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National Radioactive Waste Dump Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 14 Jun 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:45): This debate has been a long time coming. How long, exactly, depends on how you set your clock. Perhaps it began more than a year ago when this bill was introduced into the parliament, last February, or perhaps in late 2005 when the Howard government used its numbers to ram the original version of this bill through the Senate in order to target three sites in the Northern Territory. Perhaps it started in late 2006 when the Howard government came back to the parliament and forced through an amendment bill that explicitly paved the way for a single nomination at a cattle station called Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek. Perhaps it really began on 26 January 1958 when the nuclear research facility that generated the waste we are discussing today first went critical, under the prime ministership of Robert Menzies, during the darkest years of the Cold War.

In truth, we need to wind back the clock just a little further to see when this fuse was really lit: 2 December 1942, when a pile of enriched uranium and graphite blocks went critical on a racquet court at the University of Chicago. At that point, with the first criticality of the first nuclear reactor, the template was set for the way in which high-level radioactive waste would be managed in nearly every jurisdiction in which it was produced. This pattern-which Australia followed with precision-runs a dismal road from indifference to and denial of the problem to the establishment of a pseudoscientific process to identify a dumpsite as far as possible from the location of decision makers, followed by attempted forced entry of the identified site and then defeat at the hands of the target community. The final phase, that of amnesia, allows the process to return to the indifference and denial phase, and the cycle starts again.

There is a reason why nearly everywhere in the world the nuclear industry's attempts to deal with its waste products follow this dysfunctional template with such remarkable consistency. I believe it has to do with the nature of the waste itself colliding with human perceptions and appreciation of time. Democratically elected governments work on three- or four-year electoral cycles. Private nuclear corporations look to quarterly reporting cycles and the longer depreciation time lines of their assets. Host communities take a broader view and think at least in terms of a generation or two. But the lethal wastes produced in a nuclear fission reactor defeat these human conceptions of time.
Consider the medical wastes and other contaminated by-products that needed to be shielded from people and the wider environment for three or four centuries. These are the gloves in hospital waste, the spent sources, the contaminated and compacted trash arising from all the different ways in which our industrial society uses and discards radioactive materials. These things are not merely contaminated, they are contaminating. Everything they come in contact with becomes itself some form of radioactive waste.
Our bodies are well adapted to deal with the full-time task of cell repair that comes with living in an environment bathed in low levels of background radiation. The nuclear industry likes to point this out, as though it somehow absolves them from direct responsibility for producing whole new categories of this obscenely dangerous material, whether in gigantic piles of finely powdered radioactive waste at uranium mines or in more concentrated and immediately lethal forms requiring the kind of intergenerational storage that we consider today.

For three centuries after the legislators and policymakers who wrote this bill are dead and forgotten that waste will still be ticking, it will still be capable of killing and injuring, and that is the legacy that we contemplate here today. This so-called low-level waste is the material that the Labor, Liberal and National Party MPs think should be put on a semitrailer and railcar and taken to a cattle station that only a handful of them could even point to on a map. Most of the waste has spent the first few decades of its existence in a shed at the Lucas Heights reactor complex in Sutherland Shire in the south of Sydney, watched over by the same technicians who created it, people who at least have qualifications in its characterisation and handling.

It is an extraordinary legacy for our great-grandchildren 12 generations hence. By the time our descendants are able to take their eyes off this stockpile our debates in here will be a distant memory, although we might be conceited enough to imagine them reviewing the Hansard record to work out exactly why we thought producing this material was justified in the first place.

Despite the government's stated intentions and MPs filing in here talking about medical wastes and so on, that 300-year stockpile is absolutely not what this waste dump bill is about. It is about something else entirely. Spent fuel from nuclear reactors, whether from small research facilities or large-scale power stations in our customer countries, produces categories of waste that defy easy description. Remember that this waste is not only contaminated but contaminating. The fuel pores within every reactor on earth are slowly but surely turning the containment structures themselves into radioactive waste, such that the entire assemblies at the end of their lives need to be meticulously dismantled, cut up, somehow contained and then isolated in the same manner as the fuel itself.

This material-the spent-fuel elements, the old reactor cores and containment structures-if not properly looked after and stored, will still kill you in 50 or 100,000 years time. I defy anyone in this chamber to confidently make any prediction of any worth at all about the state of human society 100,000 years from now. If you look back in time a span like that takes us back two ice ages. The only people I know of with the kind of grip on deep geological time that matches the time spans we are forced to consider today are the Aboriginal people, whose 60,000-year occupation of this continent is documented in the extraordinarily resilient oral and symbolic culture that central Australians speak of as Jukurrpa or 'the law'. The million or so silent petroglyphs, or rock carvings, hammered into the granophyre galleries of Murujuga, the Burrup Peninsula, tell an unbroken and sophisticated story of 30,000 years or more of continuous occupation spanning different geological ages. These are the timescales that the producers and promoters of radioactive waste force us to contemplate.

That waste, the 100,000-year migraine left us by a few short decades of industrial thoughtlessness, is only heading to Muckaty in the interim, we are told. I confirmed that in Senate estimates only a fortnight ago. The government intends to transport the dismantled Lucas Heights reactor core and the reprocessed spent fuel and other long-lived garbage out to Muckaty in the interim. There is still no final disposal site in contemplation. The government asks us to trust it that its policy is only to host waste generated in Australia, and to that I can only say that trust around here, in these issues, is in very short supply. We have people from Bob Hawke on down promoting Australia as a global radioactive dump. What an extraordinary vision for our community that is. People promoting remote dumping of radioactive waste, whether locally, nationally or globally have to answer two very simple questions.

 The first question is, why exactly does this material have to be stored remotely; why the obsession with centralising this poisonous garbage at a remote site? We know why, because every now and again the industry lapses into sincerity and tells us. For the really dangerous material, no engineered form of containment has been developed that this waste will not burn its way out of. Because the industry knows that its waste will eventually leak, it seeks what are known as high-isolation sites: places with stable geology and with deep water tables that are unlikely to rise. This was explained in detail by the proponents of the Pangaea International waste dump, who outlined the strategy with unusual honesty. Checking to verify the company's strategy, I had it confirmed a couple of years ago at one of the Senate committees into this matter by officers of ANSTO, who said, 'Sure, we put it out there because the material will leak-yes.' This explains the obsession that nuclear industry decision makers the world over have with remote sites. Put crudely, they want it as far from themselves as possible, because their own engineers have told them that they will need geology itself to be the final barrier when the engineered containment inevitably fails. That brings us to the second question: when you find such a remote site, what will you tell the people who you find there? You could try the terra nullius approach favoured by Don Randall, the member for Canning, who told the House:

It is geologically stable, from a weather point of view it is dry and lacks in humidity, and no-one, to speak of, lives there. It has a very sparse population. Barely anyone lives in that arid and desolate part of the Northern Territory.

You can be fairly certain that the member for Canning has never bothered to go within 500 kilometres of the place he dismisses with such spectacular ignorance. But he is only repeating the words of former Minister for Education, Science and Training Julie Bishop, who said, 'why on earth can't people in the middle of nowhere have low level and intermediate level waste?' The principle of terra nullius is written into this, the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, as it was written into the bill that we were meant to be replacing-'if the land is empty, there will be no one to prevent us violating it'. This is where the story really degenerates into tragedy. First the Howard government, then the Rudd government and now the Gillard government, in full knowledge of just how dangerous this material is, has proposed to dump it thousands of kilometres from its point of origin, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, on a cattle station that we know as Muckaty, in exchange for $11 million in a charitable trust and $1 million in educational scholarships for the people who put their hands up to host the dump for the next 300 years. It works out at about $40,000 a year for 12 generations to come before we come to the question of what should happen to that spent fuel over the next few dozen millennia.

Unlike the government, I do not pretend that there are not two sides to this debate. A nomination has come forward through the Northern Land Council of a site at Muckaty station, and the traditional ownership of the site is strongly disputed all the way to the Federal Court. But even if it was not disputed, what a dismal failure of governance it is to abandon all pretence of scientific best practice or due process and dump the nation's radioactive waste on a community in exchange for basic citizenship entitlements. Pangaea tried the same strategy with the Laverton mob in the western Ngaanyatjarra lands in Western Australia, and they failed because of a community campaign. The Howard government tried to dump the nation's radioactive garbage in the lands of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta in central South Australia, and they failed because of community resistance led by the Kungkas of the area. Not to be deterred by the evident failure of this approach, the Howard government at the end of its fourth term targeted the Northern Territory, using the constitutional battering ram that this government in opposition proposed to repeal. It is hard to imagine how it must feel to be targeted by a government which has failed to provide the services that most of us take for granted and whose members arrive by aircraft from over the horizon to explain that jobs and educational services will be provided if only you accept guardianship of the nation's radioactive wastes for all time. We do not have to imagine how it feels, because Dianne Stokes and Mark Chungaloo tell us directly in a letter which I seek leave to have incorporated into the Hansard.

Leave Granted

21 March 2010

Hello from Mark Japaljari Chungaloo and Dianne Nampin Stokes speaking on behalf of our Warramungu/Warlmanpa people.

The information given to us is that our people still do not want the nuclear waste dump to come to the Muckaty Land Trust.

We will not stop making noise in Tennant Creek/Muckaty or in our community where we live about 40 kilometres south of where the proposed Muckaty nuclear waste dump would be built.

We will not stop making a noise in Canberra either. We need our opposition to the nuclear waste dump to be understood and respected by Government and especially Minster Martin Ferguson.

All our tribes in Tennant Creek have been talking to each other and we will all get together to protest by doing traditional dance showing the design that represents the land Karakara in Muckaty Land Trust. Our message is always: We don't want the nuclear waste dump anywhere in the Muckaty Land Trust.

These are our concerns:

• We told the government that Karakara is sacred land.
• Only Men talk about the land. No women talk for Karakara in the Muckaty Land Trust
• The site for the proposed nuclear waste dump is in an earthquake tremor zone. What if an earthquake opens the nuclear waste storage and radioactive waste falls into our groundwater basin. We don't get our water from the city, town or from the coast, it comes from right below us.
• Warlmanpa Elders always said that Karakara is Milway Country. Milway is a Snake Dreaming travelling through Karakara and Muckaty Land Trust to Helen Springs. Milway is the totem for the ancestors' ground.
• Is the government going to regret everything later, whence disaster-happens like what's happening in Japan right now?
• Government should rethink about the whole nuclear cycle and leave our traditional cultural spiritual homeland alone.

Mark Japaljari Chungaloo
Dianne Nampin Stokes

Dianne Stokes and Kylie Sambo are, I think, in the gallery today, and I pay my respects as a much more recent arrival to this country to those who have never ceded sovereignty and who provide leadership to their people and to thousands of supporters right around the country. In the letter which I just tabled, Dianne and Mark are speaking for members of all the family groups of the Muckaty Land Trust, including many Ngapa people.

They asked me in Tennant Creek a month or so ago to bring a document into the chamber for tabling, and I checked with the clerks to make sure that it qualified as a document under standing orders. It is a banner which is covered in handprints and speaks in three different languages the simple message, 'No waste dump at Muckaty'. It has handprints from all the family groups represented on the land trust. I seek leave to have the document tabled and incorporated into the Hansard.
Leave granted.

Maybe this means absolutely nothing to Prime Minister Gillard or to the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, but I am here to tell the government and opposition senators, who will in due course file in here and probably vote for this bill, that you should take a moment or two to read the documents I have tabled. They are a sign from a long way from here that this proposal has been fought for six years, that it will be fought into the future and that the government is going to end up backing down as it has before.

How on earth has it come to this? The government cuts and copies a Howard era bill which guts the principles of procedural fairness and judicial review and overrides all relevant state and territory legislation that stands in its way. They base a single nomination on a mysterious piece of anthropological research that no one has seen-not even the people who are probably named in it. The minister then grants himself total and unfettered discretion in deciding where the dump will be, whether on Muckaty or at some other site that looks sufficiently remote from policymakers in Canberra. Maybe they will be cracking open the champagne in Martin Ferguson's suite over in the ministerial wing later this week, and maybe the government thinks that this is in fact the end of the matter; but I am here to say that it really is not. We will continue to support the community and the people who have taken up this campaign, and we will continue to fight for the entitlement of all Australians to have decent employment prospects and education services without having to sacrifice their land. This bill should not be debated in this place at all while this matter is before the Federal Court.

I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

and further consideration of the bill be an order of the day for the next sitting day after:

(a) the Government receives the written consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory to the dumping of radioactive waste in the Territory; and

(b) the Minister for Resources and Energy has completed consultations with representatives of the Muckaty Land Trust and all other parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility; and

(c) the Federal Court decision is handed down in the case between the Muckaty traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and the Commonwealth concerning the nomination of the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility.

I will explain directly after question time what this amendment does.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:24): This is a rather different debate. We have just been speaking for what passes as best practice in the Australian context on waste management. Now the debate turns again to worst practice in radioactive waste management. I will just conclude my remarks.

The Greens are absolutely not in denial about the 4,000-odd cubic metres of so-called low level and short-lived intermediate level radioactive waste and the approximately 600 cubic metres of long-lived radioactive waste in this country. We believe that it should not have been created in the first place but we are acutely aware of the radioactive reality that has been created for current and many future generations to deal with. The Greens are also perfectly aware that 32 cubic metres of spent research reactor fuel in reprocessed form is returning to Australia from reprocessing in France and the UK in 2015-16. The Greens take this material seriously and we understand that we cannot afford to make mistakes with materials that are deadly for thousands of years.

In the committee stage of the bill, when we come to it, we will describe at some length our alternative proposal for long-term radioactive waste management and I will sketch it now. We will seek to establish a process for identifying suitable sites that are scientific, transparent, accountable and fair and allow access to appeal mechanisms. I will put this on the record one last time in this second reading debate: we are very willing to work with the Gillard government and the opposition on this issue constructively and carefully. If the government chooses to return to the path that it was planning and advocating prior to the 2007 election which saw the Rudd government come to power, and if the government abandons its strategy of aggression and dispossession, we will support it in putting something better in place. But, if not, the government needs to know that it has picked a fight with powerful and resilient people.

I have spent a great deal of time on the road in the last couple of years working on this issue I know for an absolute fact that many of the people that the government has chosen to target have nowhere else to go. They strongly and genuinely believe that if their land is taken away that they will simply have nothing. It is not good enough for the government to draw rectangles on the map, try and split families and communities off from each other and imagine that there will not be significant strong, sustained and ultimately successful resistance. The government has failed in the past in attempts to coercively dump radioactive waste on communities that are simply not willing to host it and do not understand why, if it is not safe in southern Sydney suddenly it should be made safe by parking it in a shed or a shallow hole in the ground on their country. People do not understand that.

I want to acknowledge Dianne Stokes and Mark Lane, who have spent time in this building far from home advocating, and Kylie Sambo, who was here with Dianne yesterday, making the case very strongly and proudly speaking out for their country and culture that they do not believe that they owe the rest of Australia an obligation to host this toxic material until the end of time.

There are people who have been following this campaign closely, supporting the various people who found themselves on the front line, including Nat Wasley who has given up an enormous amount of her own time and dedicated herself to this campaign in the most extraordinary way, along with Paddy Gibson and little Jellybean who was in the public gallery, I think, probably for the first time yesterday.

In Alice Springs, Hilary Tyler has marshalled the views of the Public Health Association and medical opinion to stop the government from hiding behind this argument that somehow cancer treatments require that we produce these toxic categories of waste. Dave Sweeny from the Australian Conservation Foundation has been absolutely extraordinary on this issue and has provided leadership over a sustained period of time as the Australian government has lurched from one emergency and coercive strategy to another, and all the folks at ACE and Friends of the Earth who have made it their jobs to remind the minister that he may be a very long way from his office in Batman to the site of the dump but in fact he will be reminded day in, day out.

Lastly, Felicity Hill in my office has been a profoundly supportive and important part of this campaign and came on the road on many occasions to committee visits and demonstrations in remote parts of the country to pursue this cause. I will also at this point move my second reading amendment. I move:

At the end of the motion, add "and further consideration of the bill be an order of the day for the next sitting day after: (a) the Government receives the written consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory to the dumping of radioactive waste in the Territory; (b) the Minister for Resources and Energy has completed consultations with representatives of the Muckaty Land Trust and all other parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility; and (c) the Federal Court decision is handed down in the case between the Muckaty traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and the Commonwealth concerning the nomination of the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility"

 

Thursday 16 June 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:11): I have a number of amendments to the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 which I wish to speak to and which I addressed very briefly in my speech on the second reading; however, I did not go into a great deal of detail about the way that the Greens would approach the committee stage of this bill. I have said-and we were happy to let it go through on the voices-that we do not support the bill proceeding to the committee stage, and that is because we believe that it is irredeemable: it is a bill based on a false premise and a broken promise, and we genuinely do not believe that it can be greatly improved. However, in the interests of allowing the Senate to undertake its role of scrutiny and improvement of bills, some time ago the Australian Greens went to the trouble of proposing a number of amendments that fall into a couple of key categories.

Before I go into greater detail, I state that broadly the amendments try to improve the legal integrity of the bill as well as to somehow and somewhat constrain and curtail the minister's total and unambiguous discretion in siting decisions. We recognise that this bill relates to siting; that once a decision has been made on location, whether it be Muckaty or somewhere else, a whole range of processes kick into gear, chief among which is the process of environmental assessment under the Commonwealth EPBC Act. That is the central vehicle through which many of these issues will be addressed, but the regulator, ARPANSA, will also be quite centrally involved in establishing the radiation health and safety impacts of the facility, of the transfer of the materials to the facility and of its operation once it is up and running.

So we quite clearly recognise that this debate is effectively about siting and about who gets to decide which of the sites will be subject to those further processes of scrutiny and so on. But the difficulty we have is that, once these processes have been set in train, they will effectively be treated by government as a foregone conclusion.
Before the minister jumps up to argue that due process will be followed in all instances and so on and that we are basically pre-empting the process of an environmental impact assessment and a radiation safety assessment, you do not have to look too much further than the motion put up jointly by Senator Siewert and I on Woodside in the West Kimberley. Woodside are in the middle of applications to flatten 25 or more hectares of bilby habitat in the West Kimberley before the strategic impact assessment of the proposal for a gas plant in the Browse Basin in WA has been approved or even considered. It is well understood by the Western Australian government and by the proponents that that project is going ahead right where it is proposed to be-to the degree that the company is already going ahead and putting bulldozers to the site-before the process of environmental impact assessment has been undertaken and concluded.

It is distressingly common in Australian environmental law that once a decision on a site or location has been made, either by a private proponent or by a government, it is full steam ahead. Investment decisions are made, board approval is given, the processes roll out and bulldozers go to country and start flattening the pace in preparation for site works. Often these are negotiated away or are described as being preparatory or part of the environmental impact assessment process or whatever it might be. But effectively the entire process of the environmental impact assessment and radiation safety impact assessment will be thoroughly pre-empted by this minister, if past form is anything at all to go by. As soon as that pin hits the map and the minister has pointed a finger and decided where that site is to be, it will be full steam ahead.

We will pursue the processes that roll out with great diligence and attention to detail, but we know for sure that the government will be basing all further actions on the assumption that that site will go ahead, irrespective of what falls out of the environmental impact assessment process. That is why we need to pay so much care and attention to the process, in the first place, of siting the dump, which this bill quite clearly covers. What guides the discretion of the minister in the first place? On what grounds will the minister be making a decision about what is a site and what is not, what is appropriate for a store or a dump of this kind and what is not? The fact that we know-as we will go through in great detail during the committee stage of this bill-is that there is nothing whatsoever to guide the discretion of this minister. That is what a number of our amendments go to: the legal integrity of the process that allows a minister essentially unfettered discretion to go ahead and put this dump where he wishes and set these processes into motion.

We will probably hear shortly-and probably from Minister Sherry at the table, who has been given the unfortunate task of defending this appalling proposal this afternoon-comments relating to procedural fairness being restored, to rights of appeal being restored, to rights of judicial review being restored. We will go through this in a great deal of detail and point out to the government and to the coalition-whom I presume at some future stage will file in here and vote for the bill; they chose not to do so in the House of Representatives but we can only presume that they will vote for it here in the Senate-that there is no such guidance being placed on the minister's ability simply to point at a map. That is why we will be paying such clear attention to this bill.

It is not good enough, we believe, simply to stand up and wave this proposal through and give dignity to the fiction that the government is repealing the coalition's act, which has been in place from 2005, and replacing it with substantially different legislation. Large parts of the bill that we are debating this afternoon were cut-and-pasted from the Howard-era bill that was introduced at the end of 2005, when I was working for Senator Siewert, and was then amended again at the end of 2006.

Those cut-and-pastes from the earlier bill into the one that we are debating today relate most essentially to preserving the Muckaty nomination. This is even though Labor MPs in opposition during the election campaign, as Senator Minchin quite correctly pointed out yesterday, went on the campaign trail calling Prime Minister Howard's proposal to coercively and quite aggressively dump this material in the Territory an outrage. They called it sordid and shameful and they called quite unambiguously for its repeal.
Then, right after the election, for some mysterious reason that nobody has ever satisfactorily explained-and I asked Senator Sherry what the basis for this was a couple of weeks ago in question time and there was not a satisfactory answer, but perhaps one can be provided today-the decision was made to transfer responsibility for radioactive waste management from the science portfolio, where it has been for decades into the resources and energy portfolio. What sense does it make to take responsibility for the waste products of this industry, which has been regulated for years within the science ministry-and we heard Senator Carr during the election campaign being very clear on his views of the shameful way in which the Howard government engaged in this issue-and transfer it right after the election to Minister Martin Ferguson? As far as I am aware, he made no statements at all on the issue during the election campaign, because it would not have been part of his responsibilities from opposition to have a view on the matter. It is pretty evident to us all what the view is now.

The view now is simply to crash this project through or crash. As I explained at some length in my speech in the second reading debate, this is a proposal and a way of doing business that is prone to failure. It has failed a number of times, not just in Australia, whether it be the Pangea example of 1999 in Western Australia or the rather shameful episode in South Australia, which Senator Minchin addressed in his comments yesterday. The idea of aggressively rolling into a community and telling people that the material is going to go there is a recipe for failure, obviously. When you turn up, the people who live there or who have traditional responsibility for the area have nowhere else to go.

I acknowledge, as Senator Sherry does, that views are divided on the ground, in the area most close to the front line, that communities have been split and families have been pitched against each other. This would happen in any community if somebody in a suburban neighbourhood decided that they were going to give their backyard up for a radioactive waste dump, giving the neighbours no opportunity whatsoever to have a say. Even if you accept the tenure argument that will be run in the Federal Court by the Northern Land Council that the right people have been consulted, imagine being a neighbour and discovering that the decision has been made and that it is a done deal and you are told: 'Sure, we'll go through environmental impact assessment processes and whatnot but you have no rights as a neighbour whatsoever.'
If that is the outcome-and I am not going to reflect on the arguments that will be heard in the Federal Court, hopefully later this year-there will be people from the Barkly region, from all of the families that played a role in the establishment of the Muckaty land trust, who will feel justifiably ripped off by what they heard from the opposition, now government MPs, in the run-up to the 2007 election.

They were absolutely unambiguous in their opposition to the way that this debate was conducted.

Before I go into too much detail on the amendments that I propose to move, I will ask my first question. Minster, do you recall me asking a question in question time a month or so ago-I might have inadvertently put the question to Senator Carr but I have been told that it is actually your portfolio responsibility-around what the thinking was after the 2007 election for transferring responsibility for radioactive waste to the Minister for Resources and Energy?

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:24): I thank the minister for that quite comprehensive answer. It would have been great to have got that in question time, but nonetheless I acknowledge that you have provided it to us.

Senator Sherry: If you'd given us some notice we could have provided it to you.

Senator LUDLAM: It was nearly two months ago, Minister. I would like to ask a question that, again, the minister referred to obliquely in his second reading speech, about the case for remoteness, which we have heard a lot of here in Australia and around the world when it comes to final disposal of radioactive waste. Why exactly is it that the industry is so keen and that the government is following this lead on a remote site? I can certainly understand the arguments for why you would want to bring various categories of radioactive waste together into one place-the so-called argument for centralisation-or two or three places where properly qualified people can look after it, repackage it and so on when that is required. But the case dramatically has not been made for why the particular site should then be remote. The minister addressed that issue to some degree in his second reading speech, where he quoted some of the guidelines-I think you were quoting the IAEA, Minister-but simply repeating guidelines does not actually justify the argument as to why the industry is so keen for this material to be placed as far from centres of population as possible.

This is a question that I have dedicated quite a bit of time to. If I genuinely believed that the best thing to do was to put this material on rail cars and take it to a sheep station, I would not be wasting my time arguing the matter; I would have spent most of my time making sure that the government's consultation processes were adequate so that we could get on with finding an appropriate location somewhere out in the bush. However, right from the time that I was working on the Pangea proposal to bring a substantial fraction of the whole world's radioactive waste to Aboriginal country to the east of Laverton in the Savory Basin in my home state of Western Australia, I have been intrigued as to what the interest was of the international nuclear industry, led by a Swiss consortium, for a remote site in particular.

There are two broad categories of waste we are discussing here and I do not think the government has necessarily made a particularly good case for the remote storage of low-level waste. For example, the minister addressed the Mount Walton East intractable waste facility in Western Australia, which takes, among other chemically toxic materials and other intractables, low-level radioactive wastes-gloves, medical equipment and so on-from the WA health sector, spent sources, engineering uses in the mining industry and so on. That material is taken to a remote location out in the desert and dropped down a hole, and that is presumably its final resting place.
As I addressed in my speech to the second reading debate, that material can be lethal for 300 or 400 years, after which the half-lives of most of the isotopes in question have faded away to background levels and that material can, effectively, be safely walked away from. It will not be by any measure different to the material before it was activated and made radioactive it in the first place. Or, in the instance of, for example, sources or materials that were generated from radioactive waste that do have further uses in engineering in the mining sector, you could say that the radiation has basically faded away to levels that would not be detected above the background level.
But, of course, that is not the only material that the government propose to take to Muckaty. When they preserved that nomination and explicitly named it in the legislation that we are debating today, they were also proposing-you are also proposing, Minister, through you, Madam Temporary Chairman-to take waste which would be classified as high-level in the first few weeks and months after it is removed from the Lucas Heights reactor, past and present. Then, after a certain period of time of cooling, it is classified as long-lived intermediate-level waste. According to the international guidelines, which you can quote to me again if you like, that material is suitable for deep geological disposal-for burial-and that, of course, is not what is proposed at Muckaty at all, unless the plan has changed radically since the last time I asked departmental officials about it. The spent fuel in the reactor cores will be disassembled from Sydney and taken to whatever remote site ends up being used for the interim-and I will address during this debate exactly how long that interim is proposed to be.

Returning to the issue of remoteness, if it has been in Sydney for 50 years, as some of this material has, in a shed being looked after by people who are qualified in radiation waste management-that is what they do for a living-why exactly is the Western Australian government determined to place radioactive waste at a central remote site? I can understand centralising and bringing the material together, but why a remote site, exactly?

To give the chamber some idea of the thinking behind this, and let's make this explicit, former science minister Brendan Nelson in 2005 asked:

... why on earth can't people in the middle of nowhere have low level and intermediate level waste?

His successor in the science portfolio, Julie Bishop-who I think I probably misquoted in my second reading speech the other day-noted that all sites on the government's shortlist were 'some distance from any form of civilisation'. What a remarkably enlightened comment! That did not go down all that well in the sites that were under discussion, in places like Tennant Creek. The member for Canning, Don Randall, said in the House during the debate:

... no-one, to speak of, lives there. It has a very sparse population. Barely anyone lives in that arid and desolate part of the Northern Territory.

So clearly the argument here is to get it as far away from people as possible.

Of course, the question that comes from that is: why? Exactly why do you want to remove this material as far from the centres where the decisions are made as possible? And how do you explain that to the people where you propose to take it? Beyond the remarks the minister already made in his second reading speech-and I have the guidelines in front of me; you can read them if you wish, Minister, but I am fairly familiar with what you were reading from before-I wonder whether he would care to address exactly what the case is for remote storage, not centralised storage, I acknowledge.

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:33): I thank the minister for citing those guidelines. I suspected that was where he would go. That refreshingly frank restatement of the guidelines is actually the nub of the problem. What the minister just told the chamber is that the industry wants to take the material to a remote site so that, when the dump leaks, it is as far away from people as possible. He said that quite explicitly. I do not think that is even a controversial statement; it is more or less black and white. When the stuff leaks out of the container you want it to be in somewhere with low rainfall, somewhere where the groundwater table is half a mile below the surface, somewhere where there are no earthquakes, somewhere where the climate has not changed markedly in the last couple of million years and is not proposed to and somewhere, obviously, a long way from people. If the thing is going to leak and the stuff is going to go all over the place, you would absolutely want that to be somewhere remote.

That gives us something of a hint as to why the government is having such difficulty selling this proposal to the Northern Territory. We want to take this stuff to the cattle station in Tennant Creek so that when it leaks it will be a long way from us. I wonder whether the minister will choose to acknowledge that that is why the government is having difficulty. It is also why the Howard government had that difficulty. Senator Scullion, who has joined us, has spent a long time thinking about these very difficult, intractable issues as well, and we have also. They are extraordinarily difficult.

How on earth do you propose that a site is so indestructible that in two ice ages the material will not have dispersed all over the place? That is exactly the question that this government is facing now. You cannot explain to the traditional owners, to the Cattlemen's Association, to the council or to any of the residents of Tennant Creek that that is the reason you are having so much difficulty selling this proposal, getting decent headlines and getting it through this chamber. It is a really difficult sell when you have to go up there and acknowledge, 'We think it's very important that, when this stuff leaks out of its container, it be a long way from us.' That is really what this debate is about.
I am not blaming the minister for this, because this government inherited an issue that was inherited by the Howard government, by the Hawke-Keating government and by the government before that. The reason for this inheritance is that, as with the nuclear industry everywhere else around the world, we just went ahead with building these reactors and churning out various categories of intractable waste without coming up with any idea of how we were going to manage the waste products.

It is interesting and profoundly important to acknowledge that the reason for choosing a remote location is that the stuff is going to wind up out of the box that you put it in. This is less the case for the low-level waste. I am free to acknowledge that. The large volume of radioactive waste that we produce in Australia, and the stuff that the government tends to go on about in terms of cancer treatments and so on, is low-level material that will still be able to kill you in 200 or 300 years time, and after that you can take your eyes off it. This material is literally lethal. In North America they have built houses out of uranium tailings waste, for example, and the radon emissions inside those places are enormous. That has happened because people have forgotten where the tailings piles were. Thirty or 40 years after the mines have gone defunct they have quarried the stuff because the signposts have all blown over.

That is the kind of issue that we face here. We need to find a strategy, find a way of passing this material onto the generation that follows us so that they can pass it on to the generation that comes after them, for tens of thousands of years. It is formidably difficult, and that is why successive governments have struggled so hard. I will tell you one thing that I am reasonably sure of: in the midst of the ambiguity of a task that difficult, one thing we certainly should not be doing is putting the stuff on a flatbed and taking it to a cattle station and then walking away.

What we have at the moment, the situation that has prevailed at Lucas Heights for the past 50 years since that reactor started churning this material out, is that it is being looked after, and we have been told that it has been looked after quite safely. I have no reason to dispute that. It is surrounded by scientists, engineers, technicians-smart people who study this stuff, who do it for a living, who look after it. Guess how many of them will be accompanying that material up to Muckaty? None. Nobody. Unless the minister would like to correct the record that the department put to me during an estimates committee last year, and probably the year before that as well when I checked, there will be rotating shifts of six security guards-two on, two off, two on, two off. Two security guards each for eight hour shifts around the clock for the next 300 years. Those are the jobs, by the way, that were promised to the people in the Barkly region. Some of the loneliest security guards in the country will be looking after that material.

But it is not the intention of the government, as far as I am aware-please correct the record if this thinking has shifted-to send any of those technicians after the waste they have produced, send any of those engineers or scientists or people who trained in the storage and condition of this waste. Not at all. This is going to be a lonely shed in the middle of nowhere, as the former science minister put it, with two security guards looking after it. That is quite some employment boost for the Barkly region. They are really looking forward to that economic development arriving in their area.

I tested these ideas a couple of times. The people who made it the most explicit, which was extremely valuable when I was working on the Pangea campaign in 1999, was the company itself. This was a consortium based in Switzerland with money from British Nuclear Fuels and involvement from various other members of the international nuclear industry which proposed to put a substantial fraction-up to 20 per cent of the world's high-level spent fuel-this is material that is more intractable than the slightly lower level of waste that we produce in Australia from a small research reactor-and put that on a guarded railway line, take it up to Laverton, dump it in a hole there. Their promotional video was somehow found by Friends of the Earth and leaked to the press through my colleague and good friend Robin Chapple MLC, before he went to state parliament in Western Australia. The video was really interesting. It spelt out exactly why Pangea was seeking a remote site and it is worth looking at; it is still online if senators care to track it down. With all of the preconditions that the minister read into the record before-low rainfall, low geological activity, not too many earthquakes, low water table; really simple stratified geology-when you put this stuff into a hole half a mile underground and it burned its way out of the container, you would want to be a long way from that. That is the case for remote dumping. It is a hideous concept when you consider it as starkly as that, but that is how Pangea put it in their video. There is a cute little graphic of this stuff burning its way out of one of the containers they put down there, and so you would want that to be a long way from a regional water table. You would not want mining operations anywhere near that for any time in the next quarter of a million years or thereabouts because presumably your fences and signposts will have blown down.

I recognise that this is not geological disposal; what is proposed for Muckaty is not a hole in the ground half a mile below the surface. It is in fact an interim store for one of the categories of waste-the so-called long-lived intermediate level waste-to sit around for the next 200 or 300 years while people scratch their heads and work out what on earth to do with it. Maybe we will chase some of that suitable geology, which ironically enough, as Senator Minchin acknowledged yesterday, was what Minister Crean was doing all those years ago. He was setting out to find the right kind of geology in Australia for a remote hole in the ground so that when the stuff leaked out of its containment, it would be a long way from most people. That is a very difficult proposition to sell to people in the Barkly region, that that is explicitly what is going on here. By world standards we have relatively small volumes of the really dangerous stuff that will last and be very dangerous and lethal for tens of thousands of years, but we do have some, and it is our responsibility to look after it. Looking after it does not mean sticking it behind barbed wire on a cattle station.

Australia has never really had a debate about the most appropriate management strategy. The debate we have had here in Australia is which remote Aboriginal community should host this stuff. Who is interested in 12 million bucks-about $40,000 a year for 300 years-who is interested in that, in a remote area where we have starved people for resources in health care, education, the kinds of issues that Senator Scullion has been working on, the kinds of issues that Senator Crossin works on. People representing the Territory know very well, as I do from a Western Australian perspective, the kinds of extraordinary disadvantage and deprivation suffered by Aboriginal communities in this country. And that again is something this government inherited. It is trying to do something about it. Some of that activity is dramatically misguided, contemplating the intervention, and some of it is helpful. But the fact is the kind of economic development these communities do not need is to host, for a pittance and a tiny handful of jobs, this material that industrial society neither here in Australia nor anywhere else in the world has the remotest idea what to do with. We need to get over the debate that we have had in Australia about which remote Aboriginal community should host this stuff until the end of time. That is absolutely an appalling way to continue.

We all thought, from the comments that Senator Carr was making in the run-up to the 2007 election, from the statements that he put out, from what Senator Crossin said, from things that Mr Snowdon put out at the time, that the ALP had got it, that they had spent a bit of time thinking about it. They acknowledged the difficulties that had been run into in South Australia and that there was the prospect that we would see this debate going differently. It was pretty explicit. I was really excited because it looked like we had a breakthrough. We had an opposition with some energy and some drive that got this issue for the first time in a generation. And look what happened right after the election. Portfolio responsibilities were taken away from Minister Carr-who I strongly suspect would have made a much better job of this issue than Mr Martin Ferguson has, but I guess we will never get to find out-and away it went; we are straight back on track. The Muckaty nomination will be preserved. 'We will eventually repeal the Howard government bill, and we know that that is nothing more than a cut and paste job, and away we will go.' It has become very strongly apparent since then, and it is written into every line of this bill, that nothing has been learnt at all. That is why we are in the middle of a fight. That is why this issue is back in the NT News today, and the nation's media and the ABC. We have another confrontation, and it was a needless one.

The Australian Greens, I will put on the record again, as I did during my speech in the second reading, will work with the government, will work with the opposition, will work with anybody with goodwill who wants to acknowledge that this is a complex and intractable issue. This is something that is not going to go away any time soon. But the strategy of aggression and coercion has got to stop. That is the message that I have heard loud and clear from the times that I have spent in Tennant Creek; the time that I spent on site in Alice Springs; chasing this issue around the country in committees; taking evidence from people who, firstly, dispute the tenure of the land in question-and now that is being tested in the Federal Court case-but dispute the deeper idea. Even if the Federal Court finds that the right people have been spoken to according to the requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, they dispute the idea that it should automatically be a remote Aboriginal community that has to host this material. I think that fundamental underlying premise is what needs to be very, very strongly contested.

In December 2008, which I think is one of the reports that Senator Sherry read from, I approached ANSTO when they gave evidence on my original bill at the end of 2008 to simply repeal the Howard legislation and move ahead, as the government was telling us at the time they proposed, with a different strategy of doing something with a bit more scientific integrity. I asked and ANSTO:

... is it the case that we are looking for the stable geology and distance from groundwater sources [because] there is no form of engineered containment that can hold this material for the time periods that are required?
Mr McIntosh said, quite rightly:
For low-level waste, it is not such an issue.
And I tend to agree. I asked him:
Yes, but for the long-lived, intermediate or high-level waste, it is?
Mr McIntosh said:
Yes.
Senator Pratt, who was in the chair before, asked Mr Bradley Smith, the Executive Director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, why we do this. What is the urge to take this to out of town and dump it on a cattle station somewhere, and what we have to do to get it right? I think Mr Smith's answer was actually quite instructive. He said:

Mr Smith-The history of discussion about a facility since 1979 shows that all communities have reacted strongly, or there has been activism from communities. South Australia, three or four years ago, was a recent example. At some point a decision has to be made. I understand your argument. I am just saying that there is an obstinate fact here. We have radioactive waste. It is not stored on an optimal basis. We need a national facility or a commonwealth facility to do that. That means hard decisions have to be made.
That is code. Senator Pratt went on to ask him:

Senator PRATT-You are arguing that at some point, because there will inevitably be community opposition to such a site, the scientific factors in terms of the demand for a site are going to have to override a community mandate to locate the site.
Mr Smith, not representing the government I should say; representing FASTS, said:
Mr Smith-Yes.
Yes, that is what will happen. Sooner or later we are just going to have to crush somebody. We are just going to have to come through the front door and dump it. That appears to be approach that the government is committed to taking.

My question to the minister, before I conclude, is: has the government ever assessed options for long-term storage, intermediate storage or for interim storage of this material that do not involve remote dumping?

 

 

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