Environmental groups have condemned the decision to grant the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) an operating licence for the A$330 million research reactor.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) gave the green light to ANSTO to operate the Open Pool Australian Light-water (OPAL) research reactor at Lucas Heights, in Sydney’s south.
ARPANSA has imposed strict conditions on ANSTO’s licence, including the need to provide regular safety and security reviews.
The head of Australia’s nuclear watchdog John Loy said the licence was subject to conditions already laid out in existing legislation, but he also has imposed some extra conditions on ANSTO to provide periodic safety and security reviews.
The safety reviews will have to be carried out every 10 years.
“It is inevitable that in the first two years of operation much will be learned about operating the reactor and it is important that this experience is fully incorporated into ongoing safety management,” Dr Loy said in a statement.
“Similarly the operation of the arrangements for physical security should be reviewed at this time.”
Dr Loy said there had been a range of concerns about the reactor raised by the public, including worries about the disposal of spent reactor fuel and other radioactive waste.
However he said he was satisfied with ANSTO’s arrangements with the US and France, which have agreed to take waste from theSydney reactor.
He also said he had taken into account the federal government’s commitment to building a waste management facility in the Northern Territory.
Decision angers environmentalists
But green groups and local residents say the safety and environmental risks associated with the new reactor are too high and it should not be allowed to operate.
Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear campaigner Dave
Sweeney said it was irresponsible for the facility to start operating amid a battle over the federal government’s plan to build a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory.
“We believe for the federal regulator to licence the operation of what will be by far the largest generator of radioactive waste in Australia before there’s an agreed management of that waste, is a deeply flawed decision,” he said.
There are also concerns about giving the go-ahead to the new reactor just a month after four accidents occurred in one week at the existing Lucas Heights nuclear reactor.
“That should have been a wake up call about how quickly things can go wrong with nuclear reactors,” Greenpeace campaigns manager
Danny Kennedy said.
“Unfortunately, decision makers don’t seem to be listening. It’s extremely reckless to introduce a nuclear reactor into a major growth corridor of our largest city.”
Local residents upset
ANSTO says the new reactor meets the highest possible standards imposed upon the nuclear industry.
“Not only will OPAL increase ANSTO’s capacity to supply Australia and the region with critically important radiopharmaceuticals, it will provide world leading capability for our scientists to apply nuclear research to such areas as biotechnology, food and molecular biology, nanotechnology, health, environmental management processes and engineering,” ANSTO executive director Ian Smith.
“This research will result in tangible social and economic benefits for Australia,” Mr Smith said.
However local residents have accused the nuclear watchdog of ignoring the concerns they outlined in 11,000 submissions opposing the new reactor.
People Against a Nuclear Reactor (PANR) spokeswoman Genevieve Kelly said residents were worried that there was no adequate emergency plan in place in the event of a major accident or terrorist attack.
She said residents’ fears were compounded by the fact there had been no independent assessment of whether the new reactor should be allowed to operate.
“It is like having Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” she said. “No one with any independence is appointed to protect the public in these matters. The federal government regulates itself.”