AAP FactCheck

Restoring confidence in public statements by independently testing and verifying the facts

Has the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor been operational for 50 years with no safety issues in the middle of Sydney?

By James Lane and Louise Evans

The Statement

"Australia has had nuclear reactors for 50 years at Lucas Heights in the middle of Sydney. There's no safety issues with them."

United Australia Party (UAP) leader Clive Palmer. May 2, 2019.

The Analysis

Clive Palmer wants to build nuclear reactors in South Australia to boost investment and jobs in a state he claims is a "backwater" which lacks "enterprise, energy and investment". Mr Palmer said he hoped to secure the "balance of power" in the May 18 federal election and establish "nuclear reactors and a vibrant manufacturing industry in South Australia". [1]

AAP FactCheck examined Mr Palmer’s claims the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights has been operating for 50 years with no safety issues in the middle of Sydney.

Australia’s first nuclear reactor was opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in January 1958 and began operation 61 years ago at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney. [2]

Australia was one of the first countries to build a civil research reactor - HIFAR (High Flux Australian Reactor). HIFAR produced most of Australia’s radioisotopes used in medicine and industry from 1958 to 2007. [3]

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is responsible for operating the facility which is 40km south-west of Sydney’s CBD. [4]

HIFAR was replaced in 2006 by an OPAL (Open Pool Australian Lightwater) reactor, which uses low enriched uranium to produce nuclear medicine doses.

ANSTO announced in June 2015 it had produced its four millionth dose of nuclear medicine at Lucas Heights since the opening of OPAL. Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses small amounts of radioactive material to diagnose, treat and determine the severity of a variety of diseases. It can detect and assist the diagnosis of many types of cancers, heart disease, gastrointestinal, endocrine, neurological disorders and other abnormalities. [5]

In examining Mr Palmer’s claim there had been “no safety issues” with the reactor, AAP FactCheck found at least 10 dating back to 1978. These included:

In March 2019, three staff were taken to hospital and decontaminated after being exposed to a sodium hydroxide in the nuclear medicine manufacturing building. [6]

In August 2017, a worker dropped a vial of radioactive material and was contaminated through two pairs of gloves. The contamination was deemed the most serious in the world in 2017 according to the International Nuclear Event Scale - the global grading system for nuclear incidents. [6]

In 2010 an investigation by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) found significant problems within ANSTO. The report said radioactive vials are regularly dropped; there had been no attempt to introduce improved handling systems and supervision, and training had not been effective in delivering safety standards required at the facility. [7]

In June 2006, a technician ingested radioactive material - iodine-123. The incident was one of four reported in a week. [8]

In May 1997, radioactive water dripped from a container being used to transfer two fuel rod elements from one building to another. ANSTO’s Safety Review Committee suggested rainwater had entered the underground dry storage tubes prior to 1985. [9]

In April 1992, a radiation leak occurred while a spent fuel element was handled inside a storage block. Four workmen were exposed to as much radiation in 20 seconds as they would normally receive in a year. [9]

In May 1984, a ruptured pipe joint released about 100 litres of radioactive sludge into stormwater drains. Two operators were contaminated. [9]

AAP FactCheck concludes all Mr Palmer’s claims are false. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor has been operating for 61 years not 50 years as he stated. Lucas Heights is not in the middle of Sydney as he stated. It is 40km from the CBD. Regarding his claim there had been “no safety issues” AAP FactCheck found there had been at least 10 dating back to 1978.

The Verdict

  • False - The checkable claims are all false.

The References

1. ‘Clive Palmer says SA needs nuclear to stop being a 'backwater' during federal election visit’. ABC. May 2, 2019: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-05-02/clive-palmer-campaigns-for-federal-election-in-south-australia/11069286

2. ‘Australia’s Prime Ministers’. National Archive of Australia: http://primeministers.naa.gov.au/timeline/results.aspx?type=pm&pm=Robert%20Menzies

3. ‘Australian Research Reactors and Synchrotron’. World Nuclear Organisation. 2017: http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/appendices/australian-research-reactors.aspx

4. ‘Visit Lucas Heights’. Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. 2019: https://www.ansto.gov.au/about/coming-to-visit/sydney

5. ‘Sydney's Lucas Heights reactor to ramp up nuclear medicine production to meet world demand’, by Philippa McDonald. ABC June 6, 2015: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-06/nuclear-medicine-to-be-ramped-up-at-lucas-heights-reactor/6525524

6. ‘Three people treated at Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear facility after chemical spill’. ABC. March 1, 2019: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-01/three-treated-after-safety-breach-at-sydney-nuclear-facility/10860708

7. ‘Chief vindicates Lucas Heights whistleblower’, by John Thompson. ABC. June 1, 2010: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-06-01/chief-vindicates-lucas-heights-whistleblower/848916

8. ‘More nuclear spills at Lucas Heights’, by Philip Corey. The Sydney Morning Herald. June 16, 2006: https://www.smh.com.au/national/more-nuclear-spills-at-lucas-heights-20060616-gdnrma.html

9. ‘Safety Problems at ANSTO’. Sutherland Shire Environment Centre: https://www.ssec.org.au/our_environment/issues_campaigns/nuclear/info_sheets/2002

  • First published May 3, 2019 17:05 AEST