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Ansto's reactor: costly, hot and very bothered: described by then-Prime Minister John Howard as a "triumph" at its opening in April last year, the new OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights remains shut down following serious operating problems. Dave Sweeney takes a look behind the razor wire and the secrecy surrounding Australia's main nuclear facility.

IN 1958 PRIME MINISTER ROBERT MENZIES declared the dawn of new era in Australian science as he opened the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's HIFAR nuclear reactor at its Lucas Heights site in isolated bushland south of Sydney.

In the five decades since much has taken place. HIFAR has opened, operated and shut--leaving a legacy of ageing nuclear technicians and ageless nuclear waste. The AAEC tried--and failed--to get nuclear power developed for domestic electricity production. The image consultants decide it was time to re-invent, so it re-fashioned the AAEC as ANSTO--the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. And a quiet piece of bush has become increasingly surrounded by the houses, schools, roads, municipal tips and shopping plazas of our nation's largest city.

Although ANSTO wields a disproportionate degree of power in certain political and security circles, it has never actually produced any. The two small reactors the organisation has run over the past 50 years have been used to produce medical and industrial isotopes, and to keep the flame of a possible future nuclear option alive.

ANSTO's long-held hopes for this nuclear revival received strong support with the election of the Howard government in 1996. Before then ANSTO was on a holding pattern with HIFAR heading towards the end of operations and the organisation developing a reputation as an arcane branch in the river of Australian science.

But in the late 1990s the pro-nuclear rain started falling heavily and became a flood that swept ANSTO into Federal Government favour and funding.

A confidential Cabinet meeting in 1997 gave approval for the construction of a new nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights to replace HIFAR. The decision elated ANSTO, surprised many in the science community, outraged many in the local community and began a complex and often covert policy and paper trail that has led to a stalled, unnecessary, over-priced and under-performing nuclear plant in suburban Sydney.


The new OPAL reactor was opened in April 2007 and shut down in July due to serious operating problems including persistent leaks in the reactor's heavy water pool and problems with the fuel assemblies used to power the reactor.

OPAL is not scheduled to re-open until sometime later this year and both its long-term future and the full extent of the problems at the site remain unclear. The situation has been made murkier by ANSTO's refusal to release cost estimates for the repair and a growing legal dispute between ANSTO and the controversial Argentinean reactor construction company INVAP over just who is responsible for the fault and the repair cost to the $400 million radioactive white elephant.

In November there were red faces around ANSTO when an international nuclear conference saw delegates from around the world converge on Sydney to discuss the 'effective utilisation' of nuclear research reactors. All this in a city where the world's newest one had been shut down and faces growing legal, financial and operational uncertainty.

But irony and embarrassment are poor cousins to accountability and robust process and there are serious questions that are raised--and demand to be answered by the OPAL experience.

How can a government commit to Australia's largest ever capital expenditure on science and technology without first consulting the nation's scientific community and agencies? How can a political decision to build a new nuclear reactor in a growth corridor of the nation's largest city be made ahead of any siting study, environmental impact statement or needs analysis? How can ANSTO--described in a Senate review of the reactor plan as an organisation with a deep culture of secrecy--be made more accountable? How was the deliberate misrepresentation by reactor proponents that people's access to nuclear medicine was dependent on the construction of OPAL allowed? Given that ANSTO can't run one small research reactor, who would give them the keys to 25 nuclear power plants and what credibility can there be in claims by its Chairman Ziggy Switkowski that nuclear power has a role in Australia's energy future?

Hopefully some useful lessons and honest answers will emerge as the dust settles on the sorry and shabby OPAL reactor saga. They need to.

Dave Sweeney is ACF's Nuclear Free Campaigner.
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Title Annotation:Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization
Author:Sweeney, Dave
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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