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ANSTO - A New Research Reactor for Australia



PR Company: 

MAW Public Relations

Award Category: 

Award Type: 

Call Number: 

1999 A 10



Executive Summary: 

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Australias only nuclear research reactor is nearing the end of its operational life. The Federal Government decided in September 1997 to fund its replacement subject to environmental and other approvals at an estimated cost of $286 million.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Under the Commonwealths Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act, (EPIP) the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which proposed the replacement was required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

ANSTO believed that a transparent EIS was both necessary and would endorse its proposal.  However, it also recognised that negative perceptions of nuclear matters could jeopardise the project.

ANSTO required a comprehensive communication program to:

  • encourage ANSTOs stakeholders to participate in the EIS
  • support ANSTOs existing communications strategy
  • reassure stakeholders that a modern research reactor was environmentally sound and safe.

From December 1997 through to March 1999 ANSTO planned and implemented a replacement reactor communication program to parallel one of the most rigorous EISs ever conducted in Australia.

In May 1999 the federal science minister endorsed the proposal. Construction of the replacement reactor is due to start in 2002, with operations planned to begin in 2005.

The communication program for the replacement reactor is ongoing.


Situation Analysis: 

ANSTO is <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Australias national nuclear science research organisation. With 800 staff in a campus-like setting, ANSTO is located within the Lucas Heights Science and Technology Centre (LHSTC), some 35 kilometres south of Sydneys centre (Appendix 1).  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

The core of ANSTOs expertise depends on a functional and capable research reactor. There are no electricity generating nuclear reactors in Australia. ANSTOs replacement research reactor will produce neutrons, sub-atomic particles for:

  • making diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicines
  • assaying Australias mineral deposits
  • creating new materials
  • helping maintain Australias industrial plant and equipment
  • keeping Australias research and development effort abreast of global competitors
  • providing tomorrows scientists with educational and career opportunities

ANSTO proposed to replace its 1950s-built research reactor with a new, multi-purpose facility at LHSTC (Appendix 2).

Research reactors are safe. There are 265 of them worldwide, many within urban areas. In contrast, the LHSTC is surrounded by a 1.6 kilometre bushland buffer zone.

There has never been an incident at any research reactor leading to death or injury to members of the public.

However, anything nuclear will always attract widespread attention. If ANSTO failed to communicate the proposal effectively, there was a risk the project would be adversely affected.

The challenge facing ANSTO in January 1998 was to build confidence in the replacement reactor proposal through effective communication.




ANSTO commissioned an independent research firm in mid 1997 to conduct a Community Attitudes Survey (Appendix 3) on ANSTO operations. Representatives of local resident associations, environmental groups, and the local council were totally involved in determining the surveys objectives, content, structure, implementation and reporting, i.e. applying Grunigs two-way asymmetrical communication model.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

The publicly available Community Attitudes Survey showed that the preferred communication vehicles for residents living closest to ANSTO were three suburban newspapers.  ANSTO therefore continued to place a high priority on local media relations in its communication strategy for the replacement reactor.

Toll-free telephone line

ANSTO installed a 1 800 toll-free phone number, and promoted it widely throughout <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Australia. Recorded calls were responded to daily. Caller feedback enabled ANSTO to consider and adjust its communication strategy.


ANSTOs web site, also highly publicised, featured an interactive section on the replacement reactor containing ANSTO and ministerial news releases, answers to frequently-asked questions, details of the EIS process, and results of independent safety reviews. Email inquiries and usage patterns led ANSTO to accord the webpage high priority.

Open Day

Almost halfway through the first year of the program, ANSTO held an Open Day. The main lobby group opposed to the replacement reactor accepted ANSTOs invitation to set up an information booth. The 4,000-plus visitors attending received an ANSTO information kit containing a questionnaire (Appendix 4). Responses helped ANSTO to fine-tune its program for specific publics.

Benchmarking with worlds best practice

In January 1998 following a tendering process ANSTO appointed consultants PPK Environment and Infrastructure Pty Ltd to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) (Appendix 5).

Community consultation is a requirement of the Impact of Proposals Act. To ensure the public consultation component of PPKs work met worlds best practice, ANSTO appointed Twyford Consulting to evaluate it. Twyford made several recommendations, which were implemented (Appendix 7).

Focus Groups

To achieve even greater communication competence with its target publics, ANSTO commissioned social research consultants, Keys Young, to facilitate a series of focus groups and community discussions (Appendix 8).

Content analysis of media monitoring

ANSTO stepped up its media monitoring and media response activities to correct sensational and inaccurate reports. It developed a research instrument based on contemporary content analysis theory to discern greater objectivity from its media monitoring suppliers (Appendix 9).

Target Policies: 

ANSTO identified the following principal and secondary publics.    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Principal publics

  • Nearby residents from Barden Ridge, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Engadine, Menai (residents from these suburbs saw themselves as the most affected by ANSTOs operations).
  • Sutherland Shire Council
  • Media (local suburban, metropolitan, national print and electronic)
  • All current ANSTO staff and their families/friends (nearly two-thirds of ANSTO staff live near ANSTOs site).

Secondary publics, in no order of priority included:

  • ANSTO customers, especially nuclear medicine centres
  • ANSTOs former and future employees
  • Relevant Commonwealth Government departments
  • Federal Parliamentarians
  • NSW Government
  • ANSTOs contractors and suppliers
  • Nearby businesses
  • Environmental groups
  • Local community organisations
  • Nearby schools
  • Health, medical and scientific communities
  • Police and emergency services.


Communication Strategy: 

During the program ANSTO adopted the following communication strategies: <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  • Relied on and applied the findings of its research
  • Recognised and respected that many of its publics are familiar with the EIS process through a previous high-profile proposal for <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Sydneys second airport at nearby Holsworthy
  • Maintained objectivity in its communication
  • Never resorted to emotionalism
  • Understood and accepted that some people fear nuclear technology
  • Appreciated that nuclear technology may be a difficult concept for many people to grasp but that simplistic explanations may not always be credible or effective
  • Accorded high priority to Sutherland Shire residents
  • Catered to the special needs of ANSTO staff
  • Recognised that Sutherland Shire Council plays an active role in monitoring and debating ANSTOs activities
  • Issued only newsworthy media releases and not puffery
  • Maintained a professional relationship with media especially the three local papers
  • Acknowledged and responded promptly to all inquiries.



ANSTO implemented the following activities from December 1997 to March 1999.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  • Community consultation meetings

An independent facilitation firm conducted regular meetings between ANSTO, local resident precinct committees, environmental associations, and others (Appendix 10).

  • Letters to the editor and media presenters

The content of national media coverage on the replacement reactor was quickly analysed and responded to help correct inaccurate reports (Appendix 11).

  • News conferences

ANSTO called news conferences only when it had something newsworthy to report. Its well-organised news conferences were well attended and succeeded in generating objective coverage (Appendix 12).

  • Staff briefings

ANSTO held interactive staff briefings on the proposal within work hours (Appendix 13).

  • Site tours and visits

At least two opportunities a week for the public and media to visit ANSTO were maintained and promoted during the replacement reactor communication program. Visitors received ANSTO publications (Appendix 14).

  • Newsletters/letters

Produced newsletters and personal letters for different publics (Appendix 15).

  • Public speaker program and media relations

ANSTO developed stakeholder-specific presentations on its replacement reactor proposal (Appendix 16).  ANSTO empowered staff members, especially scientists, to participate in media interviews. Some staff attended a media skills workshop (Appendix 17)

  • Open Day

ANSTO organised three open days - one for business and industry, one for government and academe, and one for the general public. More than 4,000 attended (Appendix 18)

  • Briefings with politicians and bureaucrats

ANSTO is an apolitical organisation. However, anything related to nuclear matters has, since the 1960s, been highly politicised in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Australia. ANSTO assisted politicians and bureaucrats to understand its proposal (Appendix 19).

  • Web site

ANSTO provided dedicated sections on the reactor proposal on its website. This was updated regularly with news releases, Hansard transcripts, submissions, and images. ANSTO responded promptly to email requests for information (Appendix 20). Staff were able to read about the proposal on an internal home page.

  • Toll free telephone

ANSTO installed and heavily promoted a 1 800 toll free telephone line which it used for developing effective communication with its stakeholders

  • Media releases

ANSTO issued and followed-up 9 media releases from December 1997 to May 1999 (Appendix 21).

  • Nominal paid advertising in local media

ANSTO has a limited budget for paid advertising.  On two occasions it used half page advertisements in local papers to emphasise safety aspects of the proposal (Appendix 22). 

  • Exhibition and display schedule

A mobile display was set up in shopping centres and libraries. ANSTO scientists answered questions

  • Community consultation

To ensure that community consultation met the requirements of the EPIP Act, ANSTO commissioned two independent consultancies to review the public consultation program. The consultation process was strengthened through focus groups, special topic discussion sessions, a community radio live debate, and an extension of the public review period for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Appendix 23).



Some communities accommodate change easily. Others fear change, and this poses the greatest challenge to the proposers of new projects. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Such a challenge confronted ANSTO when it learned that the Commonwealth Government was funding its proposal to construct a replacement reactor. ANSTO asked: how will our publics perceive this decision?

The comprehensive communication program ANSTO implemented in parallel with the environmental assessment process succeeded because:

  • Well before the proposal was announced, ANSTO had built up much goodwill. It had achieved this through a communications strategy embracing the elements of two-way asymmetrical and symmetrical communication. ANSTO was perceived by most as a transparent organisation that welcomed feedback from its stakeholders and was willing to use this to make adjustments to improve its operating environment.
  • The replacement reactor communication program was perceived by most of ANSTOs stakeholders as demonstrating more of the same transparency and objectivity.
  • The independent assessment of ANSTOs proposal confirmed that:

The cumulative impacts arising from the construction and subsequent operation of the proposed replacement reactor for a period of not less than 40 years are expected to be small, particularly if the management measures outlined in the Draft EIS are implemented (Appendix 24, Overview of Proposed Replacement Nuclear Research Reactor, p24) 

  • The communication program team producing this report makes no claim to gaining endorsement for the proposal. However, given the risk that the proposal may have been adversely affected if the communication strategy failed, it would appear that the communication program is successful.

On 3 March 1999, the federal environment minister announced there were no environmental reasons preventing the granting of Commonwealth approval for the replacement nuclear reactor at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />LucasHeights.

On 3 May 1999, the federal science minister accepted this finding and gave the proposal approval to proceed.



What methods or research techniques did ANSTO use to evaluate its program?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

  • Responses from ANSTOs target publics

In the 12-week public review period after the release of the Draft EIS, 935 submissions were received from government bodies, local councils, community groups and individuals. Many were pro forma. Only 10 per cent were from Sutherland Shire, the local government area closest to ANSTO.  By comparison, the Draft EIS for siting <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Sydneys second airport at nearby Holsworthy attracted 15,650 submissions of which the vast majority were from affected residents.

  • 1998 Federal Election

The most recent Federal Election coincided with the Draft EIS public review period for ANSTOs proposal. The two major political party candidates within the seat of Hughes whose residents live closest to ANSTO - held opposite views on the replacement reactor. One publicly vowed to stop it while the incumbent openly supported the proposal. The sitting member was returned comfortably defying a national swing against her party.

  • Organised opposition

The main group opposed to a replacement reactor organised many well publicised protests featuring internationally high profile speakers. Attendances, however, never exceeded 100 to 150, including children. It can be inferred that most of ANSTOs target publics accepted its proposal.

  • Website and toll free telephone

From December 1997 to May 1999 ANSTOs monitoring of these communication tools failed to reveal any groundswell of opposition.

  • Feedback from ANSTO staff

Informal feedback mechanisms enabled the two-thirds of ANSTO staff living near LucasHeights to monitor their neighbourhoods perceptions of the proposal.  No view could be formed of wide disapproval.

  • Community Attitudes Survey

A follow-up will compare present attitudes with those held before the replacement reactor communication program started

  • Ongoing two-way communication

ANSTO is firmly committed to an ongoing communication program for the replacement reactor project.