SBS Debate: why do we need a nuclear reactor?
Debate: why do we need a nuclear reactor? - August 10, 2000
I`m joined by Professor Helen Garnett, executive director of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, and director of the Lucas Heights facility. And in our Canberra studio, Professor Richard Broinowski, who in his 34 years as a diplomat in Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, Japan and Iran has been into many a nuclear reactor. He`s currently writing a book on the uranium industry and nuclear diplomacy.
VIVIAN SCHENKER: Welcome to you both.
Helen Garnett, clearly you`re not responsible for making government policy, but is Professor Ken McKinnon right when he says the main justification for having a nuclear reactor is Australia`s national interest?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT, LUCAS HEIGHTS DIRECTOR: Well Vivian, I guess we`ve always said there`s four reasons for a replacement reactor in Australia. One is the science and technology and the benefits that brings to Australia, and historically people from Lucas Heights and all across Australia who`ve used the reactor have contributed to the knowledge and know-how.
Another is the applications in industry, and there`s studies to show the benefits to that. The third is the medical area. And the fourth is indeed the national interest. I guess the issue of national interest and the benefits to the strategic national interest have never been hidden. It`s not a sinister issue. It`s been out in the open all the time.
But is that the real and most important reason, do you think?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: No. I guess I`ve said clearly, and I restate - all of the reasons are important.
Are equally important?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: As far as I`m concerned, they`re all important.
Richard Broinowski, do you accept that it`s in Australia`s best national interests to have a nuclear reactor?
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI, FORMER DIPLOMAT: No. I`ll tell you why. We`ve done very well in the last five years or so in international diplomacy on non- proliferation. We were at the forefront of getting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty up; we were also at the forefront of getting an indefinite extension to the Non- Proliferation Treaty.
And I can imagine my colleagues in Vienna and at the United Nations in New York and other places - they`re not nuclear-trained, they`re diplomats, and they`re talking about responsible issues. They`re talking about non-proliferation, horizontal non-proliferation - that is, not allowing non-nuclear weapons states to get nuclear weapons, and we`ve done very well.
I don`t think it`s been in the back of their mind whether we have a reactor; "We`ve got HIFAR in Lucas Heights - thanks very much and thank God we have it; it adds to our credibility." Or in fact, they haven`t said, "HIFAR"s just about out of date. We need a new nuclear reactor to improve our credibility." You put that to John Rowland, when he was ambassador in Vienna, or even to Richard Butler, who`s recently had his watch in UNSCOM, and I think you`d find just as in my mind, it didn`t counter, it didn`t figure.
Australia is a sophisticated country - you`ve got enormous technology in all sorts of areas. As a permanent member of the International Atomic Energy Agency for South- East Asia and the Pacific, we - even without the reactor at Lucas Heights - would have enough sophistication to hold that seat, let alone the fact we`re one of the biggest repositories of uranium.
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Well, I guess I have to disagree with Richard. First of all, the fact is the diplomats have had technical people only a matter of weeks ago in a significant debate and discussion on Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty issues. There was the phone call, "Please send relevant people - we need a person from ANSTO to make sure they`re present for the technical aspects."
So I just can`t accept that. I don`t think people realise quite how often the technical expertise of the staff at ANSTO is in fact drawn on to provide advice to the people who indeed do make the policy. But it`s the technical advice and the technical underpinning.
I think it`s curious and rather interesting that in fact, if you go back in history, way back to 1945, at the beginning of disarmament, Dr Evatt got on the telephone from New York and said, "Send me a scientist urgently." And it`s been like that ever since.
Let`s talk about scientific research...
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: Could I just come in on that point? Why is it, therefore, that ANSTO only has councillors in three places; in Vienna - of course, that`s the IAEA headquarters; in Washington; and in London, according to their latest annual report?
Why is it that in my watch, in Korea, which is our second or third-largest customer for uranium, I haven`t had to have a nuclear expert there when I`ve discussed these issues? And why is it that at the UN in New York, we hardly ever have to call upon this?
Because I`ll tell you why. The nuclear non-proliferation issues don`t involve technical expertise at ANSTO. Nor do we even need a microbiologist, who runs that place - he`s not a nuclear physicist, apparently. But you know, it`s a political matter, it`s a diplomatic matter, it`s a matter of disarmament.
Helen Garnett, why do we need a nuclear reactor of our own, in order to have a voice in the nuclear proliferation debate?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Well, I guess Richard has mentioned the issue of Vienna, and indeed yes, there is an ANSTO person in the Embassy in Vienna, and there is one in Washington and London. We also send people as required to various places. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency is the most technical of all the UN agencies...
I guess what I`m asking is why do you need technical expertise to argue against the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: I guess if I could follow a little bit on, maybe I can explain a little bit of the role of the technical expertise. The Agency requires technical people; you cannot work in the agency unless you`re a technical expert - nuclear engineer working in radiation safety, etc. You`ve got to have experience and you`ve got to be working in it.
People are seconded to the Agency. The committees in the Agency, the work the Agency does in fact relies on the standing of the technical people. Our technical people get on those standing committees; that indeed underpins, then, the technical advice and our seat on the Board of Governors.
It isn`t that we just have a reactor; it isn`t that we just have uranium deposits; it`s in fact the technical expertise and the participation in a technical way in the Agency, in its committees, that underpins our Board of Governors seat. Indeed, we get asked many, many, many times over the weeks for advice into these sorts of political aspects from technical experts.
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: No, again I`d disagree. What we do need is professional diplomats, and we have them; we have a very good number of them who`ve done remarkable things on the non-proliferation front. They haven`t had nuclear technology, but they`ve done a very good job, because it is basically a matter of diplomacy.
The Department of Foreign Affairs seems to believe that a nuclear reactor is the very minimum requirement for us to keep our seat on the IAEA. Do you...
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: No, no - that`s not true. The Department of Foreign Affairs said, in answer to your question, without notice, that in fact that`s not the case - we do not need that technical expertise.
The membership of the Board of Governors is not decided by the Agency; rather, as in most international organisations, it is decided by member states. The IAEA Statute provides, insofar as designation to its board is concerned, that one seat would come to South-East Asia and the Pacific, and it doesn`t rely on the fact that we have a reactor or not.
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Can I comment on what you`ve just said, Vivian? In fact, the Department of Foreign Affairs and indeed other departments in Canberra have consistently, over many years, when there`s been inquiries - and indeed there`s been many inquiries into the need for nuclear expertise in Australia, and many inter- departmental committees as well. And in each and every one of those, and including in public submissions to Ken McKinnon`s review, to the Environmental Impact Statement, to the Public Works Committee, to the Senate Economic References Committees, they have indeed consistently made the comments that you did - that indeed, a reactor is the very basis of that expertise.
But I think it`s important to come back to the issue that it`s the science and technology and the work that`s done at Lucas Heights which also provides the credibility Australia has in the international arena. We are acknowledged for the work we do.
Richard Broinowski, can I ask you here - let`s turn the debate around. Why not have a nuclear reactor? If it helps produce medical isotopes and it helps at all in scientific research, why not?
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: Well, I think there`s a certain credibility in those people who are worried about the polluting effects. According to ANSTO`s latest annual review, 1,460 spent fuel rods are now held at Lucas Heights, from HIFAR and there must be some from OATA, the earlier reactor too which often doesn`t get mentioned but which has been closed down.
Now, those rods mainly - 1,300 of them - are going overseas to be reprocessed. According to Helen Garnett - and I find this incredible - we`re required to have a strategy for managing the fuel, and there is a strategy for fuel management, so that is in place.
She says: "The issue of what happens to the very small amounts of intermediate-level waste that`s returned to Australia, starting around 2025 - " Helen, I thought it was 2015, or maybe I`ve misread it - "is an issue that is still to be resolved."
Now, isn`t it true that this stuff we`re going to get back from overseas includes transuranics such as plutonium, u235 and others, and also fission products. Are they not high-level waste? Certainly Mr Justice Fox in the Ranger report, which still has a lot of credibility, says that.
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Well, they`re not high-level waste. There are international standards. The IAEA has three categories of waste - it has low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste. And indeed, it is a very small quantity - Australia already has some 500 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste in the country, from a variety of industrial, medical, scientific research activities. It is scattered around the country, in about 50 different sites - and that`s not the low-level, that`s the intermediate-level.
What will come back from the reprocessing of the HIFAR spent fuel is indeed a matter of about 25 cubic metres, and it`s only 26 because 20 of it is cement, 6 of it is in fact glass. From the replacement reactor, it will be even less - it will probably be 6 or less cubic metres of intermediate-level waste, according to international categories.
Why is the public still so suspicious? Why don`t they believe your reassurances about safety?
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: I guess, Vivian, that`s something that is an issue we continue to try and work with. We`ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to work with the public over many, many months. We`ve had open days and we`ve even invited our opponents on-site during our open days so they can put their case as well as us. So it`s not as if we haven`t tried to engage in some dialogue and recognise that there are people with other views.
But I guess I`d say there are indeed a very small number of people who really are opposed. I grew up in the Sutherland Shire; I have a lot of friends in the Sutherland Shire, and I don`t actually see this huge sway of opinion against ANSTO. In fact, I see a lot of people who are very supportive of ANSTO.
So clearly there are some people who are against us. But I think there`s a very interesting article in the latest issue of `New Scientist` that came out this week, and indeed Ian Lowe, who has not always been one of our supporters, says he`s "absolutely astounded" by a recent study that`s just been released that says the public looks, or considers that nuclear waste is far more dangerous than a car`s. And as he says, over the last 10 years, 20,000 people in Australia have died from cars - he doesn`t know anybody who`s died from nuclear waste.
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: Dr John Loy said last weekend, Dr Garnett, that going ahead with this reactor depends upon a number of approvals that he has to give as head of ARPANZA. One of them is that it has to be subject to safe disposal of the spent fuel, or the irradiated fuel rods. Now, we don`t have a disposal yet, do we? And therefore, may I ask you, is this contract subject to certain approvals down the track?
OK, let her answer.
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Well, I`m not going to talk in detail about contracts, but certainly, it`s well-recognised that we need to have a construction licence and an operational licence.
But the issue is I don`t think John Loy actually said at all that there needed to be a disposal; nor do I believe he said that it needed to be disposal for the rods. What I believe he said, that there needed to be movement towards a strategy for having an appropriate storage for intermediate-level waste in Australia.
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: No, that`s not what he said. I`m sorry, it`s not what he said at all.
Are you confident, though, it will go ahead? PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: Yes, I am confident it will go ahead. I believe that the...you`re talking about the reactor going ahead? I`m confident that the reactor will go ahead. There has been many, many months of inquiries and review, and there really are a great number of benefits from that facility.
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: Well, I`ve heard those repeated, the many benefits, but quite frankly, I think there are a lot of benefits that we would have without it. Incidentally, Dr Garnett, the national medical cyclotron that you run produces iodine 123, and there are a lot of other pharmaceuticals that are produced by that. When the reactor, the HIFAR reactor is shut down for days and days on end - about 46 per year...
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: I`m sorry, Richard - you`re wrong. The cyclotron produces 20% of Australia`s supplies of isotopes, and indeed...
PROFESSOR RICHARD BROINOWSKI: OK, but you get them from overseas, don`t you. When the reactor is shut down, you have to import those from overseas, don`t you?
We have discussed that in our story tonight.
PROFESSOR HELEN GARNETT: We import some isotopes - we cannot import the full range of isotopes. And indeed, when there are problems with our facility, there are patients` treatment which is significantly compromised, and that was the case in the last shutdown.
OK, we`re going to have to leave it there - I suspect we`re going to have many more debates about nuclear reactors in the next couple of years. Thank you both very much for taking part tonight.