Monday, May 19, 2008

The Lows of Lucas Heights: nuclear power in Australia

The operators of Australia’s only nuclear reactor have announced today it will make 80 staff redundant and trim costs by $10 million. Federal budget cuts have bitten into ANSTO - the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation who operate Lucas Heights in southern Sydney, ANSTO have asked its thousand-strong staff to volunteer for redundancies, but expects they will have to sack some people. The $10 million shortfall is split almost evenly between a reduction in funding and a curtailing of a graduate program.

The news comes as Lucas Heights was re-started after ten months off the air with technical problems. ANSTO shut down its 20 MegaWatt Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor in July last year when it was discovered several uranium fuel plates had come loose from their original position. ANSTO was forced to shut down the $400 million plant until it could approve a new fuel plate design.

ANSTO’s acting chief executive Ron Cameron says the job cuts will not impact on safety at Lucas Heights. He said the organisational focus would remain on safety, security and compliance of regulations. "We are committed to ensuring that we operate safely all the time,” he said. “We will ensure that in making the reductions that we need to make we will maintain our ability to deliver on our core scientific research areas."

But Shadow Minister for Innovation Science and Research, Eric Abetz was not impressed. He said today it was “anti-nuclear payback”. He blamed the cuts on “ideology” saying ANSTO copped the biggest cuts of any Abetz is still hurting from the Labor wedge campaign on nuclear power in the last election as he told the ABC today: “the Labor Government saw something with the name “nuclear” in its title and thought this is a fair cop for a cut.”

It is no surprise Abetz is so defensive of the industry. Lucas Heights was a project dear to the heart of Liberal hero Robert Menzies. It celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in January this year. In 1958 Australia was gripped in Cold War hysteria and the nuclear reactor was seen to give the country a seat at the nuclear table. Menzies approved the 10 MW High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) based on a British model.

But by the 2000s HIFAR was aging and in need of replacement. But situated just 31km from Sydney, Lucas Heights should have been the home of serious nimbyism. As Kevin Rudd exploited so successfully in the last election campaign no one wants a nuclear reactor in their back yard. Yet although OPAL was twice the size of HIFAR, it was opened in April 2007 with barely a minimum of fanfare. Like its media treatment, the plant too fell silent two months later due to its loose plates.

The question remains why ANSTO is funded at all. ANSTO claims its focus is on “science and medicine.” While its 20 Megawatts industry is a tiny fraction of Australia’s overall 50 GigaWatts capacity (mostly coal), it cannot be totally ignored as interim solution to global warming. But although the likes of James Lovelock have proposed nuclear power as a climate change solution, it seems unlikely that fission will ever be considered as a major power source in Australia.

The current Labor government seems to be hedging its bets. It won’t shut down OPAL but won’t fund ANSTO to upkeep it. Similarly it won’t introduce nuclear power in Australia, but is quite happy to export uranium overseas. Its uranium policy “recognises that the production of uranium and its use in the nuclear fuel cycle present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks” but Labor seems happy to export as much uranium as NNPT countries can accept. Perhaps the paranoid Abetz is right - this is nuclear payback. But it doesn't pay to be vindictive. As Russia only too well knows, there is only one thing worse than a nuclear industry and that is an underfunded nuclear industry.

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