I am pleased to present to you the 2019–2020 Annual Report of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
ARPANSA continues to deliver high quality services and advice to the Australian Government and community on radiation protection and nuclear safety. Our services include holding the Australian primary standard for absorbed dose, monitoring solar ultraviolet radiation in real time, auditing radiotherapy equipment used in cancer treatment, and offering radiation monitoring services to Australians who work with radiation. We regulate radiation facilities and nuclear installations operated by the Commonwealth, maintain a national register of radiation doses for well over 46 000 workers, and we evaluate and report on radiation incidents through the national incident register, which we maintain on behalf of all Australian jurisdictions. We collaborate with state and territory radiation regulators to strengthen and harmonise the regulatory system for radiation safety across Australia.
During this financial year, significant work has been progressed to implement the findings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission received by Australia in 2018, which resulted in 23 recommendations and 12 suggestions for improvement. The IRRS was a culmination of many years of work by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to benchmark ourselves against international best practice. The review covered a wide range of areas including regulation of waste facilities, transport of radioactive materials, occupational radiation protection, nuclear safety, emergency preparedness and response, and medical radiation. This financial year, Commonwealth and state and territory governments have developed a national action plan that provides a governance structure for monitoring progress against the findings and will be publicly available once endorsed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC). The Environmental Health Standing Committee, under AHPPC, is responsible for managing the multi-jurisdictional findings. ARPANSA has developed its own governance framework to progress findings that were addressed solely to the agency. Work has been initiated in relation to all of those findings and in this financial year four of the 14 findings were closed.
On 27 March 2020, I removed a licence condition from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) Nuclear Medicine (ANM) facility, allowing it to move towards full production capacity. This followed a decision I made on 5 July 2019 to restrict production at the ANM Facility to a level that could only satisfy the domestic demand for nuclear medicine, after an accident in which three workers were exposed to radiation, two of which were over the annual dose limit.
In recognition of renewed concerns about electromagnetic energy (EME) from new and emerging communications technology, the Commonwealth Government announced in December 2019 an expansion of the EME program. Under the enhanced program, ARPANSA will administer a new research program with the aim of conducting targeted research into EME issues of relevance to Australia. This includes measurement of EME exposure levels in the community, involvement in international forums (such as the World Health Organization), setting and maintenance of EME standards and provision of expert scientific advice on EME and health to stakeholders. A major feature of the new program is a capital investment to enable the construction of a new anechoic chamber that will cater for millimetre wave frequencies that would be used in future 5G technologies. In preparedness for the program’s commencement in 2020–21, ARPANSA has undertaken significant work this financial year to develop an action plan to meet program deliverables.
Relatedly, during this financial year ARPANSA continued to experience an increasing volume of enquiries about the new generation of the mobile phone network known as 5G. During February and March 2020, ARPANSA delivered a social media campaign called ‘Get the facts on 5G’. The series of six posts addressed 5G and health, research related to 5G, the Australian Radiofrequency Standard and tips on conducting individual assessment of research. The campaign was successful in generating significant engagement with ARPANSA’s science-based advice, although as expected, community sentiments around 5G continue to be highly variable. This has been discussed in more detail in Case study 1: 5G and ARPANSA.
As we move in to 2020–2021, we will work with the Australian Government to ensure that the public has access to independent, clear, reliable and reputable advice in the area of 5G. We will publish and commence implementation of our EME Action Plan to deliver evidence-based scientific advice with a clearly informed picture of the problem and associated risks and uncertainty. We will also continue our collaboration with Commonwealth and state and territory governments to address the recommendations and suggestions outlined in the IRRS report. We will continue to develop and enhance our systems, capabilities and assets to sustain and improve our services, and leverage our scientific and stakeholder networks to deliver radiation protection and nuclear safety to the Australian community.
The recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has introduced new challenges to our operating environment, which calls for a measured, practical and informed approach. The majority of staff transitioned to home-based work on 24 March, with services and inspections either paused or trimmed back. These activities have since gradually resumed in a well-coordinated manner. Our response has considered not just how to adapt to working remotely, safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees, and minimise the impact to our business operations, but also how to sustain workforce productivity through this disruption and potentially prepare for a different kind of future. ARPANSA will take into account the lessons learned from our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and will consider whether any changed practices have produced benefits and how these can be integrated into our future operating environment to improve organisational resilience and service delivery.
ARPANSA continues its extensive international engagement and collaboration within key international forums. The COVID-19 pandemic has, as expected, slowed down this work. For example, the 8th Review Meeting under the terms of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, of which I am the Vice-President, was deferred on short notice by a year. However, international collaboration will continue on a ‘virtual’ basis until travel restrictions can be lifted and it is anticipated that international risk assessments and standards will be delivered, but with varying degree of delay.
I look forward to continuing to ensure Australians are protected from the harmful effects of radiation – by maintaining the delivery of our high-quality services, providing Australians with health advice and independently regulating Commonwealth entities that use or produce radiation. I am convinced ARPANSA’s dedicated and highly capable staff will continue to demonstrate that ARPANSA is Australia’s leading authority on radiation protection and nuclear safety, also during these challenging times.
CEO of ARPANSA