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Department of Resources on nuclear waste dump

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 23 Nov 2013

Senator LUDLAM: Can we just bring forward the officers who are charged with progressing the National Radioactive Waste Facility?

CHAIR: Certainly.

Senator LUDLAM: Welcome back to the new world order. Could you just give us a bit of an update of what your work plan looks like at the moment, given the change of government and the process that was recently announced by the resources minister? 

Ms Constable: The department just recently went out to tender for a first-stage business case for a radioactive waste facility. That business case is to examine all of the options available to the government in radioactive waste. Our preferred tenderer has now been chosen; that preferred tenderer is SKM. They are required to report back on the business case by the first quarter of 2014. The initial business case will outline and confirm the business needs for a safe radioactive waste management solution, including construction costs and proposed project delivery strategies. It will compare construction options against other options, including a do nothing option, an overseas waste management options and the expansion of current waste management facilities. It will look at public-private partnerships; that is a requirement under the two-stage capital works program of the Department of Finance.

Senator LUDLAM: I think it is worth acknowledging and putting on the record at this point that this is the first time in living memory that a government has had the courage to look at a range of options, rather than just saying that we are going to dump this out in the bush on a cattle station. I think this minister should be acknowledged for the fact that-while I have expressed some criticism of the privatisation of the process and that it has simply been outsourced, and we will come back to that in a moment-there are a range of options on the table. That is what a lot of people have been asking for for a long time. I just wanted to put that on the record. What degree of public consultation is there likely to be now that this work is underway?

Mr Sheldrick: The initial business case tender process itself will be conducted. There will not be public consultation on that.

Senator LUDLAM: Sorry, that is just a tender process to work out who is going to do the work?

Mr Sheldrick: And the project now that we have initiated the tender. That will be conducted, as Ms Constable said, through to June. That will be conducted without a public consultation process.

Senator LUDLAM: What happens once you have chosen somebody to then undertake that work?

Mr Sheldrick: We have chosen someone. That is SKM.

Senator LUDLAM: By the middle of next year, you will have made a decision on what are four broad options: to carry on what you are doing, to not to anything at all, to expand the current facility or to use overseas storage.

Ms Constable: That is correct.

Senator LUDLAM: But you are going to make your minds up completely behind closed doors as to which of those four should proceed?

Ms Constable: When SKM do their work, they will look at a range of options. There has been previous work done, of course, by Parsons Brinckerhoff in the past. SKM will certainly consult with a range of stakeholders aboutthe options that may be available. They will come back to government in the first quarter of 2014. At that point, advice will be provided to government on what the preferred course of action may be and then on what consultation may look like on that preferred option. 

Senator LUDLAM: But consultation after you have made your minds up: we are going to need to come up with different word for it, because that is not consultation. What is the point of consulting once you have already decided?

Ms Constable: As I just said, SKM will confer with the range of stakeholders regarding the options that are there.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, you did.

Ms Constable: They will need to do that to ensure that they have the full range of information available to them.

Senator LUDLAM: All right. Good. Do not let me read you wrong, because that is consultation before the decision point is reached. That is important. What can you tell us about the stakeholders who will be consulted?

Ms Constable: At this stage the decision has just been made regarding SKM becoming the preferred applicant in this process. The department is currently working with SKM on the next steps and how they will go about thisproject. 

Senator LUDLAM: I think you answered a different question. Who will be consulted? Who do you consider a stakeholder? What is the definition of that? 

Ms Constable: It is relevant parties in terms of decision making. In the course of low-level and intermediate-level waste there is storage already occurring around Australia at the moment. We would expect that SKM will look at what has already occurred in terms of that consultation. We would expect that SKM talked to the likes of ANSTO that certainly have relevance in storage. They will talk to overseas facilities in the context of that storage. They will talk to the land councils around Australia, one of which has already offered a nomination-that is, the Northern Land Council. They will talk to government regarding this matter. So those are a few of the stakeholders that we anticipate conversations will occur with.

Senator LUDLAM: I reckon that is a pretty good start. Given that one of your options is expanding the existing facility at Lucas Heights, what about the Sutherland shire, for example?

Ms Constable: Yes, of course-

Senator LUDLAM: Are people able to forward submissions to SKM, or is it envisaged that people will be able to make submissions even if they are not formally approached?

Mr Sheldrick: We are not seeking submissions through this process. Just to elaborate a little bit further, we spent a day with officers from the department and their consultants yesterday going through exactly this scoping of stakeholders and the threshold conditions that those stakeholders may have. The Sutherland shire and others-there was a very long list-were identified in that process.

Senator LUDLAM: Are you able to table that list for us?

Mr Sheldrick: No, I do not have that list. It is still being worked through. This was literally a whiteboarding exercise yesterday. We will continue to work on that and refine it. It was a whiteboard exercise.

Senator LUDLAM: I will not ask you to table the whiteboard! When the list is complete, though, are you prepared to table it? You are drawing that up with SKM, right?

Ms Constable: We are happy to table that list when it is completed.

Senator LUDLAM: That is much appreciated. Has the Commonwealth or its agencies had any further discussion with other states, communities or jurisdictions over a potential site for a waste facility apart from the one that was nominated by the NLC?

Ms Constable: No, we have not had any discussions with other states.

Senator LUDLAM: Other land councils?

Ms Constable: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Other communities?

Ms Constable: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Random submissions? Premier Colin Barnett?

Ms Constable: There is always correspondence that is put forward to the department and to the government. We seek to talk to particular people when they do put forward submissions or want to have discussions. But we have not actively sought those discussions out.

Senator LUDLAM: Your act says you can, but you are telling me that you have not. But have you actually received nominations from other parties of any kind for alternative sites apart from what is in play at Muckaty?

Ms Constable: No.

Senator LUDLAM: That is fine. That is consistent with what you have said in the past. Just briefly, what is the status of works to upgrade the storage capacity at ANSTO's existing Lucas Heights facility? Have formal works actually commenced there or are you still in the planning stages? 

Ms Constable: Could we take that on notice?

Senator LUDLAM: I probably should have directed that to ANSTO. I missed them. If there is any info you can provide us-

Ms Constable: Absolutely.

Senator LUDLAM: What is the government's view-you can tell me if you are aware of a change in policy; otherwise I will put this to you, Minister Ronaldson-on Australia hosting imports of international waste as, for example, your principal Indigenous adviser, Warren Mundine, is proposing? I know he is not speaking on formal policy, but what is the government's policy?

Senator Ronaldson: I cannot answer that question. I do not know whether there has been a policy decision made. If there has, I am happy to communicate that to you, but I cannot otherwise answer your question.

Senator LUDLAM: I reckon there would be an announcement and we would probably both know of it, but if you are able to take that on notice-

Ms Constable: As far as we are aware, there has been no change to previous statements that have been made regarding not taking international waste into Australia.

Senator LUDLAM: It is always worth checking, though, isn't it? Can you just give us an update, then, from the Commonwealth's point of view of the status of the existing Muckaty nominations?

Ms Constable: The existing Muckaty nomination stands. You would be aware that that particular nomination is subject to a court case. A hearing has been set for June 2014 and we are waiting. A Commonwealth legal counsel is currently going through the process of representing the Commonwealth in that court case.

Mr Sheldrick: I can add a little bit more detail which you may be aware of. On 10 September the applicants lodged their final application to the court. That outlined their position and their supporting evidence. That lodgement then provided the Commonwealth and the Northern Land Council the opportunity to submit their defence application and that defence application was submitted on 24 September. As Ms Constable said, the full trial is scheduled for June 2014.

Senator LUDLAM: I cannot ask you questions about court procedures. I will let that go. Is it your understanding-and again this might have needed to go to ANSTO-that there are still shipments of spent fuel expected from Europe? There is no change to that schedule as far as you are aware?

Ms Constable: There is no change to that schedule.

Senator LUDLAM: This is going to get a bit surreal, congratulating the minister twice in one session on matters of radioactive waste, but he did make an undertaking during the election campaign that he would visit the site and meet with some of those in and around Tennant Creek who have strongly opposed the Muckaty nomination. Do you have an update, or maybe through you Senator Ronaldson, as to whether that trip has made it into the minister's diary?

Senator Ronaldson: I have not got access to his diary, as you understand, Senator. I am not sure whether the departmental officials any wiser.

Ms Beauchamp: He has been talking about it. I think it is just a matter of finding time.

Senator LUDLAM: It was a commitment undertaken for before the end of the year. That is my understanding. It would be pretty good news for that mob if they were finally going to get a visit.

Senator Ronaldson: I think the secretary said it is under active consideration. It was not a comment that was made and just forgotten.

Senator LUDLAM: That is good to know.

Ms Constable: It is also a matter of making sure that the traditional owners, who have to travel from afar, are available for the minister to meet. That request has been made to the traditional owners in terms of availability over the next couple of months.

Senator LUDLAM: I recognise that sort of thing is quite difficult to organise, but I would just impress on you that that commitment was taken pretty seriously by the people up there and his visit is certainly anticipated.

Senator Ronaldson: It looks to me that it is underway.

Senator LUDLAM: I close as I began. This process that you have initiated is different to how things have been done in Australia before-certainly in my experience of this issue under three different governments. The more open and transparent the process of consultation is the more likely we are to actually be able to bring everybody along with us rather than seeing the sort of pitched battles in the courts in the capital cities and in the bush that we have seen in the previous decade or two. So I just encourage you to be as open as possible. 

Senator Ronaldson: We will probably take that as a comment rather than a question.

Senator LUDLAM: If we are going to have a Q&A moment, it was a comment rather than a question.

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