The head of Australia's nuclear agency broke down at a dramatic Senate estimates hearing yesterday, after an angry whistleblower from Shellharbour accused him of covering up a serious incident in which workers were splashed with radioactive material.
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation chief executive Adrian Paterson was comforted by senators and staff, and refused to leave the room until the man had left the building.
The fracas centred on an incident that allegedly took place at ANSTO's Lucas Heights facility in 2007, which has been the subject of multiple inquiries, and remains disputed by all parties involved.
KPMG conducted the most recent investigation into the incident, reporting in June that many current and former ANSTO employees had "imprecise at best" recollections of the incident.
But it found the regulator - the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency - had failed to properly investigate the matter and neither its interim, nor final inspection reports, "sufficiently examined allegations that a contamination incident . . . occurred".
KPMG said it was possible the incident - in which three men were reportedly splashed with yttrium-90 (Y-90), a radioactive isotope used to treat liver cancer - had occurred.
It said witnesses had often unreliable accounts of the incident five years later, but a preliminary investigation in 2007 had determined that two men were found to have Y-90 contaminant on their clothes, and another had it on his face.
But Mr Paterson told the hearing he doubted later reports that the man who had Y-90 on his face had ingested the material.
"There is just no evidence in the broader evidentiary record . . . to suggest that anybody was internally contaminated that day. We just cannot find a record of that happening."
He pointed out the KPMG report said several employees gave conflicting reports of what had happened, and said he did not believe any more public resources should be put into investigating the matter.
But listening to Mr Paterson give evidence was former ANSTO worker and whistleblower David Reid, of Shellharbour, who worked at the facility for almost 30 years, including years as his colleagues' occupational health and safety representative.
"You're a liar," Mr Reid growled when Mr Paterson finished giving evidence.
"You've fabricated the findings, covered up safety incidents . . . you guys covered it over. You're a lying piece of s---."
Mr Reid later said he had been sacked after bringing claims of the incident to management.
"It's trashed my life; I've just been obsessed with it. My marriage fell apart, and I lost my house and I'm living in a caravan. But I can't let it go."
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called for ANSTO to apologise to Mr Reid.
"I think what has to happen from here, Mr Reid is clearly owed an apology, but the regulator is going to have to step up."
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