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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7387

Senator FORSHAW (2:46 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Alston, the Minister representing the Minister for Science. Could the minister confirm that last Thursday employees at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor had to be evacuated due to the dangers associated with the approaching bushfires? Can the minister also confirm that other evacuations of the reactor have occurred in recent years, including a shutdown of the reactor, due to the danger of extreme bushfires in the neighbouring area? Given these circumstances, wouldn't the safety of the employees, the community and the reactor itself be more appropriately guaranteed if the new reactor were to be located at another location more remote from large residential communities and areas prone to bushfires?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I suppose the legitimate starting point is to know whether Labor has resiled from the policy they adopted when Senator Evans was corresponding on the subject a few years ago. If you remember, he basically said: `We're against the relocation of Lucas Heights'—I am sorry, that should be: `We're in favour of it but for political reasons we have to say we're against it.'

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —I think I did get it right the second time. The main thing is that I got it right eventually, and that is something I think you have not learned over the last three elections—and you are not showing much promise of getting it right this time. If we just deal with the effect of bushfires, quite clearly we are concerned to ensure the safety of employees and, indeed, that the community and all residents in the area are fully protected at all times.

Owing to the bushland setting of the Lucas Heights Science and Technology Centre, protection against the risk of bushfires has been an integral part of ANSTO's safety precautions for many years. ANSTO undertakes hazard reduction measures each year before the summer to ensure that adequate firebreaks exist. There are over 100 fire hydrants located around the centre's boundary fence as part of its firefighting infrastructure, together with an independent water supply and trained bushfire volunteers. The separation distances between buildings with nuclear built materials and the bush prevent any direct bushfire threat to these buildings. Bushfires do not present a credible threat to the safety of the HIFAR research reactor or other significant ANSTO facilities. At no point during current or past bushfires has there been any direct threat to the HIFAR reactor. Indeed, HIFAR's strong containment building is designed to withstand greater heat loadings than could be achieved by a bushfire. Fire protection measures are part of the design of all ANSTO buildings and emergency arrangements for fire are regularly and exhaustively reviewed. Comprehensive emergency plans exist for the facility.

ANSTO, in consultation with the New South Wales fire brigades and bushfire brigades, has prepared a comprehensive assessment of past bushfires, and lessons learned are incorporated into emergency plans. The potential hazard from bushfires has been taken into account in the design of the replacement reactor. The ANSTO emergency plan, which is integrated with the local district and state emergency plans, specifies the roles and responsibilities of emergency services, such as police, fire brigade and ambulance, in the event of any emergency such as a bushfire threat to the site. The plan has been developed by the ANSTO local liaison working party, comprised of representatives of the New South Wales Police Force, New South Wales fire brigades, the Ambulance Service of New South Wales, the New South Wales Department of Health, the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, Sutherland Shire Council and the New South Wales State Emergency Service. An independent review in 2000 by an expert appointed by the New South Wales government concluded that the plan is adequate. I hope that demonstrates that these matters are of serious concern and that all that could feasibly be done is being done. The end result is the judgment that bushfires do not present a credible threat to the safety of those facilities, and Labor will therefore have to find another, presumably more specious, reason for trying to justify a relocation of the site.

Senator FORSHAW —I thank the minister for his answer. I note that, given all those safety procedures that you have just referred to regarding the actual facilities, you avoided the issue, which is the fact that the employees had to be evacuated last Thursday and that it has happened on previous occasions. Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister also confirm reports that ANSTO is conducting a competition amongst high school students across Australia to select a suitable name for the new nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights? Minister, is it true that the prize will be $10,000 for the student whose proposed name is chosen and a further $10,000 to the student's school? I understand it has been suggested to name it after a famous tennis player: Nukem! Wouldn't some of these moneys be better spent on reducing the risks for ANSTO employees from bushfires at Lucas Heights rather than on such publicity stunts?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thought you were going to inquire whether they could extend the terms of reference so that you might be eligible to put in a suggestion.

Senator Hill —What about Schachty? Did you ever get those submissions on the ABC?

Senator ALSTON —No, I think they are still coming, actually. He has probably got a lot more time these days to devote himself to those matters. Unfortunately, however, for Senator Forshaw, the assumption in his question is that government resources are being devoted to providing prize money that could be better spent elsewhere. That seems to be the proposition, and in his usual form he did not bother to make any inquiries. A simple phone call would have told him that prizes for the competition have been donated by the replacement reactor construction contractors, INVAP, and the John Holland-Evans Deakin joint venture.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —It is not built into their contract.

Senator Faulkner —Are you sure about that?

Senator ALSTON —I will check it just for Senator Faulkner, but I reckon it is a pretty safe bet. I do not know whether I would put the house on it, but I reckon it is pretty safe. (Time expired)