ANSTO leaders on navigating regulation while advancing nuclear medicine


    Managing risk is a high priority for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

    Shaun Jenkinson, as CEO of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), knows a bit about regulation. His organisation, home to Australia’s only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney, reports to more than 30 regulators, primarily the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

    For Jenkinson, this level of regulation just goes with the territory. “We’ve got ‘nuclear’ in our title, so having safeguards overseen by regulatory bodies is going to be a fact of life. Take ARPANSA, for example, which has best practice guidelines that involve regular inspections. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) also conducts regular audits. It demands that we always operate within this regulatory framework in a cooperative manner, as well as having a regime that self-reports. It’s how we operate, it’s what’s expected of us and by doing this, it gives the regulators, government and public confidence in the way we operate. What’s most important with regulators is appreciating they have a key role to play, so the relationships must be built on mutual respect.”

    Andrea Sutton GAICD, who joined the board during the COVID pandemic and did not personally meet a fellow director in her first year, reinforces the notion that ANSTO is a net beneficiary of regulation. “I worked in the uranium industry, so I know a little about regulation,” she says. “From my perspective, it’s a positive situation. It’s reassuring to the staff and the wider community that the regulatory guidelines are being met. I wouldn’t say all regulation isn’t frustrating, but at ANSTO, a balance can be achieved. From the board’s perspective, it’s how we can support projects, acknowledge the risks and how the regulatory environment will impact on them.”

    She adds that regulators can also play a role in improving an organisation. “I see some real value in an organisation such as ARPANSA. They come back to you with comments that get fed up to the board. You sometimes think, that’s a really good point, we should include that in what we’re doing on that project.”

    Gaining acceptance

    It’s not just an issue of meeting the strict guidelines regulators demand. Jenkinson is acutely aware of public sensibilities about nuclear science and technology. “When you say the word ‘nuclear’ in any discussion, you polarise people,” he says. “Our research in our local area (Lucas Heights) has found if we use the word nuclear by itself, the acceptance level is significantly lower than if we use the words ‘nuclear science’ or ‘nuclear technology’. Then the acceptance level increases. When we explain what we do — which is to make medicines and use nuclear technology to benefit all Australians — the level of acceptance of the word nuclear goes up [further]. It’s generated by fear, by people being ignorant about what nuclear science and technology is all about. Educating people so they understand what we’re doing is vital.”

    But no matter the safeguards in place, nor how vigilant the regulators are, there are still risks. This emphasises why the risk and audit committee is so integral to ANSTO’s operations. The committee is continually striving to identify the key risks facing the organisation.

    “What are the controls we have in place and how are we managing them?” asks Jenkinson. “It demands — and gets — a regular review of how we’re performing in terms of risk. We've got a lot of experience in how to manage things such as waste management, how to do it safely and effectively, but we can always improve.”

    Sutton concurs. “The board really must understand what the critical risks are and how they’re being monitored and managed. So, how does that translate to day-to-day operations? For ANSTO, the risk tolerance for the manufacture of nuclear medicine is obviously low. If something goes wrong with the process, there’s risk to individuals. If something goes wrong with the process, we don’t meet the needs of our customers. But tolerance with regards to success of research projects is obviously a lot higher, because how you succeed in research is by having a tolerance to different outcomes. It’s really understanding what the critical factors are for the organisation and having strong governance around those.”

    Research gets results

    The effectiveness of good research is highlighted by ANSTO’s Synroc technology, which is regarded as global best practice in the safe treatment of complex nuclear waste. This technology minimises environmental impact by reducing waste disposal volume and lowering full life-cycle costs. It is designed to treat challenging nuclear waste, including actinide-bearing materials, radioiodine and molten salts from spent fuels.

    Jenkinson notes that the technology is highly regarded by the international nuclear community. “We believe it’s a game changer as it has so many uses, such as treating plutonium waste and nuclear medicine waste,” he says. “Certainly, it’s something we’re finding a lot of interest in globally, with people keenly interested in seeing how the technology works.”

    While Synroc is showing enormous promise, with the potential for a commercial outcome, not all research has a happy ending, as Sutton acknowledges. “As a board, you must give the organisation scope to free think a little. That’s quite different to a lot of organisations that are really process-driven, outcome-driven and financially driven. One of the strengths of ANSTO is to give people space to identify problems and try to find solutions. That the board adopts this approach is, in my opinion, one of its strengths. The simple fact is the board members understand research and have a good risk tolerance to realise not everything’s going to be successful. Projects usually don’t run in a straight line and we must be tolerant of that.”

    Nuclear medicine

    ANSTO is also at the heart of Australia’s nuclear medicine program, a recognised global leader in the advanced manufacturing and distribution of diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicines used for the diagnosis, staging and treatment of diseases such as cancer and heart disease. About 75–80 per cent of the nuclear medicine isotopes used in Australia come from ANSTO, with its radioisotopes providing between 10,000 to 12,000 nuclear medicine procedures every week.

    But nuclear medicine comes with a catch — it doesn’t have a shelf life, demanding strict oversight. “If we have any issue that affects supply to patients, that’s an immediate phone call to my board. Customers are informed, as well as the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, and the minister (Ed Husic) to ensure everyone is aware of what’s happening,” says Jenkinson. “There’s an expectation that we communicate well because we’re talking about the health of the community and people have a right to know.”

    As a corporate federal government entity, the organisation must walk a fine line between developing its corporate plan while dovetailing with the minister’s Statement of Expectations, which stressed achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and delivering a Future Made in Australia through the National Reconstruction Fund.

    Jenkinson is fully cognisant of the need to meet the government’s requirements. “Obviously, we’re looking at things like net zero, making sure our research is aligned with the government’s policy objectives.”

    Mining mainstay

    The resources industry remains a major part of the ANSTO research brief.

    The Australian Atomic Energy Commission, which evolved into ANSTO in 1987, came into being after the passing of the Atomic Energy Act in 1953, with a primary responsibility to search for, mine and treat uranium. In doing so, it began a partnership with the Australian mining industry that is still delivering economic benefits to the country today.

    Over the journey, the focus has changed — from uranium to NORMs (naturally occurring radioactive materials) to rare earths and now, critical minerals. With the federal government set on a path of downstream processing of our raw materials, and a recent $13.9m funding allocation under the Critical Minerals R&D Hub, the importance of ANSTO’s role can only grow, with 65 active commercial programs for 2023-24.

    This is not to say mining is ANSTO’s sole focus. Far from it. But it is an important part of the ANSTO mission, according to Oleh Nakone, group executive of commercial products and services. “It’s about taking an ore and being able to separate out the material required,” he says. “That’s the expertise we have. With critical minerals, for example, we’re talking about very small amounts. It’s certainly not like digging out coal. It’s a very complex process of identifying it, then separating it. You can have two mines next to each other, yet they’ll have quite different compositions.”

    ANSTO’s minerals business unit’s role is to assist mining companies to assess the risk of a project — from infancy to working with their engineers to build a processing plant. In this commercial relationship, the companies benefit by tapping into ANSTO research. “The sums involved are enormous, so we help assess whether they make sense technically and commercially,” says Nakone. “Because we are a research organisation, the companies get access to the latest industry thinking. At the same time, we have a commercial focus, so we come to a project with a very practical mindset. One of the beauties of our organisation is that our technical people, although they might come from research or other professional backgrounds, are good at speaking with customers. Then there’s the opportunity to leverage the work with other customers or reinvest the revenue back into research.”

    The ANSTO customer base is not restricted to Australia. “While our priority is the local market, we also service international clients,” he says. “There’s real value for us there, especially in the medical field.”

    ANSTO’s research credentials have been forged over 70 years, but according to Nakone, there’s always been a focus on enhancing Australian wellbeing. “We’ve got intelligent people, across a wide range of disciplines, making a real contribution to this country,” he says.

    “We’re not just sitting here doing stuff, unless we know that can be translated into a benefit for industry, help move science forward or assist the government to make better decisions.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Risk, Regulation, Results’ in the July 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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