Supplementary Budget Estimates - Community Affairs Committee - 17 October 2012
Senator LUDLAM: I was informed that recently Russia and China have begun quarantining cars and other material coming out of Japan because they detected trace amounts of radioactivity on them. Can you update the committee on the measures taken by the Australian government to ensure that imports from Japan, including principally food, are not contaminated with harmful radioactive material?
Dr Larsson : I can update you on that, and I can also point to the fact that on Friday there will be a report on the activities that we have undertaken in relation to goods and food arriving from Japan that will go up on our website.
Senator LUDLAM: This Friday?
Dr Larsson : This Friday. In terms of monitoring what we have detected, back in April 2011 the Darwin monitoring station detected airborne activity, very low amounts. That is from the CTBT monitoring stations, which are adapted to detect clandestine nuclear weapons tests and are extremely sensitive. So that is of negligible concern from the health perspective. We have not detected anything since. We have analysed over 500 food samples and found very small levels of radioactivity in most of the food samples. In some of the dried food samples we have found more, like in tea and dried mushrooms.
We have undertaken a measurement of goods arriving from Japan. We have measured cars, both new and used. We have also measured the ships carrying the cars to the Australian ports. We have monitored the ballast water that they carry with them. Generally speaking, in terms of surface monitoring of the cars, we have not detected anything; we have only detected background, small activities in the ballast water.
There has also been some concern, as you may have noticed, over certain fauna that is migratory. There has been information in the press about tuna probably being contaminated off the coast of Japan, and subsequently being caught off the coast of the United States. We have done measurements on mutton birds, which happen to be migratory birds, that pass the coast of Japan, up to the coast of North America and then return via the Pacific to Australia where they breed. We have made measurements on them. We have also conducted studies and we do not find any contamination that is of any concern whatsoever.
Senator LUDLAM: In terms of manufactured goods and food, have we had to turn away any shipments of material coming into the country, since last March?
Dr Larsson : No.
Senator LUDLAM: There is a vast amount of cargo, obviously-manufactured items, food and all sorts of other stuff-that comes into Australia. What fraction of material is monitored on the way in?
Dr Larsson : Very little is monitored. The food program is something that we do at the request of AQIS. Maybe I should ask Dr Solomon, who has been in charge of the monitoring program, to expand a little bit on that.
Dr Solomon : Over the past year, ARPANSA has undertaken measurements of food on the request of DAFF. We have measured up to 500 samples. We have not detected any levels above the international guidance levels. Over recent times, we have looked to change that monitoring program to a screening program, targeting food arising from particular areas and particular foodstuffs.
It needs to be said, the Japanese government has a very intensive program of food monitoring in place. The number of samples they have measured runs into the hundreds of thousands now. Our recommendation or advice to DAFF and to FSANZ is that we undertake screening of particular food, from particular areas, on a limited basis to give us confidence that the processes in place, in Japan, are robust and sound.
Senator LUDLAM: Is it possible for us to estimate what fraction or proportion of imported goods, to Australia, are subject to some kind of test?
Dr Solomon : Within Australia, there is a very limited amount of testing. There is a very small fraction, I would say.
Senator LUDLAM: So effectively we are relying on the systems that the Japanese government has put in place to prevent material from leaving the country in the first place.
Dr Solomon : In terms of the measurement program, that is the case, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: What can you tell the committee about discussions between ARPANSA and ANSTO regarding the Comcare report where there was a recent KPMG assessment into the yttrium incident that essentially vindicated the ANSTO whistleblower David Reid? I had a rather disturbing exchange earlier this morning with Dr Paterson from ANSTO. He effectively denied there was necessarily any incident at all, which I find a bit alarming. He also noted, quite correctly, that this document was produced for and intended for ARPANSA, not for ANSTO-which I take on board. I seek your views on that report.
Dr Larsson : Obviously, since this occurred in parallel with the session-not exactly in parallel, since you are here, Senator-I will have to go and have a look at the Hansard when it becomes available in order to see what Dr Paterson stated in relation to that.
In relation to the KPMG report, I have stated-and I have informed ANSTO-that I accept the conclusions of the report that it is likely that a contamination occurred on that particular morning and that it is possible that the informant's recollection of events is correct. That means also that we have amended the inspection report that was issued previously. We have provided an addendum to that. In relation to the letter I sent to ANSTO informing them about my conclusions, I have realised from the response we got that they were not prepared to fully agree with the conclusions of the KPMG report and that they would come back with more specific comments, and I have not as yet received any.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. I will not ask you to comment on Dr Paterson's comments today, obviously, but that is entirely consistent with the position ANSTO seems to be taking. Is it your view, though, that ANSTO has actually made misleading statements about this incident? And here I am not including statements that might have been made this morning. But ANSTO effectively is still disputing that anything necessarily occurred, and I find that alarming.
CHAIR: The agency cannot make a statement calling another agency misleading. If the agency wishes to make a statement, that is fine, but they cannot respond to the question you asked.
Dr Larsson : I was just going to make the comment that obviously the KPMG report acknowledges that there is an uncertainty here. To some extent, the fact that there is uncertainty is enough for me to raise concerns, because the uncertainty indicates that there is uncertainty as to who is present and who is not at a certain point in time. That goes back to 2007, so this is an old incident; this is five years old. We have seen very much improvement in the handling of such events and of exit and entry control. There is actually a refurbishment going on, and I have requested a full report on the refurbishment project when it is finalised.
Senator LUDLAM: I will ask you about that in subsequent sessions. I think one of the reasons we are still fighting over this five years later is that ANSTO has offered up dispute and disagreement at every single turn, and that is why we are still here. You have recently given public notice of a pending decision regarding a facility licence at ANSTO's Lucas Heights centre, which relates to temporary storage or interim storage, if you will, for spent fuel reprocessing wastes coming back from Europe. Can you talk us through the nature of that decision, when it is expected and what role your office will play from here?
Dr Larsson : We are currently doing a preliminary review of the material that has been sent to us, for a number of purposes. We need to respond, and we have, to SEWPAC-to the department of environment-as this is information that is necessary for their decisions in relation to the EPBC Act. We need to convince ourselves that the material is actually reviewable-and we believe that the material is reviewable. Finally, we need to have material in a form that can be used in the public consultation process. With regard to the latter aspect, I think there is still some work to do to get the material prepared and ready in a form that is useful for the public consultation process. As soon as I have that material I will start the public consultation process, which I believe is going to last for about six to eight weeks.
Senator LUDLAM: Is that distinct from or will it be linked to any public consultation process Minister Burke decides to undertake as part of his formal approvals?
Dr Larsson : It will be distinct from it.
Senator LUDLAM: Will you be collaborating or that sort of thing?
Dr Larsson : We certainly would be, but if there is a decision to go for public consultation, under the EPBC Act my understanding is that that would be driven by ANSTO. Obviously there is no connection between ourselves and ANSTO in that regard, but we will certainly collaborate with the environment department.
Senator LUDLAM: I am not sure if I am putting words in your mouth here, but you have already decided that you will undertake a process of public consultation when this process gets up. Is that correct?
Dr Larsson : This is a nuclear facility, so that is mandatory in the legislation.
Senator LUDLAM: Understood. Coming back to an old one-the current status of the National Radiation Dose Register-how advanced is the work to incorporate historical data? We have had some back and forth here in the past about the Northern Territory cohort. What can you tell us?
Dr Larsson : As you know, the change to the Northern Territory's radiation protection act is now coming on board. That was actually the amendment act, and it took effect from 2 June. Only a few days later we started to receive data.
So far, from the uranium mine, we have not received more than the dose records for about 500 workers because there are issues with the transfer of data. There are no other issues; it is a purely technical issue. And in total we now have dose data for close to 25,000 workers.
Senator LUDLAM: What proportion of the total number of workers in the NT who you would expect to end up on the register is 500?
Dr Larsson : Let me take that on notice.
Senator LUDLAM: Half? More than half?
Dr Larsson : I cannot remember off the top of my head the workforce at the uranium mine currently.
Senator LUDLAM: At what point will deidentified data be made public from that data set?
Dr Larsson : The dose register is actually set up in order to facilitate the workers recovering their own dose data when they are moving around; that is really the purpose of it. There are of course many other purposes that you can use the dose register for, and this is something that we will need to discuss with the different companies that supply the dose data-what we can use and how we can use it. We are in the process of doing that. But obviously it is a very useful source of information for time tracking and also for monitoring the implementation of good practice in the different facilities. At the end of the day, it is something that is of concern for us, of course, as driving the national uniformity process in this area.
Senator LUDLAM: It is good to see that proceeding. We have seen the Prime Minister, in Delhi currently, foreshadowing an agreement with the Indian government on uranium sales for their civil nuclear power program. The process is expected to take months to years-I have seen estimates of anything up to two years-to conclude that agreement. Will you have any role in drafting such an agreement?
Dr Larsson : We would only have a role in providing advice to the relevant governmental agencies and to governments in anything that relates to what is within our mandate. But otherwise we would not have a direct role.
Senator LUDLAM: I will ask Dr Floyd, when we get to him later today or tomorrow, about the proliferation impacts; I am sure his expertise on that will be drawn upon. I am asking you, though: given significant concerns locally and globally about safety standards at Indian nuclear plants, will your advice be sought in any way at all about the safety of the plants-the civil plants not the military ones-to which we will be selling this material?
Dr Larsson : Currently I do not have any more information than what is in the public domain. You will have seen, probably, the audit office report on India-
Senator LUDLAM: For example.
Dr Larsson : That information is there and it is for anyone to see. But I do not have any specific information, or inside information if you like, on the situation in India that I can draw upon here.
Senator LUDLAM: I will leave it there. Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you to the officers from ARPANSA.