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COMMUNITY AFFAIRS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
03/06/2010
HEALTH AND AGEING PORTFOLIO
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

CHAIR —I welcome officers from ARPANSA.

Senator LUDLAM —I do not know whether you would have had time to review the session I had with ANSTO a couple of days ago in which I referred to a report that ARPANSA undertook into an incident that occurred at the radioisotope production facility at Lucas Heights on 28 August 2008. Can you confirm for us whether your case on that incident is closed or you are still working with ANSTO or ARI?

Dr Larsson —The inspection report has been finalised. The observations that have been made have been transmitted to ANSTO. As far as we understand, there is work being undertaken in ANSTO, and was already when the report was finalised, in order to implement the recommendations that we made.

Senator LUDLAM —It is a pretty strongly worded report. The radioisotope production facility was described as being a research grade facility—and ANSTO have not denied that that is the case—rather than a commercial grade or industrial production grade facility. What does that actually mean in practice? What are the key differences between a research grade facility and a place where you would normally do commercial production?

Dr Larsson —I think there has been a transition at ANSTO from the research activities, which was one of the original basis for ANSTO research. We now have commercial production of certain radiopharmaceuticals. They largely make use of the same equipment that has already been in place. There have been modifications but, as you would have noticed in the inspection report, there were some modifications that were missing in some places. As far as I have been informed, these areas have not been rectified. This reflects that the production facility was really intended for other purposes than it has subsequently been used for. The modifications have been made but it seems also from the observations that inspectors made that they were overlooked in a few cases.

Senator LUDLAM —Before we move on, is it your understanding that there are a number of measures arising as result of your report that are still ongoing; or is it your understanding that ANSTO has completed everything that you suggested they do?

Dr Larsson —Those measures are still ongoing because we still have had discussions about what we in broad terms relate to as the safety culture within ANSTO.

Senator LUDLAM —Culture, I guess, is one thing and facilities is the other. Still on facilities: are you confident that if ANSTO undertake all of your recommendations and give them effect that they will effectively have made a transition into a commercial-grade lab or will there still be some deficiencies, do you think?

Dr Larsson —I think it is very difficult to answer that question because it goes very much into the details of the different facilities but I think that I can be reasonably assured that the safety culture and the operations as such as well as the equipment are suited for the purpose and can be operated safely. Whether they are operated safely is a question of our inspection of the safety culture.

Senator LUDLAM —I will come to that in a moment. You made some very strongly worded comments that go to the issue of culture of safety—that there were management lapses; there were people in hot areas who had not had the appropriate radiation safety training; and there were incidents and accidents that went misreported for a period of hours and so on. What does it take to change the culture and create a culture of safety in an institution like that?

Dr Larsson —It takes managerial action and managerial responsibility and it takes information and education for the staff. There are actually protocols that you can follow here. There are internationally agreed guidelines. It is not only a question of ticking the boxes that you have done this and that; it is also a question of changing the frame of mind and of fostering a culture where if you have observations that are concerned about safety that there is no culture of punishment; and that it is possible to bring those forward to management and be confident that whatever you bring forward to management will also be dealt with in the appropriate manner and the corrective changes will be made.

Senator LUDLAM —Let us go to that specifically. Mr David Reid was a health and safety officer. He was the one who initially raised the concerns about the safety of that facility. For his trouble, he was suspended indefinitely. He still has not retuned to his previous role despite his comments having been vindicated by ANSTO again on the record earlier this week. Given his treatment, how confident are you that the current process of internal review does ensure protection of whistleblowers?

Dr Larsson —If we comment on Mr Reid’s witnessing about what has been going on, I think that there are more issues to that than only the comments that he had made about the safety culture, so I would be uncomfortable outside that. The information that was received from Mr Reid has formed a basis for much of the retrospective analysis that we have been doing at the radiopharmaceuticals production facility. I had a meeting with Mr Reid and I informed him that whatever information he had that he thought would be of interest for the regulatory authority, he should come forward with it. I also informed him that the information that he had already come forward with was part of the investigations that we have been doing and are continuing with.

Senator LUDLAM —Exactly. Nobody has disputed the fact that he has raised—and I think ANSTO, without wanting to verbal their evidence the other day, acknowledged that the information that he provided was extremely valuable in improving not just the facilities but the safety culture and yet he is still suspended. He has not returned to work. What are we able to do about a culture that really should ensure the protection of people who do blow the whistle when these sorts of things occur?

Dr Larsson —We cannot comment on that. I am sorry because I think there are wider issues as well and I do not want to go into that.

—ABC ran a piece which I am presuming you would be aware of, I think, on Lateline. They reported that one of the employees involved had an elevated white blood cell count, which would be consistent with a radiation dose above normal. Do you have any idea where that information came from or have you seen that claim corroborated anywhere?

Dr Larsson —The only thing I can tell you is that we have not been able to verify that information. We also have the dose records for the staff, and those records would not indicate that the white blood cell count of anyone having been exposed to that level would be affected.

Senator LUDLAM —Maybe I should ask the ABC. Do you have ongoing contact with that individual? Do you have any updated information on the welfare of the individual, whom I am not going to name in this session?

Ms Evans —Are you talking about the individual with the alleged raised white blood cell count?

Senator LUDLAM —Yes.

Ms Evans —The only contact we continue to have with those staff is as part of our ongoing inspections. That means they are part of the cohort of people whom we are asking questions about the work practices. As our CEO has indicated, we could not find any evidence which verified that from the point of view of an elevated dose. One of the things we were very painstaking about was that, because we were investigating incidents that occurred some time in the past, that we were investigating based on recollections, we were very meticulous about trying to find extraneous confirmatory evidence where we could.

Senator LUDLAM —Blood tests from 2008 and that kind of thing.

Ms Evans —I would have to take that on notice. I am not aware as to whether or not blood tests were involved. I will take that question on notice and let you know what kind of evidence we examined.

Senator LUDLAM —I would appreciate information on what kind of evidence you sought to obtain and what you were able to examine.

Ms Evans —Certainly.

Senator LUDLAM —How often are ANSTO’s facilities—not just the hot cell area but the facilities in total—investigated by ARPANSA?

Ms Evans —We have a planned inspection program for all the facilities at ANSTO. On average, under the planned inspection program, we would visit those facilities every quarter. We are also in receipt of quarterly reports from each licence holder, and in each of those quarterly reports there is an account of incidents and a whole range of things. We also are in receipt every quarter of dose records and discharges from ANSTO. As a total picture each quarter we have a number of different aspects that all go to the current state of safety at the facility. But of course from time to time we may in fact become aware of information that requires immediate action or inspection.

Senator LUDLAM —As in this case.

Ms Evans —Yes.

Senator LUDLAM —It is my understanding that you folk are entitled to undertake spot checks without giving ANSTO any notice at all. Can you confirm that?

Dr Larsson —That is correct.

Senator LUDLAM —How often do you do that sort of thing?

Ms Evans —With regard to our unannounced inspection program across the facilities, we would do between 15 and 20 per year. All of these are set out in our quarterly reports to the parliament.

Senator LUDLAM —On those occasions do you have unaccompanied access to all the facilities, except, I presume, the highly secure ones? Are you allowed to roam around at will?

Dr Larsson —Yes, we do.

Senator LUDLAM —In the case of the 15 to 20 per year, is it described in your quarterly or annual reports what areas you do not have unaccompanied access to?

Ms Evans —I do not think it is set out explicitly, but the one area that we do not have unaccompanied access to is any area that is also subject to safeguards legislation. You might be aware that, under our act, we are also subject to that legislation. For instance, nobody has unaccompanied access to the vault where the fuel is kept. Apart from that, we have unaccompanied access.

Senator LUDLAM —You mentioned before that ANSTO issues you with quarterly reports on their emissions. Can you summarise, as part of routine emissions into the air and water, what kind of inventories there are of radioisotopes that are emitted into the environment by that facility as a whole.

Dr Larsson —We will have to take the details of that, the specifics, on notice. I would like to inform you that the limits are derived on the basis of very strict dose limitations.

Senator LUDLAM —I am sure they are, but I am interested in the actual volumes, not so much what the regulations say.

Dr Larsson —The question is about volumes?

Senator LUDLAM —Volumes by radioisotope—what are they actually emitting into the air and into the water?

Dr Larsson —Activity?

Senator LUDLAM —Yes, rather than volume, you are quite correct. Is that reported by you quarterly, or on any other basis? Where do I go to look?

Ms Evans —Yes, that is reported in our quarterly reports to the parliament as well as our annual report. But we can also give you a breakdown, if you would like, on a particular basis for the last 12 months, or perhaps we can clarify with you over which periods of time you are interested.

Senator LUDLAM —A breakdown by radioisotope over a period of 12 months would be great, if that does not require a huge amount of homework.

Dr Larsson —We can provide you with that. Would that also be for liquid discharges and—

Senator LUDLAM —Yes, that is right, thank you. Can you describe for us—and I do not know whether this is folklore or not—whether there is an exclusion zone surrounding the Lucas Heights facility within which you are not allowed to produce food?

Ms Evans —Senator, just to clarify, are you talking about the 1½ a kilometre buffer zone?

Senator LUDLAM —So the buffer zone is where you cannot live, I take it. There are no houses within 1½ kilometre of the facility.

Ms Evans —Yes, that is my understanding. But as to the specific question about the production of food, I would have to take that on notice.

Senator LUDLAM —I would appreciate that. My understanding is that there is a larger zone than 1½ kilometres where horticulture is not permitted. I am just seeking some confirmation of whether that is the case.

Ms Evans —We will take that question on notice.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —I have a question about the health implications of the full-body airport scanners. You would recall that Minister Albanese on 9 February in a joint press conference with the Prime Minister stated:

… we’ll be having full consultation and involvement with the Privacy Commissioner, with other organisations, as we did, indeed, for the trial, including looking at health issues, and making sure that all of those issues are dealt with.

I understood that the government advised that they would be looking at the health implications. Can you provide an update on what that investigation was? Were you involved in that investigation?

Dr Larsson —I would have to say that I am not quite aware of which investigation you are referring to.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —That is why I am asking. Have you been involved with any investigation or any consultation in relation to the full-body airport scanners?

Dr Larsson —I can tell you what we have been involved in. We issued a licence for a trial, which was issued to the department of infrastructure—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Sorry, the licence for the trial was issued to—

Dr Larsson —If I recall correctly, to the department of infrastructure. We have had subsequent meetings with department of infrastructure. We have also explained the situation with regard to licensing. In the case that these ionising airport scanners—the ones referred to is back-scatter scanners—are to be licensed, that would require a licence from ARPANSA. In that case ARPANSA, would take into account that the activity, as such, is justified from the point of view of doing more good than harm, and also that we have an optimisation of the radiation so that doses are kept as low as reasonably achievable. We would also, as a part of that, request to have the information on the results of the trials that we had issued a licence for.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —So you have not actually provided any advice, as such, on the health implications of the use of the body scanners?

Dr Larsson —I think that the health implications are fairly well known. They are probably known by the department of infrastructure. There are three different types of whole body scanners that can be used. One type is using ionising radiation and the two others are using radio frequency radiation, and they are of active and passive types. I think they are fairly well characterised. There is also information available on our website, where anyone can see the information on the health implications that are known.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —But, insofar as your formal advice has been given, it has only been in relation to the licensing parameters?

Dr Larsson —We have not formulated any formal advice on this issue.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —So it has really been only informal advice?

Dr Larsson —There have been informal discussions.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Informal discussions, not written advice?

Dr Larsson —Not written advice, no.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —You said your website contains information on this. So you are aware that individuals will be exposed to radiation from these types of machines, and you have said that all three types of machines expose people to some form of radiation. What are the levels of radiation?

Dr Larsson —The levels of radiation are very low. If we were to talk about so-called back-scatter scanners, the radiation dose from one scan is in the order of 0.1 microSievert, which is a very low dose. It might be relevant to compare that dose with the average dose that you get at cruising altitude when you are flying, which is in the order of 5 microSieverts per hour; this would correspond to one to two minutes of flying, so it is a very low dose.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Are there any particular concerns, if I could put it that way, or any greater effect that this could have on, say, groups of people, like young children or pregnant women?

Dr Larsson —Not that go beyond what we know about the effects of radiation in general. This is not a special type of radiation that these machines emit. So it would be a very minor contribution to the radiation dose to the population in general, and even for very frequent flyers this contribution would be very small.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Are you aware of other jurisdictions that may have considered health implications of these multiview machines?

Dr Larsson —We know that, internationally, there is a debate going on. We know that we already have these types of scanners installed in several airports in the US. We know that there is a debate going on within many of the European countries, and the whole issue of so-called non-medical imaging is something that is being debated in Europe and also internationally. This is part of the IAEA basic safety standards and the European basic safety standards. And the basic principles of radiation protection apply—that is, that the use of radiation should be justified and that you should keep the doses as low as reasonably achievable.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Are you aware whether any overseas jurisdictions have indicated that they will not introduce the scanners, on the basis of negative health issues?

Dr Larsson —I am aware of discussions in some European countries, but I am not aware of any regulatory decisions not to introduce such scanners.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —If you could provide some information in relation to those countries that would be helpful. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much to the officers from ARPANSA.

[5.29 pm]