ANSTO Open Day Report

Beatrice and I were on our way toward Engadine to conduct more wedding business when I heard mention of an open day at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's research laboratories at Lucas Heights. We used to drive past the labs every weekday on our way to the University of Wollongong, yet had never been inside. As it was on our way, we pulled into the lab grounds to see what was on show.

The surrounding land was packed full of cars, so the event is obviously a popular one. The courtesy bus drove us past the protesters with the megaphone. Although I agree that nuclear materials must be strictly managed, I do wonder about some of the protestors. A new reactor is planned for the site. Many residents, who arrived long after the initial reactor was build in the 1950's, were probably hoping the replacement reactor would not be located in the area and that their property values would henceforth rise. They even had the residential part of Lucas Heights renamed to Barden Ridge for that reason.

The site is quite large, and reminiscent of a university campus. There are a wide range of facilities, including HIFAR, the research nuclear reactor and ANTARES, the Australian National Tandem Accelerator for Applied Research. These are used to generate isotopes for environmental science, radiopharmacology and to irradiate silicon. Apparently, HIFAR is perhaps the best facility in the world for the latter task and is heavily used by Japanese microchip makers to dope silicon.

Other areas which were open to public viewing included the machine shops and the materials science laboratories. ANSTO is responsible for ensuring the reactor facilities are structurely sound and use a wide range of equipment to test this. They also build many of their own fittings and detectors onsite. They have also developed the SYNROC method of compressing nuclear waste material for storage purposes.

One of the highlights was the reactor itself. We first entered into the waste storage area. Looking down, we could see radioactive waste material stored in rods immersed in water. Processing of the radioactive items was perfomed remotely in a heavily shielded tank. Big waldo arms lined the tank to allow technicians to remotely manipulate objects inside.

To reach the inside of the reactor building we had to pass through an airlock seated in the concrete and steel shell that surrounds the reactor. The reactor is only used as a neutron source, and does not generate any electricity. It is controlled by a single individual. Just like Homer Simpson (perhaps deliberately so!) there was a pack of donuts in the control room.

I finished off my tour of the site by visiting the CSIRO display. There, a representative of the Double Helix Science Club gave amusing and educational demonstrations of Bernoulli's Principle, combustion and the properties of liquid nitrogen.

It was obvious that a lot of work had gone into the information posters and interactive displays. If fact, there were so many displays to view and staff to talk to that an afternoon really was not enough time to take it all in. I look forward to next year's ANSTO open day to learn more about my closest research neighbour.