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2001 protest at Lucas Heights nuclear reactor (Image via greenpeace.org))

Last week’s fire on a nuclear waste ship off Scotland shows why Australia’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor should to be shut down, writes Noel Wauchope.

THE CASE FOR THE LUCAS HEIGHTS NUCLEAR REACTOR has always been couched in an argument for necessary medical radiopharmaceuticals being produced there. However, in fact, medical isotopes can be produced without the need for a nuclear reactor, by use of particle accelerators. That sounds expensive, but it's not as expensive as a nuclear reactor when you look at its total costs.

A case in point was shown in news from Scotland last week. 

On 7 October, an oil rig was evacuated after a ship caught fire and drifted into Moray Firth. The ship was seven miles from the Moray Firth oil platform, but still they chose to evacuate all the oil rig employees.

Why? Because of the cargo on that ship.

The ship, the Parida, was carrying radioactive wastes that were being returned to Belgium. The nuclear waste was sent to Dounreay reprocessing plant in the 1990s, but must now be returned.

Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said the incident, in which no-one was hurt, was

‘… a marine incident and not a nuclear incident.'

People in Scotland are not so sure.

WWF Scotland, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and SNP MSP Rob Gibson have expressed concern about nuclear waste travelling by sea. 

Scotland's Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said 

Most people, like me, may not be comfortable with the idea of a vessel carrying nuclear waste waiting for a weather window to sail through our waters.

While these vessels are built to cope with extreme weather, if they break down they drift and that is a fact we have to think about here.

It is a serious incident and I think we need to review how we regulate the transportation of nuclear waste in our waters. That is the responsibility of the Office of Nuclear Regulation and I will be speaking to UK ministers about it.

Which brings me to the Australian Lucas Heights connection.

Highly radioactive wastes from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor have been sent to France, Argentina and Dounreay under contracts that require Australia to take back the processed wastes. Indeed, the French batch is due by the end of 2015.

In the case of Dounreay, there is now pressure on the countries where the wastes originated, because the Dounreay nuclear site is being decommissioned and demolished.

The closing of Dounreay is a tortuous business indeed, involving demolition of several facilities, such as Dounreay's two experimental reactors — the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) and Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR). They also must build huge vaults, costing GBP £20 million. The cost of transporting the high level wastes ‒ in 90 train shipments, under armed escort ‒ to Sellafield is estimated at GBP £60 million. But that is said to be cheaper than housing these wastes at Dounreay.

Information on the amounts of radioactive trash for return to Australia is not publicly available. For Belgium, which has two research nuclear reactors, over 150 tonnes of nuclear wastes are being returned over a four year period. Then the Belgians have to put it all somewhere — and that won't easy, nor cheap.

Transport of radioactive wastes to and from Lucas Heights is indeed a hazardous operation, requiring much expensive security. However, transport is not the only safety consideration. The previous HIFAR reactor ‒ and the present OPAL one ‒ have troubled safety records.

Last year, the OPAL reactor was temporarily shut down, due to a fire in its electrical substation

In 2012, Friends of the Earth reported on a number of safety problems at Lucas Heights, including radiation contamination to workers, an inadequate safety culture, bullying and dismissal of a whistleblower, David Reid.

A Comcare investigation in December 2011 reported that in 2009-10, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) Health had one breach of its licence and 56 radiology ‘events or near misses’.

The present government and media focus on terrorism has already produced danger reports about Lucas Heights. In late September, 500 AFP officers surrounded ANSTO when two cars were seen at the entrance to the plant.

It was a false alarm.

The Daily Telegraph reported (21/09/14) on jihadist Mazen Touma ‒ currently detained in the Goulburn Supermax under the AA classification introduced in 2008 especially for terrorists ‒ being found with ammunition and 165 railway detonators after being ­arrested near the Lucas Heights reactor  

Australia’s most notorious terrorist, Willie Brigitte was gaoled in France in 2007 for joining an al-Qaeda backed Pakistani terror cell that had conspired to blow up the Lucas Heights nuclear plant

When you look at the total costs of managing the life chain of a nuclear reactor, Lucas Heights does not look particularly cheap compared with a particle accelerator.

Of course, Lucas Heights nuclear reactor has never really been there for medicine, but rather as a foot in the door for a nuclear industry and, indeed, was originally aimed at creating a nuclear weapons industry in Australia

The incident in the Scottish Firth illustrates not only the costs, but also the dangers of transporting ever more nuclear wastes by sea.

We should shut Lucan Heights down before we regret it.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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