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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2778

Senator VALLENTINE —Is the Minister for Resources and Energy aware of the incident at the Hanford nuclear waste facility in the United States on 29 September this year when operators transferring plutonium-bearing liquid from one plant to a storage tank failed to notice that a pipe to another storage tank, which was already filled with plutonium, had not been sealed off? Is he also aware that, if more plutonium had been pumped into that fuel tank, a spontaneous chain reaction could have occurred which would have caused intense heat and an explosion?

Senator Walsh —Who told you that-Enid Blyton?

Senator VALLENTINE —Will he confirm that as a result of this incident the two plants at Hanford were closed for a month? Will he also confirm that this is the same plant to which spent fuel rods from Lucas Heights are due to be sent next year? Finally, can the Government guarantee that material from Australia's spent fuel rods will not get lost, like the nine kilograms of plutonium-I point out that it takes only a quarter of that amount to make a nuclear weapon-which auditors at Hanford reported last month was unaccounted for during the six-month period ending September 1985?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I have seen some Press reports of the recent incident at the Hanford nuclear processing plant, but I am unable to confirm at this stage the specific details of the incident or how long the plant remained closed. I do not know how accurate Senator Vallentine's account of the technical sequence of events is or may have been. I note Senator Peter Walsh's interjection that it is an account that seems to owe more to Enid Blyton than to Scientific American. I reserve judgment on the matter until I have had a further and better report. It is not the case, to come to the nub of the honourable senator's question so far as her domestic constituency is concerned, that our spent reactor fuel elements from Lucas Heights will be sent to the Hanford facility. This material will be reprocessed at the Savannah River or Idaho Falls facilities in the United States in accordance with the Australia-United States safeguards agreement as elaborated in an exchange of notes tabled in Parliament in November 1985.

As I explained in my answer to another question on this subject from the honourable senator on 6 May this year, the agreement will ensure that all nuclear material recovered through reprocessing, namely, highly enriched uranium and any plutonium, will be properly accounted for and will be available only for peaceful uses as agreed by Australia. It should be noted that there is so little plutonium in the Hifar fuel elements-a total of about 200 grams in the 450 fuel elements involved-that in practice it is unlikely that that plutonium will even be recovered during the reprocessing sequence and will instead be retained with the fission products and treated as waste.