Thursday 31 May 2012 - Budget Estimates - Community Affairs Committee
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
CHAIR: We will reconvene with officers from ARPANSA. We have questions from Senator Ludlam.
Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Chair. I have a couple of questions, Dr Larsson-welcome back-on the work of your office and whether the passage a couple of months ago of the National Radioactive Waste Management Act will affect your work on planning and approval for transport and storage of radioactive waste somewhere in this country?
Dr Larsson : Of course, we have been monitoring the development and passage of the legislation. It has not in a significant way impacted the work we have been doing, which has been carried out irrespective of that. I think you will remember that last time we were discussing the guidance of waste management. The guidance of waste management is applicable to both storage and disposal. This has been going on for some time and we are anticipating that within the next month we should be able to go out for public consultation on that.
Senator LUDLAM: What form is that public consultation likely to take? Is that going to be public meetings and so on, or are you accepting submissions?
Dr Larsson : I do not anticipate public meetings. That depends on what kinds of comments we are receiving. I think that would be a web based consultation. If there are many issues being pressed of a common nature I would contemplate also having a public meeting, but that is not planned.
Senator LUDLAM: You will wait and see what kinds of submissions? This issue does arouse strong feelings; I guess you are prepared for the possibility of that?
Dr Larsson : I am aware of that.
Senator LUDLAM: Would the guidance statement go to location or simply to a type of facility and be silent on where the facility is?
Dr Larsson : No, this is general guidance. It would be applicable for any waste or disposal facility.
Senator LUDLAM: That is helpful. Does that need to go to the minister first, presumably? Is that what we are waiting for, or are you still working on it?
Dr Larsson : No, this is under the ARPANSA act; I can issue the regulatory guidance.
Senator LUDLAM: That is great. I trust we will know when that happens. I have put this question to a couple of different agencies and ministers. I am effectively trying to make sure I have not left anybody out. Did you or did your minister-or are you aware of any attempts to-renegotiate the contracts with the French government to delay the return of the reprocessed fuel waste?
Dr Larsson : I would not have any knowledge of any such attempts. I doubt that would be a matter for the department of health; I will let the department comment on that. But I am not aware of-I do not have any knowledge of-any such attempt.
Senator LUDLAM: Can I get confirmation, Ms Halton, that that is the case? I would be a bit surprised if you did have a-
Ms Halton : I have no visibility of it at all-I cannot say that categorically no-one down through the organisation didn't-but I would be surprised if I did not know about it.
Senator LUDLAM: I suspect this is a different portfolio, but that is the kind of blank stare I have been getting everywhere I have asked these questions. That is why.
Ms Halton : I do not think I would want to be characterised in Hansard as having had a 'blank stare'-
Senator LUDLAM: I will withdraw that-unreservedly.
Ms Halton : Possibly a 'bemused look', Senator?
Senator LUDLAM: We can settle for that. Dr Larsson, are you confident that nuclear waste can be stored safely in the interim at Lucas Heights in Sydney, as that appears to be-
Dr Larsson : I am not going to pre-empt the review of the application. That is going to be based on the application and the content of it and our review. I am not pre-empting the review.
Senator LUDLAM: That is entirely fair enough. Shifting further afield, Dr Larsson, before we go to the specifics, can you tell us what visibility you have, or what work you or ARPANSA are doing to stay abreast of developments at Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan?
Dr Larsson : What work we are doing?
Senator LUDLAM: If any.
Dr Larsson : As you know, we are involved in international activities. We are primarily involved in the work of the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, or UNSCEAR. That is a two-year program-about one year has now gone. It is anticipated that the assessment of the doses and the health effects is going to be discussed at the next UNSCEAR meeting, which is going to be in May next year. The report is envisaged to be published in the second half of next year.
Senator LUDLAM: We have spoken of this at some length before. What is your state of awareness of the ongoing situation there? Or are you looking more at high level policy related issues?
Dr Larsson : The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation is a purely scientific committee which reports directly to the General Assembly. That means that it is going to be an assessment of the data and what conclusions we can draw on the basis of that data. UNSCEAR is not directly involved in policy setting; other organisations would do that on the basis of such scientific assessments.
Senator LUDLAM: I am still unclear. I am going to put some questions to you. Maybe you will have no view and that is fine, but I will put them to you anyway. There is a lot in press at the moment, particularly from Japanese sources, about the status of the reactors and fuel ponds at Unit 4 in Fukushima, which is the one that was not operating when the wave hit. Nonetheless, it suffered a hydrogen explosion and authorities there are very concerned about the very large number of fuel rods that are parked there. What can you tell the committee about that situation, in particular?
Dr Larsson : Yes, this relates to the storage pool, and that was a hydrogen explosion, as you know. The cause exactly for that hydrogen explosion is not well known, but there has been a theory that this is hydrogen gas that came from reactor number 3 through the common ventilation stack. There was concern all the time, as you are probably aware, of the condition of the pool and of the condition of the fuel. What the situation is right now at the site, I have no detailed knowledge of.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you seek ongoing status reports or updates from Japanese authorities? Does that come into your work at all?
Dr Larsson : If we look at the health effect of the levels of contamination and the exposures to the population and so on, we get a huge amount of data through the UNSCEAR work. An enormous database is being assembled right now. You might also know that the WHO recently published their first preliminary assessment-it was published just a week ago. That builds on the data that was available up to September last year. Finally, the UNSCEAR assessment is probably going to build on data that is going to be available up to September this year; so that is another year. A huge amount of data is now being assembled.
Senator LUDLAM: What is being done with the data? Is the Japanese government using the material that is being assembled, for example, to re-evaluate the area which they have evacuated, to potentially bring more people out of the contaminated area?
Dr Larsson : As to exactly what the Japanese authorities are doing, we do not have the exact visibility on that. But certainly they are using the data to evaluate the options that they have.
Senator LUDLAM: Is ARPANSA monitoring the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission-NAIIC? Are you following the status of that?
Dr Larsson : We are following that through the open sources. There have been a number of different investigation committees, and several of them are ongoing. This one has just recently started, as far as I know. There have also been publications from the so-called 'investigation committee'. They published a preliminary report in December. They are expected some time mid-this-year to publish their final report. All this is available, of course, in the public domain. We are following that.
Senator LUDLAM: When I speak to Dr Floyd of ASNO, who has authority for the security implications of our trade, his mandate is to ensure that our security obligations are met. Does ARPANSA have a role in ensuring the safety-rather than the military side-of civil nuclear plants in customer countries that we sell uranium to? Do you have any formal or informal role there?
Dr Larsson : We have no formal role. We are a national Commonwealth regulator, so our role is limited to within the borders of Australia. Through the agreements that ASNO has set up, or mediated, there is also recognition of the safety aspects in some of the agreements, but we do not have a direct role in those. We do participate in the different conventions as representatives of Australia. There was the Joint Convention on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management; it just finished its review meeting. There will be an extraordinary meeting of the Convention on Nuclear Safety; we do participate in that. But as representatives of Australia, we do not have jurisdiction outside of Australia.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you have any role in assessing the safety of civil nuclear power plants in our customer countries? For example, will you have a view, or will you be asked to analyse the plans to restart reactors in Japan?
Dr Larsson : That could happen because it is customary within this area to make use of peer reviews. A few of our staff and I have been involved in different peer reviews for different countries. If there were to be a request from Japan, that request would be directed to us; we would certainly consider it.
Ms Halton : But it is not a statutory role:
Senator LUDLAM: Yes, that is what I have been trying to get to.
Ms Halton : There is a difference.
Senator LUDLAM: So the Australian government does not necessarily know what the safety characteristics of customer countries are in quite the same way as it has to know what the security characteristics are. Can you see where I am getting at? We have one regulator, who does have to be quite invasive and be quite certain about the security implications of this trade, but we have no such obligation or statutory role to look at civil safety.
Dr Larsson : The obligations of the work that we are doing in that area would be through the conventions that we are a party to.
Senator LUDLAM: I will leave it there. Thank you very much for your time. Thanks, Chair.