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Business as usual for bemused workers at nuclear reactor

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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) — While workers joked about a mob of kangaroos being terrorists in disguise, it was business as usual at the small nuclear reactor that became the focus of an Olympic security scare.

Security at the plant appeared unaffected Monday by revelations New Zealand police found evidence five months ago that led them to suspect the reactor was a terrorist target.

A lone security guard, with a holstered pistol, waved visitors through the main gate to the research facility in Lucas Heights — a leafy Sydney suburb on the edge of Royal National Park.

Workers said they were not concerned by weekend reports about the arrests of four people in Auckland who were found with maps highlighting the reactor as well as access and egress routes around the facility.

"People find it slightly bemusing," said Stuart Carr, director of radioactive pharmaceuticals at the plant. "People don't think those claims have any credibility."

About 800 people are employed at Lucas Heights, the only nuclear reactor in Australia. The small reactor, used for scientific and medical research, produces less than 1 percent of the energy produced by a reactor used to generate electricity.

"You can't even make a cup of tea with the temperature of the water in there," operations engineer Phil Gough joked during a reactor tour.

Scientists at the Lucas Heights reactor, which was built in 1958 and is scheduled to be replaced by a newer reactor as early as next year, produce radioactive medicines sold to hospitals as far away as Shanghai and also supply irradiated silicon for the semiconductor industry.

Even if terrorists attacked the facility, workers were unsure what threat they could pose. The reactor, about the size of a washing machine, is surrounded by many layers of containment and contains only enough radioactive uranium to fill a coffee cup.

There's a mob of kangaroos on the grounds of the government-operated facility, which has the ambiance of a college campus. Workers jogged at lunchtime Monday, and a security guard read the Bible in between visitors.

New Zealand police said Monday that their investigations so far had concluded there was no serious danger of an attack on the reactor or the Olympic Games.

"Investigations since March have helped us conclude it's a low-level matter, and not a credible threat to the Olympics," police spokesman Bill Bishop said.

Suspicions were raised in March when New Zealand police raided a house in Auckland that was the base of a suspected human smuggling ring run by Afghan immigrants.

The police found street maps of Sydney, others marking entry and exit routes to the Lucas Heights reactor and notes on police security tactics at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland.

Bishop rejected reports in the New Zealand Herald that the four people arrested as a result of the raid were supporters of fugitive Afghanistan-based terrorist Osama bin Laden.

"There is no link which we can establish with Osama bin Laden," Bishop said.

The four suspects are scheduled to appear in court this week in Auckland on charges related to smuggling and passport fraud. None of the charges is related to terrorism.

The Australian government has said the facility will remain open during the games, although security will be upgraded. Health Minister Michael Wooldridge said the facility needs to stay open to produce radioactive isotopes used to treat cancer.

Lucas Heights is about 16 miles from the Olympic Stadium at Homebush Bay.

A similar reactor located near the Olympic site in Atlanta was shut down during the 1996 Olympics because of concerns terrorists could commandeer the fuel.

International Olympic Committee chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch said during the weekend he was satisfied with security preparations for the Sydney Games.