Monday 28 May 2012 - Budget Estimates - Economics Committee
Senator LUDLAM: Can I just pick you up on one or two things that you mentioned right at the outset. Are we contracted to send all of the spent fuel from the OPAL reactor, the new reactor, back to the United States?
Dr Paterson : My understanding is that, for the first tranche of fuel up to 2016, that is the case.
Senator LUDLAM: That is what the US is currently reprocessing. But that material will not be returned to Australia. We are not contracted to ever get it back, are we?
Dr Paterson : That is correct.
Senator LUDLAM: What about post 2016?
Dr Paterson : Post 2016 the situation is currently fluid. The Unites States's program has been directed mainly at research reactors that still use highly enriched uranium. Of course, the OPAL reactor uses low-enriched uranium.
Senator LUDLAM: Low or medium?
Dr Paterson : It is low. It is less than 20 per cent, which is the definition of low-enriched uranium. It is 19.6 per cent.
Senator LUDLAM: Just under. Okay. At what point will the government be renegotiating contracts for fuel for OPAL post 2016?
Dr Paterson : We have regular meetings with our counterparts in the United States who are responsible for this program. We meet with them about twice a year. At my last meeting with them I tabled this issue again, and we are awaiting their response. We are likely to have further discussions in July.
Senator LUDLAM: Is it Australian government policy that that agreement should prevail-that we will not be receiving reprocessed waste back?
Dr Paterson : If that opportunity exists in a global program, which is virtuous in that it removes highly-enriched uranium and the residual fuels from the low enriched uranium reactors from the issue of reprocessing, we think that it is generally a good thing. That is the basis on which we have those negotiations.
Senator LUDLAM: The other alternative, of course, is to leave the spent fuel here in Australia and not ship it anywhere.
Dr Paterson : That would probably not be an ideal practice, because you can reduce the total inventory of high-level waste significantly by reprocessing. The partners who reprocess on our behalf remove the high-level waste.
Senator LUDLAM: Then let us go to that. The material that has gone to Europe-Scotland and France historically-is then reprocessed and is scheduled for return to Australia. What has happened to the fissile uranium and the plutonium that has been removed from the fuel? Is that scheduled to return to Australia or is the purpose to leave that behind?
Dr Paterson : The purpose is to leave that behind. That has always been the purpose. That has been the position right from the start of this process. So there has never been an intention, as I understand it, with respect to the reprocessing of this fuel in France and the reprocessing that will take place in Scotland, to return high-level waste or fissile material to Australia.
Senator LUDLAM: So we have to keep track, effectively in perpetuity, of Australian obligated plutonium and uranium once it has been separated and stored somewhere?
Dr Paterson : I think that that is probably a question for the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office. But ANSTO's understanding of it is that there will not be a requirement to do that.
Senator LUDLAM: I will speak to Dr Floyd about that later in the week. Are you aware whether the government sought to renegotiate the contracts for the return of the reprocessed material from France?
Dr Paterson : Could you give a time window of when that may or may not have happened?
Senator LUDLAM: Well, at any time, I suppose, prior to the decision to bring it back and initiate the licensing process for storing it temporarily at Lucas Heights. At any time are you aware of whether the government sought to renegotiate those contracts, or has it been content to rest with the 2014-15 return timetable?
Dr Paterson : I know of no such attempt, but I think that detail is a matter for the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, because the French agreement is a country to country agreement.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. So those should be put to DRET. Within your role with ANSTO, are you aware of attempts to renegotiate?
Dr Paterson : We have not been involved in renegotiation.
Senator Chris Evans: Senator, I will ask one of my staff to alert DRET that you might ask them that question this evening. It seems to me that that is the place to ask that. I will see if they can come briefed for that.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes, it should be a fairly simple yes or no. Thanks, Minister. Obviously, whether or not there were discussions about renegotiation, the decision I understand has been made to bring the stuff back to Lucas Heights. Have you conducted any further review or risk assessment of the implications of hosting that stuff in Sydney?
Dr Paterson : We have. We have looked at it, as I mentioned at a previous estimates briefing. We had a scenario that there was potential for that waste to be returned and therefore we have been working on a plan in that regard. That includes risk assessments.
Senator LUDLAM: So we are not hypothetical anymore. It appears that the decision has been made, rightly or wrongly, to bring it back. What is the status of your planning now?
Dr Paterson : The status of the planning now is that, from a regulatory point of view, we announced earlier in the month that we would be applying to ARPANSA for a licence. They are the competent authority to judge the merits for our approach, and we are basing our approach on international best practice.
Senator LUDLAM: How much of your licence request will be in the public domain?
Dr Paterson : I think that is probably a question for ARPANSA, but my understanding is that ARPANSA would, for a situation like this, run public hearings.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes, I gather that.
Dr Paterson : And the aim would be to have a high level of transparency because, after all, this waste was the product of the HIFAR reactor's 50 years of service in materials testing, in neutron scattering and science and in the production of nuclear medicines.
Senator LUDLAM: So that is again a question for Mr Larsson. Can you characterise for us the radiation signature on the canisters that you were describing before-these vitrified blocks that are then in steel containers? Take that on notice if you like. Specifically, for the material coming back, what is the radiation signature for one of those canisters if I am standing right next to it? I am presuming you would not advise that, but what if I did?
Dr Paterson : Certainly the risk of standing next to those containers is rather low. But I think that since you are asking for the specific signatures and levels of activity, we will ask our team to provide that to you on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: And what is the degree to which the steel canisters in which these blocks are hosted become activated and themselves radioactive over time?
Dr Paterson : Basically the level of activation of the steel will be included in the question we take on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay, if you could. What is your state of understanding of the total cost of the facility, which I understand is just a big shed?
Dr Paterson : The entire process-the waste return and the cost for the facility-is not absolutely finalised, as I indicated previously. But we will take on notice what the cost of the physical facility will be.
Senator LUDLAM: If you can. Is ANSTO confident that the material can be managed securely at the Lucas Heights site, and what is the basis for your confidence?
Dr Paterson : ANSTO is confident that the material can be handled for temporary interim storage on our site. With respect to our understanding of the types of canisters that are involved and the type of engineering that underpins them, the basis for this confidence is our general knowledge of the activity that will be encapsulated into the glass and into the cement over packs for the other intermediate-level waste and the fact that these are benchmarked against the practices of international organisations which have already used these types of canisters and which use them on a regular basis. So we have a large amount of operating experience from the international domain. In addition to that, we have the scrutiny of our regulators and we have the experience of organisations around the world that do this on a regular basis. So we will be seeking to match and achieve international best practice in regard to this waste return.
Senator LUDLAM: On the basis also of storing non-reprocessed materials on site? Because you already have a large, by Australian standards, inventory of material. How different is the stuff that is due to return from overseas to what we already host and to what we have already been looking after for a number of decades?
Dr Paterson : The difference is the vitrified form. We currently do not store waste in a vitrified form.
Senator LUDLAM: We just store fuel rods and various other categories?
Dr Paterson : Yes, absolutely. The fuel rods are not really constituted as a waste. They are called spent fuel. The waste is the residual material after the reprocessing of those rods or if the disposition pathway is to a final store. At that point it could be classified as waste.
Senator LUDLAM: But the fuel rods are not useful for anything are they? Unless you decide to reprocess them they are junk. You cannot stick them back in the plant or anything.
Dr Paterson : I think you made the point that if they are reprocessed they are useful.
Senator LUDLAM: Yes, if you want to make nuclear weapons and stuff, but let us not go there. Mr Paterson, I do not think you addressed this in your opening statement. On 16 March, 2012 a piece that ran in the Australian reported that ANSTO had used findings of an inaccurate, biased and partially fabricated in-house report as the pretext to suspend a number of workers, and ANSTO still appears to be a rather unhappy workplace. An investigation by a regulator into activities at ANSTO finds room for improvement in some fairly basic and fundamental areas, and nine recommendations were made by Comcare. Could you please tell the committee how ANSTO is making the multiple additional improvements identified by Comcare in its report? Do you want to just give us an update on what ANSTO is doing in response to that report?
Dr Paterson : The media report or the report of Comcare?
Senator LUDLAM: No, the report of Comcare.
Dr Paterson : In respect of the that report, the first point that I wish to make is that ANSTO and I, as the leader of ANSTO, do not tolerate any kind of workplace bullying. The employees concerned continue to work at ANSTO in positions mutually agreed by ANSTO, the unions and the employees concerned. ANSTO continues to have a good relationship with those employees and their union representatives. They are performing a valuable role. In respect to the Comcare report, Comcare made no findings of any breach. Comcare proposed a series of recommendations that ANSTO has accepted and has developed into an action plan agreed with both Comcare and the relevant union. The report made recommendations about ANSTO improving investigations, which have been accepted. ANSTO has now adopted the Australian government investigation standard as the basis for all of our investigations, and is rolling out appropriate training to those staff who are involved in such investigations to ensure that they meet the relevant standard.
Senator LUDLAM: Who were not appropriately trained.
Dr Paterson : They were trained in investigative processes, but we were not aware that there was an Australian government investigation standard. Our investigators have always been trained, but this is a higher bar and we are very happy to complete with that higher bar. We urge all other institutions that conduct human resource investigations to meet the same standard.
Senator LUDLAM: Could you table for the committee the action plan that you mentioned?
Dr Paterson : I would be prepared to take that on notice, but we can table it.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not know whether there would be privacy implications.
Dr Paterson : There may well be some privacy implications, but those will not be extensive. I think we would be very happy to share that action plan.
Senator LUDLAM: Take names out if you will, but that would be much appreciated.
CHAIR: We are going to have to leave it there and move to IP Australia.