The fallout of the University’s radiation case

To see real environmental progress, it is not enough to rely on corporate responsibility; we need a body of enforceable restrictions on corporate and institutional consumption.

Art by Kritika Rathore.

Last week, the University of Sydney was fined $61,000 for failing to properly dispose of a radioactive source belonging to a decommissioned medical imaging machine. For an institution that claims to have a strong commitment to the environment, conviction of a criminal environmental offence appears at odds with its sustainability strategy.

The source, which contained a sealed radioactive isotope, was found when a truck delivering scrap metals to a recycling yard set off alarms during a routine radiation check. 

Identified as belonging to a PET scanner owned by the University, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) charged the University with four individual breaches of the Radiation Control Act. The case didn’t go to court as the University pled guilty, and in exchange the EPA dropped two of the four charges. 

So, how did this happen? 

By accident, the court ruled. The PET scanner was kept in the Brain and Mind Centre before it was decommissioned in 2018, when the University ordered its disposal as part of a refurbishment of the centre.

The University had, in fact, made arrangements for the safe containment of the source in a radiation storage facility at a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, failures in communication led to the PET machine being approved for disposal before the source had actually been removed. The University contracted a specialist removalist company to deconstruct and dispose of the machine, before it was sent to a scrap metal yard.

The source was only discovered when, upon transfer to a second yard for further processing, it was caught by radiation detection devices.

The contractors who removed the machine were not licensed to handle radioactive material nor was the EPA notified of the disposal of the material – the two breaches of the Radiation Control Act with which the University was ultimately convicted.

Incredibly, nobody was injured or exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, nor did the source contaminate the environment. This can be attributed to the fact that the source was sealed and emitted a relatively low amount of radiation. However, the court noted that if the source had not been detected before entry to the second metal recycling yard, environmental contamination would have been “very likely”. In this scenario, the source would have gone on to be reprocessed, a procedure that would involve breaking the seal of the source and dispersing the material into usable metal. It would have ultimately ended up in consumer material, which the court noted has occurred overseas.

Could it happen again? 

Aside from submitting its guilty plea late, the University presented itself as a model defendant across these matters. The University expressed “deep regret” and has since drastically reformed its internal safety systems, implementing digital systems tracking all laboratory equipment and new procedures for the transport of regulated material. The University also hired several new staff including a new Chief Health and Safety Officer and Radiation Safety Officer. In light of these changes, the university community can be confident a similar event will not occur again.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that it took a criminal conviction to reach the safeguards imposed today. Unfortunately, the University’s prior lack of clear procedure is indicative of the broader attitude institutions and corporations hold toward environmental crimes. Environmental crimes are often entangled with accidents, negligence, or oversight, and are often not viewed as holding the same gravity as other offences.

Corporations and institutions are responsible for the majority of environmental harm, yet complex corporate hierarchies make it uncommon for individuals to face repercussions for offences, which in turn promotes a lax attitude toward environmental damage.

Is anything changing?

The NSW Government passed the Environment Legislation Amendment Act 2022 (NSW) last month, which broadened the personal liability that executives face if their corporation breaches environmental legislation. If directors financially benefit from a breach of environmental law, they can be criminally prosecuted for that offence, regardless of whether they were personally aware of or involved in the breach.

In bringing a greater threat of personal liability, the new laws will hopefully incentivise directors to take greater care in ensuring company policies uphold environmental laws.

Despite all this, the scope of environmental law as it stands is limited, as most environmental offences relate to waste management or water and air pollution. We are yet to see laws that target fossil fuel production or energy consumption, two of the greatest threats to our future. To see real environmental progress, it is not enough to rely on corporate responsibility; we need a body of enforceable restrictions on corporate and institutional consumption.

NSW has a strong and effective foundation of environmental law; the University felt it firsthand. However, without a strong Government willing to instigate necessary reform to outdated structures, particularly those concerning personal liability, there is only so much the law can do when fighting on the frontlines of real climate action.