60 one needs to look at the accident in Mexico in 1984.


Madam SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., in accordance with Standing Order 106 as amended for this session, the debate is interrupted.

Question resolved in the affirmative.