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Monday, 20 May 1985
Page: 2123

Senator MASON —My question is addressed to the Minister for Resources and Energy. It concerns the continuing experiments at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights into the centrifugal enrichment of uranium using the gas uranium hexafluoride. Is it a fact that when this highly dangerous radioactive and toxic gas was released in an accident at Lucas Heights on 6 July 1984 there were no filters on the laboratory exhaust systems and that the methods and materials used were unsatisfactory in other respects? What does the Government intend to do to provide sufficient funds to the AEC to install readily available safety and exhaust filter measures? When will the Government recognise that Lucas Heights was not built for and is not suited to experiments in centrifugal uranium enrichment which is a complex and highly dangerous technology? Will the Government direct that these experiments be discontinued immediately?

Senator Townley —The problem was the fluoride, not the uranium.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am indebted to Senator Townley for the assistance I am getting.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Will the Minister answer Senator Mason's question.

Senator GARETH EVANS —On 21 August 1984 my predecessor, Senator Walsh, tabled in the Senate the report of the committee established to examine the accidental release of uranium hexafluoride at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's research establishment on Friday, 6 July 1984. That report contains details of the incident and measures recommended to avoid the recurrence of any similar incident. The committee recommended more detailed investigations be undertaken with a view to effecting improvements, where appropriate, including the ventilation and filtration requirements in laboratories handling uranium hexafluoride.

As to the fact that no filters were installed in the ventilation system of the laboratory in which the incident occurred, the ventilation officer of the AAEC's Health and Safety Division has been requested to assess the ventilation and filtration requirements in laboratories handling uranium hexafluoride. The Atomic Energy Commission's centrifuge enrichment research is being phased down to reflect government policy in this area. The current thrust of the Commission's enrichment research program is concerned with the developments of safeguards for centrifuge research and development plants. This project is part of Australia's program of assistance to the International Atomic Energy Agency and is due for completion by the end of this year.

I note that the main safety consideration with uranium hexafluoride is its chemical rather than its radiological nature, which seems to be the point of Senator Townley's contribution to this answer. Although details of what funding the AAEC may receive in 1985-86 have not yet been announced, I am confident the Commission will be able to carry out urgent health and safety programs from within its approved budget.

Senator MASON —I ask a supplementary question. Am I to understand from the Minister's answer that experiments similar to the one which resulted in the accident are, in fact, continuing and will continue without any physical or chemical exhaust filter system having been installed?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am not sure whether precisely similar experiments are taking place. What I am sure about is that the report simply recommended that further investigation of the ventilation and filtration requirements take place, and that investigation is occurring.