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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1383

Senator McINTOSH —I direct my question to the Minister for Resources and Energy. Has the committee inquiring into the fire at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission Lucas Heights Research Establishment on 18 March reported on that incident? If so, what are the findings and can the Minister inform the Senate of any progress towards remedying the problems in disseminating information to the public which were made apparent by the accident?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I have now received the report of the committee which comprised representatives of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the New South Wales Department of Health, the Sutherland Shire Council and the Commission's union staff association representative. For the information of honourable senators, I table that report. In addition, the Commission has prepared a separate report concerning public information, which I shall mention again in a moment, and I table that document as well.

The committee concluded that the fire was caused, as I indicated the other day, by spontaneous combustion in the charcoal filter used to trap radioactive gases released by operations in the hot cell in question. The precise reason for that combustion may never be clearly established. However, the committee ruled out operator error. The committee has recommended, among other things, the installation of temperature indicating devices in all in-cell charcoal filters used in radioisotope production to give early warning of unusual or unexpected rises in temperature and avoid a similar incident occurring recurring.

The committee believes that no member of the Commission's staff, the New South Wales Emergency Services personnel or the general public suffered or will suffer any adverse health effects from radioactivity as a result of the accident. In fact, the report indicates that had a person at the Atomic Energy Commission boundary been able to locate himself in the middle of the plume of noble gases released as a result of the accident-perhaps by sitting in a helicopter with the door open, or something of that kind-he would have been exposed to a smaller level of radioactivity than he would have incurred had he stayed at home in a brick house for the same period. The committee was highly complimentary in its assessment of the responses by the New South Wales Emergency Services and the Atomic Energy Commission's staff to the fire.

Indeed, the only real criticism that can be levelled as a result of the incident-and the committee's report is consistent with this-arises from the failure in communication about the size of the fire and the consequent alarmist reaction on the part of the media and certain sections of the public. Because of this, I asked the Commission to look at this question and the possibility of establishing a special communications line to handle public inquiries in relation to such incidents. The Commission has now made a thorough examination of this problem of dissemination of public information and is implementing a number of measures designed to improve communications. These include the establishment of a public information facility located adjacent to the emergency operations control centre with multiple dedicated PABX extensions, television and radio facilities for monitoring media reporting, and a word processing capability. These measures and those recommended by the committee of inquiry should ensure that the overreaction which resulted on 18 March will not recur.