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Debate on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 9 Feb 2012

In Committee 

 

Debate resumed. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:52): We are resuming the debate on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 after a period of a couple of months. I had mistakenly come to believe that the government had delayed debate on the bill-stopped listing it-towards the end of last year because they were waiting on the outcome of Federal Court proceedings, which are still afoot. I do not need to remind the government or the opposition that the very land which the government has offered up as a target for the country's first national radioactive waste dump is in dispute. This is not a mystery to the minister; it is very well known. A number of parties in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory hotly contest that Australia should be dumping radioactive waste in their backyard. They do not understand why they have been targeted, and they dispute the nomination of the Northern Land Council to the federal government of that particular bit of land on Muckaty Station outside Tennant Creek. There is a large number of amendments to get through, so I do not propose to delay us unduly, but I have a couple of general questions about the bill before we start moving through the amendments. My first question to the minister is: why on earth are we debating this today when you do not even know if you are dealing with the people who are appropriate to speak for the land in question? The action that has been brought in the Federal Court is not frivolous or vexatious; it is absolutely deadly serious for the people who are involved. I understand that Senator Evans is here in a representative capacity and this is not his portfolio, but this afternoon it is his problem. Are you able to describe why we are even here debating this bill when you do not even know if the land in question was the Northern Land Council's to nominate? 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (11:52): This bill has been in the parliament for more than a year, and the government has made it clear that we think that this legislation is necessary to replace the current legislation. The court case that is occurring currently does not require us to delay or alter the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. Whatever the court case decision is, the government will of course respect and abide by it. The reality is that this government is committed to making these legislative changes. We believe they are necessary, and we believe they are a vast improvement. I know you have a different view about these matters, but to suggest that the parliament cannot do anything because there are court cases current is a nonsense. There may be further court cases, and there may be other actions taken-the parliament cannot wait until everyone exhausts whatever court cases they might be taking in this area. 

We think it is appropriate for this bill to proceed. We have been trying to get it dealt with for some time. It is not affected by any particular outcome from the current litigation. In fact, the bill accommodates any decision the court might make. That was acknowledged by the applicant's lawyer in the Federal Court case, George Newhouse, when he said 'we don't believe that passage will have any effect on the Muckaty nomination, because the government has said that they will abide by the decision of the court'. I think it is broadly accepted that the two can both proceed. Minister Ferguson has made it clear that he will abide by any decision. He has also made it clear that he will engage positively, both before and subsequent to the passage of legislation if it is carried, with all those with an interest in the land. 

 

With respect, Senator Ludlam, we have been trying to get on to this legislation for some time. The parliament has a responsibility to deal with it, and clearly this or other litigation will proceed according to the timetable of the parties and the courts. But this is important legislation and there is no barrier to the parliament's dealing with it. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:52): This is an unusual bill, and I think that it is worth pointing out that this bill explicitly targets a particular site. This bill explicitly targets the Muckaty site. It is named in the bill as an existing nomination that was carried over from the 2005-06 legislation-the legislation of the former government. It is a little bit disingenuous to claim-although, again, I understand that Senator Evans is here representing somebody else's portfolio-that the court case can go on with no relevance to this bill and that maybe there will be others and so on. If the applicants to the Federal Court action are successful it will completely rip the rug out from under the government's strategy of targeting the Muckaty site, and the minister would do well to acknowledge that, if that happens, an enormous amount of time-committee work, the parliament's time and particularly the people on the front line in Tennant Creek, who did not ask for this thing to be targeted on their country and do not understand why it needs to be going there in the first place-will have been wasted. The bill explicitly names that nominated site and preserves the nomination, which is not what the government said it would do when it was in opposition. The then opposition spoke out in no uncertain terms in ways that were directed particularly at Northern Territory audiences that they would not let the nomination stand. Words such as extreme, arrogant, heavy handed, draconian, sorry, sordid, extraordinary and profoundly shameful were used, not just by the Territory representatives but also by people such as Senator Carr. An action so described is what Minister Ferguson has sent the unfortunate Senator Evans in to defend this afternoon. The Labor Party strongly opposed it on principle when they were in opposition-and for perfectly good reasons. 

 

My question to the minister is whether or not he acknowledges that this bill explicitly targets the Muckaty nomination, which is directly relevant. You could look at it in one of two ways. It is either a complete waste of the parliament's time to be debating a bill that targets a site which, if the applicants to the Federal Court action are successful, will be taken permanently off the table or it may prejudice or get in the way of that action itself. I am not qualified, and I do not think anybody in this chamber is qualified, to go into the specifics of the question that is being heard in the Federal Court about who has traditional responsibilities for that country, because that is what that dispute is about. The dispute and the applicants in the dispute strongly contest the Northern Land Council's forwarding of that particular bit of country to the federal government, which has then seized upon it and said, 'We have a voluntary nomination.' Therefore this is not coercive but is coming from the community itself. 

 

The people there, for obvious reasons, are absolutely up in arms. They were not asked, they were not consulted and they do not believe proper process has been followed. The minister has never had the good grace to go there and look them in the eye and tell them what the intention is. He is hiding behind the idea that somehow the bill locks in the Muckaty nomination as the only site. There are advisers here today who have been across the table in estimates and who have told us that they are not looking at any other site and have no other nominations, that nothing else has come forward and that Muckaty is all they have. They did not speak not under oath, but obviously they were not lying to an estimates committee. They told us that nothing else is on the table: Muckaty is it. For the minister to say that somehow this is tangential to the matters we are debating this afternoon is completely incorrect. 

 

My primary question to the minister asks him to reconsider the matter and to bring on other legislation for this parliament to debate, because there are other things that this chamber should be doing. Failing that, perhaps during the MPI and question time periods, the minister could reconsider-noting that we are a week out from the anniversary of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to Aboriginal Australia-setting up something here which we are going to be very sorry for indeed. This is setting up a future apology for us: the coercive targeting of a politically vulnerable community in the Northern Territory to host the nation's most dangerous waste. It is a 300-year lease. Senator Scullion, at some point during the debate this afternoon, will be telling us about the $10 million that he has secured, which averages out at about $30,000 a year over a 300-year lease. I am wondering whether that will be dribbled out over the full three centuries or whether it is upfront. It is quite an achievement, Senator Scullion. We will get into that during the course of the debate. 

 

Senator Scullion: Don't verbal me, Scottie. 

 

Senator LUDLAM: There will be time, Senator Scullion-there will be a great deal of time. Will the minister acknowledge that the action being undertaken in the Federal Court is directly relevant to this bill and that the government, effectively, does not have a proposal and is wasting the chamber's time if the action in the Federal Court by the applicants from the Northern Territory is successful? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:03): The simple answer is no. I do not know whether the senator misunderstands or clearly has a political position, which he just advanced and which is a little overdramatic. I am not sure that the apology to the stolen generation and a decision about this site are quite on a par. 

 

The key response to the senator's question is that this legislation will allow us to deal with the Muckaty site or any other site. The legislation can survive any decision that is made in the court case. It is the case that we have an existing deed-a contractual obligation-in relation to Muckaty Station and that we look to honour that. A decision in the court would be binding on the government and would therefore be observed. The act allows us to deal with volunteer sites-Muckaty and others. It is not correct to say that the whole bill is dependent on Muckaty; it is not at all. 

 

The rather emotive arguments about the impact of the decision are quite misplaced. It is the case that people have different views about this, as they will about any site. These issues are always contentious. It is important that people are allowed to pursue their legal rights. Some are doing so, and they will have their day in court. The court will make a judgment, and the government will abide by that judgment. This legislation provides the framework for the government to deal with Muckaty Station or other volunteer nominations, which allow for people to volunteer their interests and land to support us having a site. I do not think anyone contests the fact that we need a waste site and that current arrangements are unsatisfactory. 

 

As the newly appointed science minister I have been briefed on those arrangements, and it has reinforced for me that we need to do better than we currently are in managing that waste. This issue has a long history, and I understand the emotion and the various views about it. This legislation allows the government to get on with resolving this longstanding matter. It allows us to honour the agreement with the traditional owners of Muckaty Station and to follow the process and assessment through; it also allows us to do so with other sites. The act recognises the existing contractual relationship with the traditional owners of Muckaty Station. A successful action in the Federal Court to remove the nomination of Muckaty Station would not challenge the act and would not prevent us from proceeding with the architecture that is contained in the act. 

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:06): My colleague, Senator Scott Ludlam, has clearly set out the far-reaching implications of the legislation that we are now considering in committee. I would also like to take it up in the context of the implications for New South Wales, considering so much of the nuclear waste that would be stored at Muckaty would actually come from Lucas Heights, which is a nuclear reactor in Sydney in the outer suburbs near Sutherland. This waste would also be transported through New South Wales to then arrive at Muckaty in the Northern Territory. There are clear safety implications here and it would be useful for the Senate to hear from the minister how this is going to be managed. I think that this is very important when we consider that Lucas Heights will generate 90 per cent of the nuclear waste measured by radioactivity which will go to Muckaty. 

As we know-and as has been explained many times-this spent nuclear fuel reprocessing waste is highly radioactive. This is waste that has been stored for a long time at Lucas Heights. The proposal is, as I understand it-and this is what I would like the minister to set out in more detail-to transport it to Muckaty Station. We know from the 2009 report commissioned by the government on possible transport routes from Lucas Heights to Muckaty Station, that it is proposed to send it possibly by road through western or northern New South Wales, or truck it to Cronulla and put it on a train to the site. 

 

This is where we really do need a detailed response to the minister. As we know, the bill has serious implications for the traditional owners and the Indigenous people and all peoples in terms of the actual siting of the waste dump in the Northern Territory. But there are also implications in the transport of the waste, and this needs to be explored in considerable detail. 

 

Taking that first possible transport route, where it would be sent by truck, that would mean that the waste would be going through built-up areas in Sydney, many of those suburbs, as well as regional built-up areas and country areas. The potential for accidents is considerable. We have seen that in the recent floods and in the Northern Territory with some of the accidents there. So how that issue is going to be managed is important, again, for the people of New South Wales whom I have been elected to represent, and also for people along that whole transport route. So I ask the minister to set out how that has been handled and what the government's response is to the potential dangers of moving highly radioactive waste over such a long distance. Thank you. 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:10): Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. I will just make two points. One, I think it is important: we are not being alarmist in this debate. I point out to Senator Rhiannon in starting that we currently have waste at hundreds of sites, I think, around Australia-tertiary hospitals, as well as Lucas Heights. So when she talks about floods, it is possible that the current sites might be flooded. I am not suggesting that the current arrangements are unsatisfactory, but to make those arguments, I think you have to acknowledge the fact that we are dealing with an issue that is already very real and you cannot wish that away. You can either choose to say that we will leave it all where it is, or you have to deal with it-and to move the waste to other sites, yes, you have to transport it. 

 

But the transport of radioactive waste will be a significant part to the regulatory processes. A detailed assessment of the safe and secure movement of radioactive waste to a facility will be required in the course of an environmental impact assessment. That will of course involve consultation with local government bodies, as you referred, along preferred transport routes once the facility location is known. 

 

Transport of radioactive waste to a facility cannot proceed without a licence from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which will ensure that the transport arrangements fully comply with the transport code of practice. I am advised that it is estimated that over 20 million packages of radioactive material are safely transported throughout the world each year, over 30,000 of them within Australia already. So we are not going to something we have not had some experience with. It is the case that we have a very strong regulatory process that will have to be followed and that work will obviously flow once the site is determined. 

But when one talks about risks, one has to acknowledge, as I say, the existing situation. I am not raising alarm about our current arrangements, but we have multiple sites and this will give us a better management and allow us to have a better focus on the management of the waste. When people talk about floods or accidents or earthquakes, the reality is that we are dealing with those risks in many sites around Australia now. 

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:13): Thank you, Minister, for that response. Minister, I did think that your response was not fully balanced in some aspects of nuclear waste when you spoke about some of the issues to do with floods and transport, when you consider that you are not actually referring to spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive. It is very dangerous. There is widespread understanding that it is safest on site. That certainly would have been the wisest thing, and it should have been done with Lucas Heights. 

 

I draw your attention, Minister, to what the public response often is in Europe. When spent nuclear fuel is transported, there are mass protests of thousands of people often taking direct action because of their deep concern about this, and I think that we would all acknowledge that those protests have been critical to the German government and some other governments in Europe revising their policy on nuclear fuel. 

 

Coming back to the transport issue, you set out the ways that the government is going to manage this. I think that what we now need to explore is whether we can be confident in those measures that you have put forward. In the first instance I ask if you are aware of a 2004 New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the transport and storage of nuclear waste? This inquiry found that the transport of radioactive waste increases the risk of accident, including terrorist intervention. It also identified that moving waste by road can result in it being trucked through accident black spots where, obviously, the risk of accidents can increase. 

 

That report found that moving the waste was not the best option. That report was actually supported by your Labor colleagues in New South Wales, and that position was put forward by them when they were in government. It is at odds, I believe, with what you are now advocating. So I would just like to ask if you are aware of that report and what your response is to those findings? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:15): I have to say that I am not personally aware of that report. I am not as knowledgeable on New South Wales upper house inquiries as perhaps I should be. I have enough trouble following the multitude of Senate ones. I am not sure, Senator, whether you served on that one and whether you need to declare an interest or not! 

 

Senator Rhiannon: No. 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS: No? Okay! Nor do I think that anyone would suggest that decisions of the New South Wales Labor government, now deceased, would be binding in any way on this federal government. 

 

This is about finding a practical, safe and appropriate resolution of a problem that has plagued us for a long time now. The Senate would be aware of our current arrangements needing to be addressed, and the prospect of us dealing with return of waste in a few years time. We think this is the best possible response. As I said, there will be significant regulatory arrangements around the transport arrangements and consultation to ensure that the most safe and appropriate measures are in place. The threat of protest action seems to me to be, again, an incitement to alarmist behaviour. 

 

I think we need a calm, rational debate about what is required here. We think this legislation does that. Obviously, when the regulatory framework is in place-if this bill is carried-then those issues all flow and they will have to be dealt with as they have been in this country in the past: in a very measured way and focused on the safe transport of that waste as a priority. We do need a facility and we do need a better option than the ones we are currently utilising. While I am extremely conscious of the need for transport to be done safely and the whole range of other measures, this is the regulatory architecture that allows us to do that. Those things will be developed over time and no doubt senators and others will take a keen interest in those matters, as they should. But we believe we will have the regulatory framework that can give most reassurance about those issues as we find an answer to a very real problem. 

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:18): Minister, I did note in your response that you spoke about how we need a practical, safe solution. They are significant words; just taking those words, one could not disagree with them. But it is obviously where we find the solution. 

 

I think that where that comment takes us is to what degree, and how, would the government consult with the communities at Lucas Heights and along the possible routes to take the nuclear waste through New South Wales, possibly Queensland, possibly South Australia and obviously also the Northern Territory-whatever route is determined. That is very significant for these communities. They clearly have a right to know. There are serious safety issues here and environmental implications. 

Could you set out the form that the community consultation will take? Will it be consultation on the possible proposed route? Or will the route be determined secretly, and then will there be that mock consultation that many of us see is used these days to justify projects that governments in fact know are quite unpopular? I think it would be very informative for the debate at this stage to understand how that form of consultation will play out. 

 

Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory-Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (12:20): If I could just be of small assistance with regard to the nature of the material that we are actually moving? First of all, there is a dictate of the radioactive repository that there is no particulate matter and that there is no liquid matter to be stored at the repository. This is unlike the yellow cake which goes weekly from South Australia along roads or on the railway line through the Northern Territory-through the suburbs of Alice Springs, then Katherine, then Darwin and then boarded at the wharf. 

 

Most importantly is the notion that there would be radioactive rods. The rods have in previous times already gone overseas for reprocessing. The material that returns is actually being transported in containers that have to have been approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I have seen photographs of them and there is a very specific standard under which this material can be carried. That actual container will be used to store them in Lucas Heights and then that same container, which meets the international standards of approval, will be used to move that material from Lucas Heights to wherever the repository may be. 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:21): As I indicated, ARPANSA will have to ensure that transport arrangements fully comply with the transport code of practice and, obviously, there will be an environmental impact assessment as part of the development of the site. There are already ARPANSA codes available, but they will ensure the regulation. They are already on the record as having spoken about consultation. The suggestion that these sorts of things were done in secret is alarmist. I do not think there can be any suggestion of those things being determined in secret. There will clearly be public interest and people who will need to be consulted, and that will occur. We think we have some of the most rigorous regulatory frameworks in place with regard to these issues and they will continue to be applied rigorously. 

 

Transport of radioactive waste will require a licence from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. There is an application for a licence and there is a process, and ARPANSA has made clear that public consultation will need to be a part of that process. I have great confidence that none of this will occur in secret, because there are clearly public interest matters to be taken into account when determining the transport routes. 

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:23): Thank you for that answer. Could you clarify: will the consultation be on which route is to be used before it is determined how the radioactive waste will be moved? Is it on which route will be used or is it to take place after the route has been determined? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:23): I do not have that level of detail. I will see what I can find for you, but if you are looking at routes and having a debate about a possible route then obviously alternatives will become part of that consultation. I would be misleading you to say I have a detailed briefing on that-I do not. I am happy to see if I can get something further for you, but ARPANSA will have responsibility to ensure that they comply with the transit code. It will require a licence, and those processes will require that engagement about routes. It seems to me that brings into play the issue of which route is to be used and what the alternatives are. Clearly if one is taking waste from Lucas Heights to, say, the Northern Territory, there are options. I will try to get a more detailed response for you about how that process works. 

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:24): I believe it would be useful for the chamber to have that information before it, so I look forward to receiving it. You used the term 'rigorous regulatory frameworks'. I am in no way implying, Minister, that you are like some of the Labor ministers I worked with in New South Wales, but that the term you just used was the regular language that they used. So many of their projects became highly discredited and are now being investigated so that sort of language sounds alarm bells for people who are trying to ensure that we handle this waste safely and that we manage these problems that society is periodically confronted with in a responsible way. 

 

Sticking with this issue about how confident we can be in how various authorities manage this, are you aware of the Payne report? This goes back to May 2002. Christopher Payne was a former Australian Federal Police officer who was asked to look at security issues at ANSTO. This was just after the tragedy of the Twin Towers and before the Bali bombing, at the height of great concern about terrorist attacks. Mr Payne was asked to look at security measures. The Payne report confirmed that ANSTO were more concerned with appearing safe than with protecting the community and the environment. It was quite worrying to see the lack of commitment there appeared to be from ANSTO. 

 

I raise this because it highlights the lack of confidence that there is when one comes to look at the ways the various authorities manage issues to do with nuclear waste. My question is: are you aware of this report, and what has been learned from ANSTO's apparent failure to deal with security issues that will be even more relevant if this nuclear waste is moved to Muckaty? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:27): I was not aware of the Payne report, but I can certainly ask to be briefed on that when I am dealing with ANSTO as I am now the responsible minister. From my point of view, I will be making sure that there is a very strong focus on safety and responsible engagement. I am sure that is the case already, but from my own personal view I would certainly expect it to be one of the No. 1 priorities. Having been briefed by the head of ANSTO recently, I am sure that is the case. 

 

Drawing up instances of concern from 10 years ago may not really take this debate anywhere. And while you talk about what New South Wales Labor ministers said, your contributions seem to be leading towards the creation of fear, doubt and uncertainty. Talk of public confidence and public protests and such do not seem to be focusing on the bill or any evidence. We would be better off talking about those things rather than trying to raise concern based on allegations of past behaviour. Our job is to make sure the regulatory framework for the transport of waste that is occurring now, and the transport that will be needed when the disposal site is erected, is of the highest safety standards. That is an issue for the parliament now, and if you have evidence based concerns about that you are free to raise them. It seems to me we ought to be focusing on those things, and I am not sure the debate today will be advanced by me debating with you reports from 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Obviously the bill is before us, and if you have issues you want to raise about that regulatory framework then I am happy to engage with you. But I am not sure traversing your views of what occurred 10 years ago is all that helpful in advancing the debate. So I will try not to sound like a New South Wales Labor government minister if you try not to sound like someone exciting fear in the community. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:30): I think the direction of some of Senator Rhiannon's questions, and probably one of the really vital links that the government and this particular minister missed when he put together his policy by simply cutting and pasting what the Howard government was up to on waste, is that the nuclear industry in Australia and around the world has a history of telling its host communities that it is safe. 'It's safe. It's safe. It's safe. Oh, no. Evacuate. Get out-because suddenly it's not safe.' We saw that most spectacularly in Japan 10 months ago but we have also seen it in Australia. 

 

I am interested to note Senator Scullion advertising transport of radioactive concentrates through Central Australia on the rail line. Senator Scullion is obviously very aware-because this is right in the middle of his electorate-of the copper concentrate spill that occurred north of Katherine last December when the rail line washed out. If there had been yellowcake in that transport, which is what BHP is proposing, they would still be working out how to clean it all up. We do not have the emergency services personnel or expertise to clean up if a two-kilometre-long set of rail cars with radioactive concentrate in them were washed out. The point that Senator Scullion raised about the material in question-the material which, it is proposed, will be going to this dump at Muckaty or wherever else-is, however, quite correct in that it is not particulate matter. It is not 44-gallon drums full of powder as is exported from uranium mines. 

 

But I would like to pull the minister up on a couple of things he raised in his earlier remarks about the hundreds of sites around the country that currently exist in hospitals and universities. We hear anecdotes about filing cabinets and so on. The minister in the other place has frequently riffed on this theme as well. The minister added the caveat that it is not suggested, heaven forbid, that any of those particular sites are unsafe-otherwise they should not be operated-but I would like to know, firstly, how many of these sites there are. How many places are there around the country for storing radioactive waste of various categories that would notionally be carted across to a central waste dump? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:32): I had myself asked that question five minutes ago when preparing to speak in answer to an earlier question. To get you the precise number, I am going to have to take that on notice. But obviously I am aware, as you are, that there are tertiary hospitals and universities involved in medical and pharmaceutical research and other activities which generate waste. When we come back to the debate later, I will try to get you a precise number. Those things are public and will be public under this regime. 

 

I make the point, though, that I think there is a difference between arguing for nuclear energy, with its associated risks, in this country and dealing with the waste that is generated by what we all accept is very important scientific and medical activity. I have not heard anyone arguing that we should not be saving lives as a result of that research and treatment. So I take a very pragmatic view of this: we have to find a solution to deal with those things and the waste that will be returned to us. I am not an advocate for nuclear energy in Australia. I do not think we need it. I think we have much better alternatives. Maybe the minister I am representing and I have a slight divergence on this, but I am not an advocate for nuclear energy and I do not think Australia will pursue it. I think that, with the introduction of a carbon price, we can do much better in wave, solar, gas and the other alternatives. 

 

So I do not think we are debating the safety of nuclear power sites. We are debating how Australia manages the waste which will continue to be produced by very important medical and scientific activities which I think are accepted as necessary by the whole of society. We have too long ducked resolving this issue and many people from all sides of politics have not covered themselves in glory in this debate in the past, but this is a serious challenge for the federal government to resolve. We think this takes us forward in doing that. That is why we are seeking the support of the Senate. But I will see if I can get you the precise number of current sites. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:35): Thank you for that answer, Minister. I might load you up with a couple of supplementaries while you are at it since you have the advisers with you. I also take the opportunity to congratulate you on the portfolio reshuffle that happened while I was away and to add that, if you want to check the transcript of the last time that we debated this legislation-it was the third quarter of last year-you will see that we have been protesting very strongly since the 2007 election the rather odd decision to shift the portfolio responsibility for radioactive waste management from the science portfolio across to resources. I think that was a profoundly strange thing for the incoming Rudd government to have done. Minister, even the way that you have approached the debate this afternoon tells me that this particular matter, which is intractable and has provided huge challenges for governments of both political persuasions for decades, would be a lot better in your hands than in those of the person you are representing. I put that to you as a courtesy. If you were to be working behind the scenes to take back responsibility for this portfolio, we in the Australian Greens would certainly support that approach. 

 

To load you up with a supplementary on the question that you have offered to take back-I am not sure that the minister's advisers would necessarily agree with me, so I do not know that you would need to consult with them at this point-I imagine that we are talking about somewhere between a couple of dozen sites to, at the most, something in the low hundreds. I am interested to know how many of those sites will close. What will actually change if this centralised waste dump happens? How many of the university filing cabinets will have to close, will be stood down or will not be needed anymore? 

 

My understanding is that we are not proposing to change the way that we use radiopharmaceuticals, for engineering or whatever it might be. The government says, sometimes quite flippantly, that we have this stuff stored at all these dodgy locations around the country. That begs the question of why we do that if this material is so unsafe. How many of these sites is it estimated we will be able to decommission or stand down if we get a remote dump out in the bush somewhere? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:37): I am happy to take that on notice and get back to you when we resume the debate. But my layman's response is that, if those sites are continuing to produce waste, there will clearly be waste for some period of time on those sites. The issue then is storage and making sure we are not continuing to accumulate waste in those sites. But clearly the research activities will continue and therefore they will generate waste. One of the issues we are dealing with is the accumulation of waste in Australia, which will only grow-because of both the returns from France and England that are due in a couple of years time and what we continue to generate here. We are one of the leaders in many of these scientific pursuits, which is a great credit to Australia. We have some of the best people in many of the fields that use this material. That is a layman's off-the-cuff response, which is probably wrong. I will get you a more informed response when we come back on the other matter. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:38): We only have a couple more minutes until we suspend the debate until this afternoon-if the government chooses to bring it back-so I have a couple of questions that I would like to put on notice for you. The first one the advisers may be able to tell you about right now. Does the government have any other sites under consideration? Have there been any other nominations? This bill, as you have described it to us, provides first of all for locking in the Muckaty nomination-which was against the ALP's policy. Nonetheless, they have done that. Can you confirm for us-and I would like to be a little bit forensic about this if I can-whether the government has accepted any nominations, entertained expressions of interest or spoken to other parties? In terms as broad as I can frame the question, are there any other sites under consideration and, if so, where are they? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:39): I am advised that, under the existing legislation, we cannot take any other nominations. So I think the answer is no, and there is no intention to do that until this legislation is in place. But, technically, we cannot do that under the current legislation anyway. That is my advice: we cannot technically do it under the current legislation. So the broad answer is no, and there is no expression of interest process underway or anything of that sort. Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:40): Senator Scullion might jump to his feet and contradict you. My understanding is that the 2006 amendments-which Senator Scullion had a fair bit to do with-to the Radioactive Waste Management Act that was in place from the end of 2005 did allow a land council, and I think it specifically proposed a land council in the Northern Territory, to nominate a site. Can I get some clarity on that? I do not have the bill before me, but my understanding is that other places can be nominated, on a voluntary basis, through a land council-which, indeed, was how the Muckaty nomination came about in the first place. 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:40): I think that is right-that legislation is what allowed Muckaty to be nominated. But I think the minister has made it clear that he is not entertaining any other nominations. So there is no process in place; there is no encouragement or expression of interest process or what have you. I think you are probably correct in the sense that that is how Muckaty came to be nominated, but there is no ongoing process or consideration of other sites. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:41): I thought it was important to clarify that it is a policy decision of the current government not to accept or encourage nominations; there is nothing legally preventing others from coming forward. You say you have not been seeking out expressions of interest, but has anybody approached the federal government at any time-either the department or the minister's office-with an alternative proposal for a site? 

 

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:41): If this answer is not totally correct I will correct it when I get further advice. Essentially there is nothing serious occurring. I am told that people write in and say we should put it on the middle of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or at Parliament House because they deserve it or what have you. But I do not think there is any serious consideration going on in the government. If that is not totally correct, I will come back and correct the record. My advice is that the minister is not seriously considering anything, but he is occasionally contacted by people with different ideas about how we might respond. 

 

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:42): That is a fascinating answer and I look forward to having that fleshed out when the minister has had some time to provide you with a definition of 'serious'. But I understand where you are going and I look forward to your answer. The last thing I would like to get on the record-and perhaps this provides some homework for the advisers to take away before we bring this debate back-goes to the issues that Senator Scullion raised about what exactly we are proposing to store in this dump. My understanding-and I am happy to be corrected if this is wrong-is that there are two very broad categories of material that this dump will host. The first category is low-level material, which I think this dump is designed to host until it has stopped ticking in 200 or 300 years and is no longer a risk to the host population. The second category of waste, which Senator Scullion was referring to, is the reprocessed materials, the spent fuel, that comes back to us from Europe. The dwindling number of countries that do nuclear fuel processing have the plutonium and other fissile elements removed and then we get back a sort of cemented, solidified garbage from reprocessing plants in Europe. 

 

I am interested to know, firstly, if the minister could provide us with an update, after the debate resumes, on how much of that category of material will arrive back here from overseas by 2014 and how much equivalent material of that nature is already hosted at Lucas Heights. The government makes a big deal about how this stuff is on its way back and we need to look after it and have somewhere for it to go. My understanding is that roughly 15 times that volume of material is already parked out the back of Lucas Heights and has been there for decades, and that what we are getting back is a relatively small fraction of what we already host. I would appreciate clarification and quantification. I think the minister has done an admirable job of defending the government's position this afternoon. I cannot say that I look forward to the debate resuming, because I hope it does not. I think all we are doing here is giving life to the adage that you cannot polish a dump, if I can put it that way-you cannot polish the proverbial. The minister is doing his best, but this should not be occurring.

 

 

 

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