Comparing nuclear risks in Japan and Australia

Jim Green

A Japanese Parliamentary report has found that the fundamental causes of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster "are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture". However many of the problems evident in Japan can be seen in Australia.

The 10-member Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission − established by an Act of the Japanese Parliament − states that the Fukushima disaster was "a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented" if not for "a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11." The accident was the result of "collusion between the government, the regulators and [plant operator] TEPCO".

The chair of the Investigation Commission, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, states in the foreword to the report: "What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'" However the serious, protracted problems with the nuclear industry in Japan have parallels in Australia. The uranium industry provides plenty of examples but here the focus is on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), which operates the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor site south of Sydney.

A 1989 review of ANSTO by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd found major problems including "poor morale and poor management-staff relations"; "a deficiency in safety culture"; key personnel not being trained; out-of-date operating manuals; poor health and safety practices; improper management of high-level radioactive waste; inadequate emergency arrangements; and the HIFAR reactor's emergency core cooling system had been compromised resulting in unnecessary risks for two years.

On 11 June 1992, an inspection of ANSTO by the NSW Environment Protection Authority found that drums of radioactive waste were leaking, vital safety equipment was out of order, and leaking waste may have washed into the stormwater system. The federal government passed legislation making ANSTO exempt from NSW environmental and public health laws.

An internal 1998 federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources briefing document, obtained under freedom of information legislation, warns government officials: "Be careful in terms of health impacts − don't really want a detailed study done of the health of Sutherland residents."

Around the turn of the century, when the debate over ANSTO's plan for a new reactor was unfolding, whistleblowers repeatedly provided public information about accidents at Lucas Heights. Whistleblowers wrote in an April 2000 letter to Sutherland Shire Council: "The ANSTO Board has a very limited idea of what is really transpiring at Lucas Heights. For instance, the radiation contamination scare last year was only brought to the staff's attention because of a local newspaper. The incident was of such gravity, that the executive should have made an announcement over the site-emergency monitor about the incident to inform the staff. Instead the management practiced a culture of secrecy and cover-up, even to the extent of actively and rudely dissuading staff from asking too many questions about the event."

Emergency planning is inadequate and will remain so because of the head-in-the-sand approach taken by ANSTO and by federal and state governments. Nuclear engineer Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO's Division of Engineering and Reactors, noted in 2001 that ANSTO's safety procedures "are so cumbersome, and they'd take so long to implement, they'd be ineffective." Mr Wood said the Sutherland Shire Council's emergency plans conspicuously failed to even note the existence of a nuclear reactor in the Shire: "If you look at the plan regarding the public, there's no mention of the reactor. It's like it isn't there."

In 2004, ANSTO produced a report into an accident at Lucas Heights during which five workers were exposed to radiation. The report, released after a Freedom of Information request by The Australian, identified a range of familiar problems including staff complacency, "under appreciation of the hazard", contradictory instructions and a lapse in safety supervision.

Since 2007, ANSTO's inadequate safety standards and its treatment of several whistleblowers have been the subject of ongoing controversy and multiple inquiries. Details are posted on the Friends of the Earth website (archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/lh). Suffice it here to list some media headlines from 2010−12 which provide some insight into this saga:

Lucas Heights whistleblower sparks nuclear safety fears, ABC

Report slams Australian nuclear reactor, ABC Lateline

Nuclear whistleblower treated unfairly The Australian

Nuclear safety breaches concern Opposition, ABC

Reactor staff 'bullied over safety concerns', The Australian

Backdown at Lucas Heights over safety claims, The Australian

Nuclear agency safety 'stuck in 70s' The Australian

Lucas Heights nuclear reactor bullying exposed, The Australian

Third nuclear worker in bullying claim, The Australian

In Australia as in Japan, there are patterns of inadequate safety practices stretching back for decades. In Australia as in Japan, whistleblowers have provided a great deal of information about nuclear accidents and safety problems.

Inadequate regulation

Nuclear regulation has clearly been substandard in Japan and it is clearly substandard in Australia. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) has been compromised from the start. The CEO of ANSTO was allowed to sit on the panel which interviewed applicants for the ARPANSA CEO job when ARPANSA was created in the late 1990s. ANSTO's communications manager / spin doctor John Mulcair could only say: "There are two views about that. There's my view and then there's the official ANSTO view."

There is a revolving door between ANSTO and ARPANSA, further undermining regulatory independence. At times ARPANSA has employed as many as six ex-ANSTO employees, perhaps more. Recent controversies have been complicated by a relationship between an ANSTO employee and an ARPANSA employee.

ARPANSA's handling of the 'clean up' of the Maralinga nuclear test site was its first test and it was a failure. ARPANSA's handling of ANSTO's applications to build and operate a new research reactor was problematic in many respects.

A 2005 Australian National Audit Office report was highly critical of ARPANSA. It said: "[O]verall management of conflict of interest is not sufficient to meet the requirements of the ARPANS Act and Regulations. ... Potential areas of conflict of interest are not explicitly addressed or transparently managed."

The Audit Office report also said that ARPANSA does not monitor or assess the extent to which licensees meet reporting requirements and that there had been under-reporting by licence holders. It also noted that ARPANSA had reported only one designated breach to Parliament despite "a number of instances" where ARPANSA had detected non-compliance by licensees.

Problems identified by the ANAO in 2005 are still in evidence. Since 2007, ARPANSA has been drawn into the ongoing saga regarding accidents at Lucas Heights and ANSTO's treatment of whistleblowers. In 2010 ARPANSA released two conflicting reports on accidents at Lucas Heights leading to an investigation into ARPANSA itself by the Chief Auditor.

In July 2011, Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing Catherine King said in a media release that the regulatory powers of ARPANSA would be reviewed after the Audit and Fraud Control Branch of the Department of Health and Ageing found that ARPANSA's handling of a safety incident at Lucas Heights lacked of consistency in evidence and transparency in the handling.

In June 2012 a KPMG report found that ARPANSA's interim and final reports into contamination incidents at ANSTO did not sufficiently examine statements made by a whistleblower.

Long-standing patterns of inadequate nuclear safety practices and inadequate regulation are evident in both Japan and Australia. The difference is that Australia's industry doesn't have any nuclear power reactors to blow up. A good thing too.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia. archive.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear, australianmap.net