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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation


CHAIR: Dr Paterson, do you have an opening statement for the committee?

Dr Paterson : No.

Senator KIM CARR: Is it fair to say that ANSTO is facing some financial pressures at the moment?

Dr Paterson : I think consistent with good planning we've got a long-range plan for ANSTO, and within that plan we have sensitised stakeholders to some headwinds, and I'm very comfortable that there is a clear understanding of the situation we're in.

Senator KIM CARR: Sure, but you've got a bit of a cash shortfall at the moment, haven't you?

Dr Paterson : I think if we look at our cash position as it stands at the moment it is sustainable. At the moment we are operating well within the parameters of solvency.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, of course you are. It's a Commonwealth agency. I would hardly expect otherwise. But there is a bit of a demand in terms of cost cutting within the agency, is there?

Dr Paterson : Consistent with many agencies, we do from time to time review our cost base and think through the opportunities we have to operate more efficiently. We have been doing that in a structured way over the past month and will continue to do that into the future. Those plans in many cases show opportunities for some savings as well as opportunities to partner with others.

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. Are you looking at redundancies?

Dr Paterson : At present we have no planned redundancies, other than incremental ones that happen from time to time.

Senator KIM CARR: Which ones do you have from time to time?

Dr Paterson : There might be a function associated with a particular piece of equipment, for example. When that equipment comes to the end of its life, we evaluate the work of the team and the decision is sometimes taken to not reinvest in that type of technology. In those circumstances, two or three people—

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. So have you had a chance to show the new minister the conditions of building 23 yet?

Dr Paterson : I have, indeed. The minister has visited building 23. We didn't do a full internal inspection, but we showed key elements of the challenges that we face in that building. She's keenly aware of them, I believe.

Senator KIM CARR: So there is an understanding that there is an urgent need for some action in terms of the replacement?

Dr Paterson : I think there is a consensus forming that the replacement plans for building 23 in terms of long-term supply of nuclear medicines in a reliable way in Australia is a matter that many different actors are looking at in a structured way.

Senator KIM CARR: Like this budget?

Dr Paterson : I think the budget process is beyond my ability to discuss.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes. But it is in this budget that action is required, is it not?

Dr Paterson : I think building 23, as I indicated at a previous estimates, is at least a five-year program to move from the early phases of engineering to a fully-fledged building. The time scales that I would prefer would be in that five-year period. There is an eight-year scenario as well. Both of those scenarios are plausible. In the meantime, proper sustainment of the existing facility is an absolute priority for ANSTO.

Senator KIM CARR: But the minister—I think it was late last year—said she'd sought assurances from ANSTO that you are supplying the market at normal levels. Have assurances been sought from the government that you are able to supply the market for radiopharmaceuticals at normal levels?

Dr Paterson : We have been very fortunate in expanding the activities in building 54, our existing facility, over the last few years. About five years ago that was three to four per cent of world supply. We now undertake 16 per cent of world supply. That was helpful when we had the generator failure in the plant where the conveyor disengaged. It allowed us to ship molybdenum-99 from Australia to Boston and fully import all of the requirements for Australia for the supply of generators to the Australian market. That was sustained right through the period of recovery. A couple of weeks ago, we returned to full domestic supply undertaken in the generator plant at Lucas Heights.

Senator KIM CARR: That is good to hear. So full domestic supply is now being met?

Dr Paterson : Correct.

Senator KIM CARR: The new plant at building 54 has been commissioned; is that right?

Dr Paterson : The building 54 plant is the one that was built in the middle of the 2000s. The ANM plant is currently undergoing its final commissioning. I had a meeting with the regulator in relation to that last week. It is also undergoing the approvals from nuclear medicine authorities both in Australia—that is, the TGA—and in the United States—the FDA. When those nuclear medicine authorities are received and the regulator is satisfied with the safe operation, we will be able to begin supply from the ANM facility to the market.

Senator KIM CARR: Is there any problem about domestic supply of molybdenum-99 preceding that approval?

Dr Paterson : I believe our molybdenum-99 is robust. The generator production which is taking the molybdenum-99 and putting it on to the generators to produce the diagnostic isotope technetium-99m is still going to be a challenge. We are putting a lot of effort into ensuring that we have a robust mechanism to mitigate the risks in the building 23A plant. That, I believe, will be a continuing focus for us over the period until we have constructed a new facility for the production of generators.

Senator KIM CARR: Does that mean you've had to change your business model?

Dr Paterson : I believe our business model is still substantially the same, but we do have to take into account the possibility of shutdowns during the operating period of the year, so we are in discussions with the nuclear medicine community about the potential for three-week shutdowns on an annual basis. The reason for that is that the building 23A plant to produce generators has been operating on a 360-day-a-year basis for many years, and the analysis is that that may well have contributed to the lack of some of the longer planned maintenance outages that are normally required in these plants. We have reasonable assurance from the supply arrangements that we had in place from the failure of the plant, that we will be able to import effectively over periods when we do those shutdowns. And we are working very closely with the nuclear medicine community to find an appropriate model to do that. I wouldn't call that a fully formed plan at the moment but it is a plan which we are discussing with stakeholders.

Senator KIM CARR: ARPANSA made some comments recently, which we discussed at the previous hearing, concerning the operations of the facility. Have you been able to sort things out with the workforce?

Dr Paterson : We work very closely with the workforce, and I'm encouraged by the developments that have been undertaken in relation to the workforce. We have brought on new staff for the different manufacturing arrangements. The challenge of moving the manufacture of the generators to a point where the worker's hands are less close to the radioactive areas has been put in place with the current production and I think is supported by all of the teams. We continue to work intensively with the staff in that area so that they can be assured that we are continuing to look at all the opportunities for improving the maintenance environment, and they're very much involved in putting forward suggestions and proposals in that regard. I think the important thing from the perspective of sustainment of supply is that we are able to ensure that the sustainment funding that underpins the continued operation of that generator plant and the ability to meet all of the requirements of the medical regulator, the TGA as well, is an important consideration as we go forward.

Senator KIM CARR: At previous hearings, you made it clear that, in terms of the cultural changes that were required within ANSTO, which ARPANSA had drawn our attention to, that responsibility essentially rests with you as the CEO. What progress has been made in changing the culture of the organisation to actually improve safety?

Dr Paterson : It does rest with me, and I think it is important that the CEO owns all of the safety related matters in the organisation. I've undertaken a series of conversations with different stakeholders in relation to where the real challenges are in safety. We've conducted a series of workshops that have identified areas where there may have been bullying. In one particular instance, I detected that there had been a meeting that took place in the nuclear medicine production facility, where there was concern among a number of staff members. I invited staff members to come to me on a confidential basis and they did that. I was able to work with the managers involved and the staff members involved. Everybody has agreed that there was a genuine misunderstanding and they've agreed to move forward on a much more positive basis. So that was an encouragement to me that, by having an open culture, by inviting people to come forward in a meaningful way to get a meaningful outcome was a very positive development for us.

Senator KIM CARR: So, in your view, you think you have taken deliberative steps to actually get a permanent change in Lucas Heights?

Dr Paterson : I do believe that certainly, across Lucas Heights as a whole, we have a very clear picture of where the challenges have been and, in all places where we have been concerned, we have taken appropriate actions. We'll continue to use the diagnostic approaches and the workshops that we have been using to identify these areas. I'm really encouraged by the openness of staff to come forward in relation to these matters. Provided we can provide a safe and confidential environment, I think, we are making progress. I don't want to claim too much but I do believe we are making progress.

Senator KIM CARR: I know. It's early days. But you think there has been progress?

Dr Paterson : I think we can see it in our pulse surveys which we undertake annually right across the organisation at slightly different times. As has been the case for decades, there's a very, very strong commitment by staff to safe working environments. We see an improvement in trust and we can see an improvement in the overall effectiveness of teams.

Senator SINODINOS: You're doing a great job there with ANSTO, Dr Paterson. The innovation precinct idea—just very quickly—how is that going?

Dr Paterson : It's progressed wonderfully over the last 12 months. We now have some really good scoping of the planning. We've continued to engage stakeholders and we have a very strong committee helping with us. We are in the promotional phase under the greater Sydney development plan and we have had a number of very positive interactions in relation to that.

You'll recall that we were setting up an incubator as part of the process. We did a soft launch of that just over 12 months ago. The incubator filled up before we had finished the soft launch so we expanded the facility. It now has eight members, and I believe there are another three coming forward. There was recently a very positive workshop. There is a very strong robotics capability in and around the circle of 15 kilometres around the Lucas Heights facility, where a number of firms are involved in next generation automation and robotics, and ANSTO is now working directly with those firms to look for automation solutions for aspects of ANSTO's business, so it is a mutually synergistic environment. I have been really encouraged by the number of entrepreneurial firms that want to be associated with the Lucas Heights site and I'm hoping in the not-too-distant future we will be able create a platform for enhancing different aspects of our nuclear medicine capabilities. I'm always looking for faster progress. It is true to say that but I'm very encouraged by the progress the team has made. And the people who are doing the work on the ground just have an awesome sense of the possibilities that exist and they are making practical use of every day to make them real.

Senator SINODINOS: That's very good.

Senator STOKER: Of the 85 recommendations in the independent safety report, what's the response looking like at this point in time? And have there been any steps taken to deal with them?

Dr Paterson : Thank you very much for the question. The 85 items that were identified in the report are in the process of being worked on. I had agreed with the regulator that we would take those 85 items and put them into subject matter areas. We've got substantive agreement there's another workshop going to take place soon on what those areas are. And we're just finalising a process which I regard as very positive for the subject matter areas to be consolidated into ANSTO's safety strategic plan, which is an already-published document which we can amend to incorporate all of that. That is what I call mainstreaming of the 85 projects in to what we do every day in safety at ANSTO.

Since we last spoke, ANSTO has been also been certified against ISO 45001, which is the new standard for work health and safety, which has really launched in Australia in the last 12 months. In December, we received our certification and with it became the first Australian organisation with our auditing agency to be certified under that standard. So I'm comfortable that the top-down safety has met the highest international standard. It is joining it up with the bottom-up processes we agreed with the regulator. That process will be finalised by the end of March as the agreed date.

CHAIR: I just have one more. I want to ask you, Dr Paterson, if I can, about the considerations ANSTO may have given to the safety and security of a national radioactive waste facility?

Dr Paterson : We're doing a lot at the moment around our radioactive waste. It is critically important that, as we take our waste and process it in order to get to the final facility, that we're able to hold the waste in a safe and secure fashion on the site and that we have appropriate facilities to do that. At present, with the indicative 2026 time line for the national waste management facility to be established, we feel that we have got the right facilities in place in order to have the secure and proper management of our waste. But we do want to continue to emphasise that ANSTO is not a waste repository in disguise and it is important that we advance that work.

Senator KIM CARR: But ARPANSA has made perfectly clear that your licence is actually under some question if the matter is not resolved? That is the case, is it not?

Dr Paterson : We are of the same mind as ARPANSA.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Paterson.

Proceedings suspended from 18:05 to 19:01