Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is responsible for regulation of Commonwealth facilities such as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) nuclear research reactor site at Lucas Heights. It has other functions such as to “promote uniformity of radiation protection and nuclear safety policy and practices across the Commonwealth, States and Territories”.

ARPANSA was established in the late-1990s after decades of public pressure for a genuine independent regulator. There was discussion about an independent board with overall responsibility for ARPANSA. The Howard Coalition government watered that idea down − instead we got an all-powerful ARPANSA CEO and ANSTO was allowed to participate in the interview panel for the ARPANSA CEO job. ANSTO’s Communications Manager John Mulcair acknowledged that this was indefensible.

There is a revolving door between ANSTO and ARPANSA, further undermining the latter’s independence. At times ARPANSA has employed as many as six ex-ANSTO employees, perhaps more.

ARPANSA’s handling of the ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site was its first test and it was a failure. Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson wrote in his submission to the Senate Select Committee for an Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor at Lucas Heights (September 2000) that “The newly formed Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) also has not performed particularly well in its first major assignment − the Maralinga project. Unless their performance as regulators improves, then the new reactor project will be a trail of compromises as is the case on the Maralinga project.”

ARPANSA’s handling of ANSTO’s applications to build and operate a new research reactor was problematic in many respects.

The 2001 Report of the Senate Select Committee for an Inquiry into the Contract for a New Reactor stated that “provisions for public consultation in the ARPANS Act leave many questions unanswered.”

A 2005 Australian National Audit Office report was highly critical of ARPANSA. It said:

  • The Regulatory Branch’s operational objectives and activities are numerous, vary considerably in scope, are not prioritised, and are insufficiently specific to be clear or assessable.
  • [O]verall management of conflict of interest is not sufficient to meet the requirements of the ARPANS Act and Regulations. … Potential areas of conflict of interest are not explicitly addressed or transparently managed.
  • The bulk of license assessments − some 75 per cent − were made without the support of robust, documented procedures.
  • ARPANSA does not monitor or assess the extent to which licensees meet reporting requirements. The ANAO found that there had been under-reporting by licence holders.
  • ARPANSA has reported only one designated breach to Parliament. This is notwithstanding that there have been a number of instances where ARPANSA has detected non-compliance by licensees.

Problems identified by the ANAO in 2005 are still in evidence. For the past few years the adequacy of ARPANSA’s regulatory performance, and ARPANSA’s independence, have been repeatedly called into question in relation to a number of contamination accidents at Lucas Heights. This ongoing saga is documented on the Friends of the Earth website and a summary is included in the entry for ANSTO / Lucas Heights.

 More information about ARPANSA:

More information on inadequate safety practices at ANSTO and inadequate regulation: