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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
13/09/2021
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Intermediate Level Solid Waste Storage Facility Lucas Heights, NSW

GREEN, Dr Jim, National Nuclear Campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia [by audio link]

[11:57]

CHAIR: I now welcome a representative from the Friends of the Earth Australia to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. Evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make an opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Dr Green : Thanks for the opportunity to speak to this committee. Firstly, I want to refer to a comment made by a committee member—I believe it might have been the chair—a few moments ago that the committee is interested in the proposal for waste storage at Lucas Heights and less interested or not interested in plans for waste disposal and storage in South Australia. I would put it to you that these issues are inseparable because the only two concrete proposals on the table at the moment are intermediate-level waste storage at Lucas Heights and intermediate-level waste storage at Kimba in South Australia, and that feeds directly into the issue being debated by this by this committee, which is the time line for storage at Lucas Heights. If they knew that they did not have an offsite option beyond 2037, then surely ANSTO would be proposing longer intermediate-level waste storage at Lucas Heights. So, in general terms, I'd just put it to you that these issues can't be separated.

I also want to take issue with the statement made by another committee member that waste is managed 'incredibly safely' at Lucas Heights; I believe the statement might have been that the safety standards in general are operated incredibly safely. I don't think even ANSTO would defend that statement. ANSTO have had numerous accidents over the past decades. I'm pretty sure that, when you question ANSTO later, they would agree there have been too many accidents over the past decades. I think ANSTO would also feel constrained to agree that the safety culture at ANSTO has been inadequate over the past decades. I would refer you, for example, to the report of an independent review in 2018 which made 85 recommendations to improve the safety culture at Lucas Heights. The independent review team also identified a toxic culture at Lucas Heights and the perception of widespread bullying.

CHAIR: Sorry, Dr Green. You're quoting an independent report. Who was the author of this independent report? They are making some fairly serious allegations about ANSTO here, so I wouldn't mind having them named on the record, please.

Dr Green : Yes, absolutely. I'll dig up the name of this organisation as we speak. Anyway, this is all very well known to ANSTO and, if I can't find the independent review team's name, ANSTO will certainly know. Anyway, there were 85 recommendations to improve procedures at Lucas Heights in 2018, and there have been several more accidents since then.

Two issues follow from this. One is that it certainly can't be assumed that the safety standards at Lucas Heights are currently adequate, and that is an issue which the committee should turn its mind to. The second—and this is more personal for me here in South Australia—is that I'm deeply disturbed by how the operations will go at Kimba, given that Australia's nuclear expertise is concentrated at Lucas Heights and they have the facilities to deal with accidents and incidents as they arise. Very little, if any, of that capacity will be available at Kimba.

Friends of the Earth Australia support the proposal for additional storage capacity at Lucas Heights for intermediate-level waste, but I would ask the committee to consider two alternative options. The first is storage beyond the year 2037. You'll be aware of the reasons for that already from previous witnesses. There is no chance of a disposal option for intermediate-level waste before 2037. Again, I would ask you to put that to ANSTO, because they will agree that there is little or no chance of disposal options before the year 2037. The only thing that could possibly happen is progress on building our waste-conditioning facility. So that's one option.

The second option is to hasten the development of waste acceptance criteria, and that would facilitate hastening the construction of a waste-conditioning facility at Lucas Heights. I would think that would be a commonsense option which needs thorough investigation, and I wonder why that seems not to have been done. As a corollary to that second option, we would recommend that the waste establishment criteria be established not by the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, which is effectively a branch of the federal government, but instead by ARPANSA, the nuclear regulator. That would be far preferable. As I mentioned before, that should be expedited, or at least the option of expediting that process should be thoroughly entertained and considered.

Those are our main points, but I will finish with one other. Again, you've covered this ground before. The two interim options for intermediate-level waste are storage at Lucas Heights and storage at Kimba. Safety dictates that the ANSTO option be preferred, because nuclear expertise is highly concentrated at Lucas Heights. They've got the facilities, the expertise and so on to quickly and effectively deal with incidents and accidents. Secondly, on security, you would not find a single independent security expert who would recommend interim above-ground storage of intermediate-level waste at Kimba with a couple of security guards, as opposed to the current and preferred option of interim above-ground storage of intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights, where they have extremely effective and robust security arrangements.

Finally, I would suggest that you get input from the Department of Finance, who I presume would be horrified at the cost implications of the plan for interim above-ground storage of intermediate-level waste at Kimba given that it will inevitably involve unnecessary double-handling and will necessarily involve increased costs for no obvious reason and for no good reason.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Green. Mr Zappia.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for your presentation, Dr Green. You argued your case pretty well. You commented that ARPANSA should have a greater say in all of this because they are independent of government. Why are they any more independent of government than ANSTO or whoever else is involved in this whole process?

Dr Green : It's a good point. Obviously the CEO of ARPANSA is appointed by the government. I have a faint memory going back 20 years ago that there was a suggestion from a then government minister that they were prepared to ignore the recommendation to ARPANSA if ARPANSA refused to license a nuclear waste facility. That was somewhat troubling.

It's all relative. The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency is directly a government agency and they are directly involved—they are essentially the proponent of this plan for a nuclear waste facility at Kimba—whereas ARPANSA at least has some level of independence. Of those two options, ARPANSA is preferable by far. They certainly have the expertise to carry out this function, and it would be more robust and more independent if it was carried out by ARPANSA rather than by the Radioactive Waste Agency.

Mr ZAPPIA: You also raised several concerns that you have about the ANSTO facility at Lucas heights—you went through them one at a time, and I appreciate that. If those concerns are valid why are ANSTO ignoring them?

Dr Green : I don't think they are ignoring them. In response to an earlier question: I believe it was ARPANSA itself who conducted the independent review of ANSTO's operations and made 85 recommendations. ANSTO said they would consider them and report within 60 days. I'm not familiar with how this unfolded chapter and verse but I do know that there have been several more incidents and accidents. I would say that there have been efforts to resolve the problems but those efforts are still a work in progress. That would be my best guess. I would invite the committee to not only address these issues with ANSTO but invite ARPANSA to appear before the committee.

Mr ZAPPIA: Can you give me one or two instances of the safety concerns that you are referring to or the incidents that you are referring to?

Dr Green : Absolutely. I'm just reading the names of files on my computer which will give you a sense of it. In 2017 there was a spill of molybdenum-99 and there was high exposure. In 2018 there was a major independent inquiry. In 2018 there was another spill of molybdenum-99. In October 2018 there were yet more accidents. In 2019, three people were hospitalised after a spill. In 2019, there were questions about the level of radiation—

Teleconference interrupted—

CHAIR: Once this material has been stored in containers and it's put into the vertical storage vaults that we've seen during a presentation this morning, what is your concern around accidents during that part of the process?

Dr Green : I don't have a specific response to that question. I've been tracking ANSTO's operations for almost 30 years now. I can certainly remember accidents involving nuclear waste going back 20 to 25 years. But I don't know the level of detail. Again, I would invite you to ask ANSTO to list accidents that have involved radioactive waste at Lucas Heights and to report on what steps were taken to resolve those specific problems and the underlying safety culture problems. Again, can I just stress that one of my major concerns is how much more difficult this will be to deal with at Kimba, where you will essentially have very few, if any, nuclear experts on a day-to-day basis; you'll have a couple of security guards at best. This is difficult, dangerous waste, and it is best dealt with at Lucas Heights, at least with respect to interim above-ground storage, pending the development of a disposal option.

It's been 40-plus years that successive governments have tried but failed to establish a shallow repository for lower-level waste. Common sense suggests that it will be at least 40 years before a future government has resolved the more intractable problem of establishing a deep underground disposal facility for higher-level wastes.

CHAIR: That's an opinion. The government is in the process of working through the identification and creation of a site. You and other witnesses have speculated that that will be unsuccessful, but we're in the process of working up that proposal, so—

Dr Green : Again, I would ask you to put this question to ANSTO: how much work is actually going into progressing deep underground disposal or deep borehole disposal of intermediate-level waste? My understanding is that there are only superficial, token efforts to progress that. Even if those efforts were sustained and concerted, it's still certainly going to stretch well beyond a decade and it could easily stretch to half a century or more. This is not just my opinion, it is also the opinion of ARPANSA, which has noted that above-ground storage of intermediate-level waste at Kimba could stretch out to a hundred years or more.

CHAIR: We're not here to discuss the proposal at Kimba. We're here to discuss a proposal before the committee to increase its capacity for intermediate nuclear waste until 2037, with, I assume, the capacity to continue to build after that or to make sure that there is capacity beyond that date, if required. That probably gives them another 10-year lead. In terms of the proposal in front of the Public Works Committee, is it not prudent to proceed with this proposal on the basis that it at least gives ANSTO another 10 years on top of the current capacity while these issues are worked through?

Dr Green : The one-word answer to that would be yes, but, as I've mentioned before, there are options which need more thorough consideration—one being building a greater degree of storage capacity, given that there's no likelihood of offsite disposal options before that time, and the second being to hasten the development of waste acceptance criteria and to build a waste-conditioning facility sooner rather than later.

CHAIR: Thank you. Are there any final comments, or any further questions from committee members?

Dr Green : If I can be indulged with one final comment? It's somewhat off topic, but this proposed nuclear waste facility at Kimba in South Australia is clearly opposed by the Barngarla traditional owners. I think it's disturbing that the federal government is willing to proceed with this nuclear waste facility despite the opposition of the Barngarla traditional owners. Conversely, I congratulate Labor and crossbench senators for forcing the government to allow an independent judicial review of the nomination of the Kimba site. I would even more loudly applaud the South Australian Labor Party, which has a policy that traditional owners should have a veto over these sorts—

CHAIR: Thank you. This committee tends to operate by considering the facts before us, and we try not to get political, so I don't think—

Dr Green : Surely the government's willingness to impose a nuclear waste facility despite the clear opposition of traditional owners is a matter of relevance and significance—

Senator HUGHES: Chair, a point of order: this isn't relevant to our current inquiry.

CHAIR: Not to this committee, it isn't. Thank you, Dr Green. You'll be given the opportunity to correct any transcription errors, and the committee has asked you to provide information on the independent report that you were quoting. If you could, please provide that to us in writing. Thank you very much.

Dr Green : Thank you.