27 February 2012 - debate on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:03): by leave-I table some answers to questions asked of me during the committee stage of the debate on this bill the last time we were dealing with it, which was a couple of weeks ago. The questions were asked by Senator Rhiannon and Senator Ludlam. We have only just handed the answers to Senator Ludlam, but I will formally table them as answers to those questions that I took on notice during that debate. I seek leave to incorporate these answers.
The document read as follows-
Questions asked during Committee stage of Senate Debate
National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010
Question: Transportation-Senator Rhiannon:
I ask the Minister to set out how [the transport route] has been handled and what the government's response is to the potential dangers of moving highly radioactive waste over such a long distance? Could you set out the form that the community consultation will take [on the transport route]? Or will the route be determined secretly? Will the consultation be on which route is to be used before it determined or is it to take place after the route has been determined?
As the regulator, ARPANSA is responsible for authorising the use of a site, for the construction and operation of a radioactive waste storage or disposal facility.
When applying for approval to use a site for a radioactive waste storage or disposal facility, the proponent will need to specify transport routes to the site.
In considering the siting approval, ARPANSA will undertake public consultation and may approve the application subject to various conditions.
The nature of AR P ANSA's public consultations was outlined in previous Senate Inquiries. As stated by then ARPANSA CEO Dr Loy:
"[The regulations require] I seek public submissions ... My practice has been to supplement that process with a form of public hearing, which I call a public forum, whereby people who have made submissions can come forward, present their submissions and their views and have them questioned and challenged by a panel. All of that takes place in the open, in public, with a transcript published ..."
On potential dangers of moving radioactive waste
Safe transport of a large quantity of radioactive waste was demonstrated in an Australian context in 1993-94, when 120 shipments of waste were moved from Lucas Heights (New South Wales) to Woomera (South Australia).
ARPANSA has previously public stated: "The transport of the material is an issue that the radiation protection community at least would regard as pretty much solved" (Dr John Loy, former CEO of ARPANSA in evidence to the 2005 Senate Inquiry into the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill).
Internationally, there has never been an accident involving the transport of radioactive materials where there has been serious harm to people or the environment arising from the radioactive nature of the cargo.
There are fewer hazards associated with transporting radioactive waste than there are with flammable and corrosives substances such as fuel and acid, which are routinely transported in and between our cities.
Transportation-Senator Rhiannon-NSW Parliamentary Inquiry (2004)
Are you familiar with [the NSW transport of radioactive waste inquiry] and what is your response to those findings?
The 2004 NSW Inquiry was undertaken at time when the Lucas Heights HIFAR research reactor was being replaced and a site at Woomera was being considered as the location of a radioactive waste management facility.
The findings of the Inquiry were internally inconsistent and not an accurate reflection of transportation practices for radioactive materials around Australia or the world.
For example, while the report stated transporting radioactive waste from NSW to a national facility should be avoided, it contradicted this finding by inferring that wastes from "dispersed sites" from all of Australia could be "collected on a regular basis" and transported to Lucas Heights for final storage.
Nonetheless, the report did highlight the safety record of the transport of radioactive materials.
The report made the following findings:
The transport proposals for low level waste can be safely managed, as evidenced by the Environmental Protection Agency and State Emergency Management Committee at the Inquiry;
In the event of a transport accident, the risk of waste transforming into a form in which it presented risk to human health was unlikely;
Every one of the 340 fire stations in NSW had a HAZMAT Plan, which is specifically designed to cater for emergencies which involve hazardous substances.
Question-Senator Rhiannon-Payne Report
The Payne Report highlights the lack of confidence when it comes to nuclear waste. What has been learnt from ANSTO's apparent failure to deal with security issues?
The Payne Report was a 16-page report commissioned by the Sutherland Shire Council shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 as part of its campaign against the construction of the OPAL reactor in its municipality.
The report was solely reliant on information from public sources and Mr Payne's own observations. When writing the report, Mr Payne did not consult with ANSTO officers or national security authorities. Importantly, Mr Payne did not visit the site to ascertain the security arrangements. The Report was littered with factual errors.
At the time, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) - the regulator of security at ANSTO-dismissed the report and advised that security requirements at ANSTO were fully in line with International Atomic Energy Agency and national standards.
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987 and the permits issued pursuant to that Act, ANSTO is required to ensure that adequate security measures are in place to protect their site at Lucas Heights.
ANSTO has comprehensive security protections in place, which are based on Australian and international best practice for the security of nuclear materials, radioactive sources and facilities.
ANSTO security is regularly reviewed by expert agencies to ensure security continues to meet the stringent national and international physical security protection standards. Those agencies include ASNO and ASIO.
A recent report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Nuclear Materials Security Index, ranked Australia as number one of 32 countries including the United Kingdom, United States and Japan in terms of nuclear security. The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a United States NGO that works to improve global security and fulfilment of the goals of non-proliferation treaties.
Questions-Senator Ludlam-radioactive waste management facilities around Australia:
How many places are there around the country for storing radioactive waste of various categories that would notionally be carted across to a central facility?
How many of these sites is estimated will we be able to decommission or stand down if we get a "remote dump out in the bush"?
There are estimated to be over one hundred locations around Australia that store low-and intermediate-level radioactive waste.
These storage facilities include government stores, industrial facilities, universities and other research establishments.
Additionally, every significant hospital and university in Australia has some radioactive waste in storage. The total inventory of radioactive waste in all these holdings is relatively small.
Further details are available in Australia's 4th National Report to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
States and Territories are currently responsible for managing their own inventories of radioactive waste. Closure of non-Commonwealth storage sites will be a matter for State and Territory jurisdictions.
Some States have acted to establish their own centralised waste management facilities. For example, since 1991, Western Australia has disposed of its low level radioactive waste at the Mt Walton East Intractable Waste Disposal Facility.
It would be premature to comment on the number of sites that will close once a national facility as this can only be finalised once the location of the facility is known and States and Territories settle their intentions to use the national facility.
However, it is likely that legacy waste inventories will be relocated, allowing for store closures. Facilities where waste is continually generated, such as hospitals, will require ongoing operational stores. However the volume of radioactive waste in storage will decrease in light of the availability of disposal and centralised storage capabilities at a national facility.
It is recognised internationally that the risk of inadvertent loss, damage or theft of radioactive sources is minimised through waste management at centralised, purpose built facilities.
The Government's legislation is based on the principle of volunteerism and does not, of itself, assume that a site will be remotely located.
Question: Nominations-Senator Ludlam
"In broad as I can frame the question, are there any other sites under consideration and if so where are they?"
"Has anybody approached the Federal Government at any time - either the department or minister's office with an alternative proposal for a site?
The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 currently allows the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory or a Land Council to volunteer sites for a facility.
The nomination of the site at Muckaty Station is the only nomination that has been made under that Act. No other nominations have been submitted to the Department or to the Minister.
The Department has not been involved in any desktop studies or further field work for potential sites since the site characterisation investigations undertaken by
As acknowledged in the Senate debate on the Bill (8 February 2012), from time to time the Government has received suggestions on locations for a radioactive waste management facility. None of these have been pursued.
Once the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 is passed, the Minister will only consider sites, volunteered by landowners, under the protections and legal framework afforded by the legislation.
Senator CHRIS EVANS: by leave-I table a supplementary exploratory memorandum relating to the government amendments to be moved to this bill. The memorandum was circulated in the chamber on 8 February 2012.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:08): I thank the minister. I will set aside your answer to the question about whether any other sites are under consideration as I think that has been addressed by some of your advisers at various estimates committee hearings as well. Your answer is consistent with what they have been telling us, which is that it appears that the process is on hold until such time as the issue of the Muckaty nomination has been resolved. Today of all days-when the entire country, from the most senior levels of government down, is consumed with other matters-I think it is cynical in the extreme to seek to pass a bill as contentious and controversial as this one. It is obviously a day when the press gallery have other issues in mind.
The first question that I put to you, minister, was around the number of sites that would close. I put that question to you for a reason. In some of your opening remarks, and certainly in the minister's remarks and in the debate in the other place, we frequently hear that there are hundreds of locations around the country at which materials are being stored. The implication is that they are being stored unsafely and that that is the reason we need a centralised remote radioactive waste dump. The question that I put to you is fairly simple: if we are doing that in aid of closing these sites, which number over 100-that is the response you have given-then how many of them will close?
The department, despite having a fortnight to provide us with an answer to that question, has not been able to give us a number at all. The minister you are representing in this place has handballed it back to the states and said, 'We don't know.' I put it to you, minister, that it is inappropriate to be using that line of argument if, when pressed on how many sites will close, you are unable to tell us. My suspicion is that none of the sites will close because there is no proposal to reduce the production of this material in any sense. There is no proposal, as far as I can tell, as a result of opening up a dump at Muckaty or anywhere else, to close any of the sites. So I think it is disingenuous in the extreme to run an argument that the dump is needed because of all these sites around the place which are unsafe. I would like the minister to provide us with a list of which sites are unsafe. What are the sites of concern? Where are we storing this material where it is not safe at the moment? Why are we allowing it to be stored at hospitals, university engineering departments or wherever? Why are we allowing that to occur? Why should it take the establishment of a remote waste dump to provide for secure storage of these materials at these sites that are dispersed around the country?
In the brief time I have had to consider the minister's response-and I think this might have been mentioned in passing in some of the responses to Senator Rhiannon's questions-I think some of the opposition to a remote waste dump is inconsistent. On the one hand, you say you do not want this material transported to a remote or centralised site; on the other hand, you contradict that by suggesting that waste from dispersed sites all over Australia should be collected on a regular basis and transported to Lucas Heights. I do not think there is any inherent contradiction there. That was in an answer I have just scanned to Senator Rhiannon around the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry in 2004, which was a very good report. You will not find many people who oppose the idea of concentrating and potentially centralising these wastes together in a single place, which will require transport of low-level radioactive waste of various categories. The big argument I have, and which many people have, is about whether it should be at a cattle station outside Tennant Creek or in the active care and maintenance of people who are well qualified to look after it.
The minister will be well aware that the proposal here is to transfer several hundred cubic metres, or in the low thousands of cubic metres, of this material from active care and maintenance at Lucas Heights, where it is surrounded by a security perimeter fence with Federal Police and in-house security and actively monitored and looked after by technicians and people very well qualified to look after it. I think that is appropriate. For as long as we are producing these categories of waste, it is appropriate. We do not think we should be producing this waste, but we will canvass that later in the debate. It is looked after by people who are qualified to do so, people who are trained in the dispersal patterns of this material and who know how it behaves over long periods of time with exposure to water and so on.
That kind of centralisation and looking after this material at a central site is completely different from loading it onto trucks and taking it to a cattle station where it will be looked after by six of the loneliest security guards on the planet. That is the proposal-two security guards on an eight-hour rotation for the next 300 years! That, I think, is what has got people upset, and at no time has the Commonwealth government made a case for why that is appropriate-for why this material would be somehow safer under the care and maintenance of two security guards than it is under the care and maintenance of the technicians and people who have been looking after it at Lucas Heights for 60 years. That is the essential case that the government has failed to make. I do not think there is anything inconsistent there. That is my very brief reading of the critique of the 2004 New South Wales parliamentary inquiry. I do not think there is any contradiction there at all. At the bottom of the minister's response to my answer on radioactive waste management facilities around Australia, there is a paragraph that reads, 'The government's legislation is based on the principle of volunteerism and does not of itself assume that a site will be remotely located.' My question to the minister goes to this principle of volunteerism. I do not have the quotations here in front of me on the Muckaty nomination but they are quite powerful. They are by the government's proponent, who put the proposal for a remote site to the Northern Land Council. They then forwarded it to the minister for his consideration. The proposal was that they need road upgrades and they are looking for some educational facilities. There has been this process in the NT and across remote Australia of withdrawing support for remote Aboriginal communities, for closing out stations and for concentrating people in particular sites. If I understand their submission correctly, these people are after basic upgrades to infrastructure that has been withdrawn and they are after educational opportunities.
Here is the problem with volunteerism. We can go to some of the most structurally disadvantaged communities in the country, people who are starving for resources and being forced off their land because we are not providing adequate resources, and say, 'Who's interested in a cheque for 12 million bucks?' in a school. That is what our principle of volunteerism amounts to. It takes politically vulnerable and extremely disadvantaged communities and says, 'In exchange for hosting this material that is perfectly safe-which is why we have to remove it from a metropolitan area. It is so safe that it cannot stay in Sydney any longer. We will provide you with basic infrastructure and services that the rest of the Australian population take for granted.'
Minister, I have a serious problem with what sounds innocently enough like the spirit or the principle of volunteerism, which I am presuming the government is setting in counterpoint to the spirit of coercion, whereby we simply roll into your community and tell you that you are going to get the dump. The principle of volunteerism means, in practice, that disadvantaged communities are being coerced into accepting this material. That is why this is not about Muckaty.
We have heard a huge amount of it about Muckaty because it is named and explicitly targeted in the legislation that we are debating today. But it is not about Muckaty. It is about the principle of why we always assume that it should be a remote Aboriginal community's job to host this toxic material until the end of time. That is the essential problem, here. There is every reason to believe that the Muckaty nomination will fall over. This is either because we will see sense in parliament and reject this bill or the Federal Court will find in favour of the applicants that the land was not properly nominated or that the community campaign that has sparked up around the country continues to do its work and rolls Minister Martin Ferguson right out of parliament in the next election, if not sooner.
If the Muckaty nomination falls over, we have every reason to believe that we will be visiting this disastrous and coercive project on some other community. Perhaps it will be in western Queensland. Perhaps it will be back in the north of New South Wales. Perhaps, Senator Evans, it will be in your state and mine,-through you, Temporary Chairman Furner-Western Australia, that already hosts a low-level state radioactive waste dump. That is the essential problem I have with this legislation. It has not been justified. The principle of remote storage has not been justified and it has been done to cover some pretty dodgy arguments.
The question that I put to you, Minister, is whether you disagree with my contention. What is noted here in the minister's answer to my question, as the principle of volunteerism, is simply economic and political coercion under another name.Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:59): I suspect the minister will not need to rise to correct the record, because I believe he is quite correct-he has been advised correctly, despite the first recommendation of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee's report which Senator Crossin, who made a contribution earlier, made, which was to go and talk to the people. It is good to know that he has met with the people in Darwin who agree with him. He has not met with anybody in Tennant Creek and he has never been there, to my knowledge, in his capacity as the minister and has not even had the spine to turn up and tell people what it is that he is proposing that they host. It is not much help to us or those people to say that once this bill is through he will then get up and consult.
What this bill does-and I will constrain my remarks now because we will go into this in a bit of detail when we are proposing amendments to fix these grievous flaws in the bill-is give him absolute, total, unfettered discretion to decide where the process will unfold. He is going to nail a pin in a map at Muckaty, once he has worked out exactly where on the map it is, and the bill that we are debating today gives him total and unfettered discretion to make that site the location. So much for consultation. People will be consulted-or insulted-once the decision on the location has been made. We will get into this in a bit of detail, but I did want to pull the minister up on his repeated use of the term 'world's best practice'.
I want to talk about recent experience in the United States, in particular the US blue ribbon panel. My question is whether or not the government has examined its findings. On 26 January, after working for two years, President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future issued its report. Keep in mind that the United States government and Department of Energy are dealing with a vastly larger stockpile of high-level radioactive waste, categories of waste that we do not technically produce here in Australia. It is not just from research reactors, obviously, but from a fleet of nuclear power stations that are in the low hundreds. They have a very keen interest in resolving this issue and they have had the same disastrous experience but on a much larger scale as the Australian government has in attempting to coercively dump this material, in their instance on native American land.
The commission that I am referring to was established by President Obama to create safe and long-term solutions for managing and disposing of the United States' nuclear waste inventory. The panel was tasked with devising a new strategy for managing the growing inventory of nuclear waste and it made recommendations based on consulting with experts, stakeholders and visiting nuclear waste management facilities in the US and overseas. It was co-chaired by former congressman Lee Hamilton and a former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. The report noted that President Obama had halted the disastrous Yukka Mountain proposal, which was projected to cost US$90 billion-billion with a 'b'-and had already absorbed $12 billion just in studies and in engineering tests and so on by the time it was finally cancelled by President Obama.
Anybody watching that project would probably have seen that coming for a decade or so, because that project was plagued with problems and scandals from the very beginning. I think we can take that as something of an impasse about nuclear waste management in the United States. To break that impasse, the President proposed the blue ribbon commission. He said at the time that there was an urgent need for a new strategy, and he pointed out that ethical obligations do not burden future generations with a task-in other words, it is not good enough to just kick the can down the road, dump this material off on somebody's land and hope for the best.
The strategy that the commission outlined has three crucial elements. The first is vitally important and it is precisely the fatally flawed scheme that we are debating today and which Minister Martin Ferguson, the Prime Minister-I believe she still is-Julia Gillard and the Howard government cooked up, presumably with many of the same senior bureaucrats who still occupy these positions today. Firstly, the commission recommends a consent based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, noting that trying to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities has not worked. In the instance of the US, it was in Nevada. I will quote from the report briefly:
This Subcommittee recommendation flows directly from an examination of the history of waste-management efforts in the United States and other countries. We drew several lessons from the decades-long effort to site a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and from the ultimately successful completion of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in New Mexico. One lesson is that support for a facility (or at least acceptance)-both in directly affected communities and on the part of the host state-is a critical element of success. A second is that transparency and accountability, along with the flexibility to adapt to new information and to the concerns of key constituencies, are essential to sustain public trust in decision-making processes and institutions. We believe that a good gauge of consent would be the willingness of the host state (and other affected units of government, as appropriate) to enter into legally binding agreements with the facility operator, where these agreements enable states, tribes, or communities to have confidence that they can protect the interests of their citizens.
The panel went on to say:
The approach to repository development laid out under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments of 1987 was highly prescriptive, subject to inflexible deadlines, and-as actually implemented-widely viewed as being driven too heavily by political considerations-
this all sounds terribly familiar, doesn't it?-
(as compared to independent technical and scientific judgments). By contrast, other countries-notably Canada, Finland, France, and Sweden-
Australia is missing from that list, Minister; that is interesting, isn't it?-
have adopted a phased, adaptive, and consent-based approach to facility siting and development. Finland and Sweden, in particular, have each successfully sited a deep geologic repository with the support of the host community.
Neither of those two facilities is currently operating on a large scale. All of this around the world is still operating on a trial scale, but at least what they attempted in those jurisdictions was an adaptive and consent based approach.
The panel went on to say:
The roles, responsibilities, and authorities of local, state, and tribal governments (with respect to facility siting and other aspects of nuclear waste disposal) must be an element of the negotiation between the federal government and the other affected units of government in establishing a disposal facility.
There is another question for us: we, for obvious reasons, have focused our efforts and energies on supporting the Aboriginal communities in the area who do not really have the resources to make their voices heard-although they have done an exceptional job of doing so-perhaps to the neglect of the local government authority in that area, which is implacably opposed, and, of course, the Territory government, which opposes this as well.
The panel went on to say:
... all affected levels of government (local, state, tribal, etc.) must have, at a minimum, a meaningful consultative role in all other important decisions.
That is totally absent here in Australia.
... additionally, states and tribes should retain-or where appropriate, be delegated-direct authority over aspects of regulation, permitting, and operations where oversight below the federal level can be exercised effectively and in a way that is helpful in protecting the interests and gaining the confidence of affected communities and citizens.
Senator Scullion has joined us this afternoon in the chamber, and he has been involved in this debate for at least as long as I have-probably longer. Senator Scullion, that was your job: to do what they are trying to do in the United States and to make sure that the Territory government and the local government authority has a voice. That has not been done, and so it has turned out to be up to people from Western Australia and all over the rest of the country to stand up and make the obvious point that the Territory government opposes this thing. The Territory Chief Minister, I think, has done a very effective job in advocating for the rights of Territorians where their advocates in here on both sides from the old parties have gone missing in action.
The blue ribbon panel in the United States goes on to say:
... to engage in meaningful consultation on matters related to nuclear waste storage, transport, and disposal, and to exercise their proper regulatory roles and responsibilities in this context, local, state, and tribal governments need access to sound, independent scientific and technical expertise.
We certainly have not seen anything remotely approaching that here in Australia. Perhaps the minister will stand up in a moment and tell us that, once this bill has been rammed through and the minister has total and unfettered power to put this thing wherever he likes, maybe the consultation will happen then. We recognise that once the minister has nailed a particular spot into the map-we know that at the moment it is Muckaty-a whole heap of processes unfold. I have spent a great deal of time quizzing ARPANSA in budget estimates hearings, and also the department of the environment, on exactly what their processes will look like under EPBC and under the ARPANS Act. So I am not suggesting that all due process has been blown away by this bill in terms of assessment, because that is not the case; this is the beginning of a very long road, not the end of it. But in terms of site location-the key decision about where this thing is going to go, where all this process will unfold, who will be consulted with and so on-that decision is made by the minister, if he chooses, alone in a room by himself, to just stick an X on a map. That is what is completely inappropriate, and that degree of discretion, in my view, is inordinately dangerous. You would not site a shopping centre car park using processes like this, yet we are proposing to site the nation's first high-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste dump using precisely that process. It is a disgrace.
The panel goes on to say:
The UK government reinitiated its waste management program relatively recently-in 2001.
Again, in the UK there is a large inventory of high-level radioactive waste from a nuclear program designed in the 1950s and 1960s with no clue about how to deal with the waste products generated. It sounds familiar because that is exactly what happened here in Australia. Isn't it extraordinary? In 2012 we are debating what on earth to do and where to put the waste materials from a reactor that was started up in the fifties under the Menzies government. They did not come up with a plan for the waste, just as they did not in the United States or the UK. The panel say:
Engagement and consultation with the public as well as commitment to an open and transparent approach since the very beginning of the process played a significant role and to date three communities in northwestern England (Cumbria CC, Copeland BC and Allerdale BC) have expressed their interest in being involved in the site selection process.
So they have expressed interest in being involved, not put their hands up and then had this predatory government adopt the same processes that had been adopted by the Howard government to nail them to the wall in exchange for a cheque for 12 million bucks and improvements to a road.
This is the blue ribbon panel again:
Perhaps even more important, states and affected communities-in order to gain trust and confidence in the decisions taken by the waste management organization-must be empowered to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process.
No sign of that here. The minister just told us the affected community has not even had the grace of a visit from the minister in the three or four years that he has had carriage of this bill.
This means being in a position to evaluate options and provide substantive input on technical and operational matters of direct relevance to their concerns and interests.
... ... ...
In sum, the Subcommittee believes that a new U.S. waste management organization should adopt the Swedish practice and set aside funding for participation by citizens, citizen groups, and other NGOs.
I will go into a little bit more detail about how we see that this could be applied in an Australian context when we get to those amendments a little way down the track, because we have had a go at it. I am very happy to hear from Senator Scullion, from the minister and from other crossbenchers about how to improve those amendments. We have at least made an attempt to come up with an alternative framework for dealing with waste of this kind, rather than the bipartisan ram-raid that we are witnessing this afternoon. The blue ribbon committee say:
The availability of funding should be widely announced and reasonable criteria should be established against which to evaluate applications for financial support.
So it is not a free-for-all.
Trust, in fact, is often the core issue whenever different parties are involved in a complex adjudicatory process-and it can be especially difficult to sustain when much of the power or control is viewed as being concentrated on one side.
Doesn't this sound familiar? They are grappling with exactly the same issues of administration, politics, power and dealing with a waste product that nobody wants.
I would call Senator Scullion on this one to join the crossbenchers and not simply suck it up. We can do a lot better than what we are getting. The Territory can do a lot better and it deserves better. It is interesting to speculate on whether this would be going on if the Territory were a state, because the constitutional vulnerability of the Northern Territory is one factor-I recognise that it is obviously not the only thing, because there are many, but that is one factor-guiding the government's hand in this. They got kicked out of South Australia and they saw how strongly Western Australians arced up when the Pangaea Consortium from Switzerland turned up in 1999, and so they have attacked a constitutionally vulnerable Territory. Bring on statehood.
The blue ribbon commission goes on:
Second, the commission recommends that the responsibility for the nation's nuclear waste management program be transferred to a new organization-one that is independent of the Department of Energy and dedicated solely to ensuring the safe storage and ultimate disposal of spent nuclear waste fuel and high-level radioactive waste.
This is not about the gloves. This is not about the medical waste. This is not about the short-lived isotopes that will only be killing you in 200 years or so. This is about material that will still kill you after the next ice age.
Third, the commission recommends changing the manner in which fees being paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund-about $750 million a year-are treated in the federal budget to ensure they are being set aside and available for use as Congress initially intended.
My question to the minister is: has the government reviewed this material? Are you aware of this subcommittee of this blue ribbon commission and this in-depth advice from our closest ally and special partner, which I think, as I have pointed out in some detail, has striking and quite creepy parallels to the process that we are engaged in here in Australia? My question to the minister is: has any of this information any resonance at all within the Australian government?
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:17): I appreciate the fact that the minister has sorted that out and I look forward to getting a copy of it. I ask you to take on notice and put to your advisers, since they are here, the question that I was seeking specifically, given that the figures are up to date as of last October: what is the proportion of long-lived, intermediate-level waste, the spent fuel that is residing at the moment at Lucas Heights, compared with the amount that is due to come back from Europe, from reprocessing? My understanding is that the proportion is approximately 15 or 16 to one. I am seeking advice on that, because it is going to be difficult for me to establish that while we are in the middle of the debate, unless the minister would care to adjourn the debate. If the advisers can just tell us whether that apprehension is correct or not and, if not, give us the appropriate numbers, that would be useful. I am not interested in the low-level material in this context; I am interested in information relative to what is being brought back from Europe-how much we have had sitting out the back of Lucas Heights for the last however long, decades or so.
Before I move to the Greens first amendment, I will take the minister up on one last thing he said in his response to my comments before-that in the United States they are dealing with high-level waste, whereas here in Australia we do not produce such material. That is something of a trick of definition. Australia is the only jurisdiction that actually adopted a classification of long-lived, intermediate-level waste. That is a classification that exists only in Australia. The Australian government did not want to say that we produced high-level waste; we produced other stuff called long-lived, intermediate-level waste. We obviously do not have commercial power reactors 10 or 100 times the size of the research reactor pumping out spent fuel, so it is not a question of quantity; it is a question about what the stuff is. It is spent fuel. It is fuel that has been burned in a fission reactor and then set aside because it is full of contaminants and is too hot to continue to be fissioned. It is spent fuel, so let us not pretend that we are producing some kind of benign material whereas in other jurisdictions they are producing other stuff. I will leave it there. My understanding is that the difference between the two categorisations that were invented for the purpose of diplomacy or convenience here in Australia is that long-lived, intermediate level waste, after it has been set aside for a while, does not require thermal shielding. It is not necessarily going to boil its way out of whatever you put it in as a high-level spent fuel will, but nonetheless it still requires active shielding from the environment and from all living beings until effectively the end of time. That is the material we are dealing with. Obviously, they are vastly smaller quantities than that of countries which, to their profound and internal regret, have a nuclear power industry, and I do commend the government for maintaining its position that there is no point whatsoever in entertaining such an industry here.
I will probably come back and ask a couple of general questions about the bill, but I acknowledge the minister's point that it might provide more structure to the debate if we begin moving through the amendments. I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 7037:
(1) Clause 3, page 2 (lines 4 to 12), omit the clause, substitute:
3 Objects of Act
The objects of this Act are:
(a) to provide for the selection of a site for a radioactive waste management facility on voluntarily nominated land in Australia; and
(b) to ensure that the site selected is the most suitable site on the Australian continent for radioactive waste storage and management taking into account environmental considerations, geology, geography, hydrology, seismology, infrastructure and cultural heritage values; and
(c) to provide for the establishment and operation of such a facility on the selected site; and
(d) to ensure that parties with waste management responsibility take appropriate steps to ensure that, at all stages of radioactive waste management, individuals, society and the environment are adequately protected against radiological and other hazards;
so that radioactive waste generated, possessed or controlled by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth entity is safely and securely managed.
This amendment goes to the objects clause of the bill. From the objects clause flow the intent and purposes of the bill. An objects clause is commonly included in legislation to guide decision makers in the event of statutory ambiguity and to assist courts and tribunals in the same situation if there is a problem of statutory ambiguity. That evidence was provided by ANU lecturer Dr James Prest.
The Greens welcome the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs on this bill calling for an objects clause to be inserted. So we have created the first objects clauses to emphasise the need for responsibility and for action to be taken to ensure that individuals, society and the environment are adequately protected against radiological and other hazards. This would apply whether the dump turns out to be a shed out the back of Tennant Creek with two security guards looking after it or if it ends up remaining, at least for a period of time, where it is. So when the material returns from overseas it is my understanding-and this was confirmed for us the week before last in estimates-that that material will at least be temporarily stored at a location in Sydney. Nonetheless, wherever it is, whether it is the people of Tennant Creek or the Barkly region or residents in Sutherland Shire that we are protecting, this should apply, and I will explain why we believe that that is important.
Radiological hazards are real. Ionising radiation damages our DNA. It is not good for living creatures. It damages the genetic material in all living cells. The nuclear age has introduced materials that emit radiation in forms that become airborne and are breathed in or find their way into the water table and the gene pool, entirely unlike naturally occurring background radiation.
Nuclear reactors routinely release radiation as part of their normal operations. The facility in Sutherland Shire is no exception to that. For a long while-and perhaps the minister can tell us whether it is still in force-there was an exclusion zone around the reactor in which people were not permitted to produce food. I believe that was listed a while ago. I have had people ask me whether breastmilk qualifies as food. The reason for that is that all reactor facilities, no matter how large or small, as part of their normal operations emit very small but detectable trace amounts of various kinds of radioisotopes-iodine and tritium in particular.
Nuclear waste stockpiles, obviously, are growing daily, and the minister has given us some detail this afternoon about that in an Australian context. Elsewhere they include tonnes of plutonium which remain toxic for 250,000 years.
The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War know about radiation and the health effects of radiation. IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for their efforts to galvanise medical professions to cross the Cold War divide against the nuclear madness of that time. It is the legacy that we are still attempting to clean up today.
The 200,000 IPPNW medical professions in 60 countries have a clear position on both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy: they oppose both because there is no safe level of radiation. This thoroughly considered position arises from medical expertise, scientific facts, concern for future generations and simple common sense. Radiation is uniquely hazardous, persistent and indiscriminate, damaging our most precious legacy: the core human blueprint stored in our DNA and passed down through our children to future generations.
The scientific community today understands in 2012 what it did not fully comprehend in 1945: that there is no level of radiation exposure below which we are at zero risk. Widely accepted scientific evidence tells us that not only is the health risk from radiation proportional to the dose-that is, the bigger the dose, the greater the risk-but also there is no level without risk. Even very low-level medical exposure such as chest X-rays-0.4 microsieverts per test-carry a quantifiable risk of harm such as cancer. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that all radiation exposure be kept as low as achievable in deference to this evidence. For the public, on top of background radiation and any additional medical procedures, exposure should not exceed one millisievert per year.
A US National Academy of Science Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation report, the so-called BEIR or BEIR VII report, estimates that one millisievert of additional radiation is associated with an increased risk of solid cancers-that is, cancers other than leukaemia-of about one in 10,000; an increased risk of leukaemia of about one in every 100,000; and a one in 17,500 increased risk overall of dying from cancer.
But a crucial factor is that not everyone faces the same level of risk: for infants under one year of age, the radiation related cancer risk is three to four times higher than for adults, and female infants are twice as susceptible as male infants; females' overall risk of cancer related to radiation exposure is 40 per cent greater than for males; and foetuses in the womb are the most radiation sensitive of all. It is relatively easy to understand why that is, because cell division proceeding rapidly in children or in the womb is enormously vulnerable to showers of radiation whether that be from any of the sources that the nuclear industry is producing or even from medical X-rays during pregnancy.
The pioneering Oxford survey of childhood cancer found that X-rays of mothers involving doses to the foetus of 10 to 20 millisieverts resulted in a 40 per cent increase in the cancer rate amongst children up to age 15. In Germany a recent study of 25 years of the national childhood cancer register showed that even the normal operation of nuclear power plants is associated with more than doubling of the risk of leukaemia for children under five years old living within five kilometres of a nuclear plant. Isn't that extraordinary-the normal operation? We are not talking a Fukushima-scale meltdown which requires the evacuation of hundreds or thousands of square kilometres of area. The normal operation of nuclear power plants in a country with the technical and engineering expertise of Germany has a doubling of the risk of childhood leukaemia of kids under five who will get cancer because they live close to a nuclear power plant operating as normal and spewing trace quantities of tritium, iodine and various other fission products into the environment.
Increased risk in those studies in Germany were seen up to 50 kilometres away from the plant, depending on wind direction, localised weather factors and so on. This was much higher than expected. It was certainly much higher than the nuclear industry was happy to acknowledge. It highlights the particular vulnerability to radiation of children in and outside the womb for reasons that I have spoken about. Nuclear research reactors such as the one in Sydney do not escape this. It is simply the engineering reality.
Uranium mining of course emits radon gas, so radiation workers in the uranium mines in Australia are among the highest exposed radiation workers in any sector of the nuclear industry around the world. Radioactive waste, the kind of material we are discussing today, emits radiation. Our amendment seeks acknowledgment of that and an object to protect health and the environment from that harm.
Radiation health authorities use scientific modelling to calculate and set permissible limits for ionising radiation exposure. As our understanding has increased, the recommended exposure doses for both the public and for workers in the nuclear industry have steadily been reduced. If you look at a graph over the last century or so-or at least half a century, 60 or 70 years-of permitted radiation exposure for radiation workers in the industry and for the public, they decline exponentially. Every couple of decades we cut the dose threshold by more than half or by a factor of up to 10. In other words, what we were being told was safe a couple of decades ago was not safe at all, and that is why people have very little confidence in what the industry tells us today. Radiation health authorities use scientific modelling to calculate and set so-called permissible limits for ionising radiation exposure and, as our understanding has increased, these levels have been reduced. These are permissible limits not for the prevention of disease but for allowing and enabling the industry to operate. Levels once regarded as safe are now known to be associated with those risks. It is now acknowledged in the medical literature that there is no safe level of radiation at all. No additional dose can be absorbed by a human being, or another living creature, without a measurable increase in risk of a cancer of some form.
The releases of radiation from the nuclear age have contributed to cancer plague of the 20th century. I do not ask the minister to stand up and tell us what that death toll is because it is simply not known; the studies have not been done, and it is formidably difficult to separate what causes are leading to what responses. But we know that genetic impacts are also discussed less frequently than cancer. Altering the collective gene pool of the biosphere of not just our species but also the species with whom we share the planet is not an experiment that is reversible. Once this damage is done you cannot take it back. We know that radio nuclides with long half-lives are cumulatively being loaded into the environment and may result in ongoing impacts on health, as well as long-term damage to the gene pool.
I have a number of other comments to make, but first I seek the support of the chamber for the Australian Greens' amendment to simply embed the principle that there is no safe dose of radiation. I thought this facility would be controversial, because I do not think anybody in this chamber comes in here thinking that radiation is good for us, despite what some of the lunatic fringe elements of the nuclear industry might like us to believe. I would imagine that all participants in this debate would support at least the basic principles behind the objects clause that we are proposing, which says that, though we might disagree on the means, the purpose of legislation like this is to prevent these exposures to surrounding communities, whether they be in Barkly, Sutherland or on the transport corridor-wherever it is that the government eventually decides to put this material onto trucks and take out to Tennant Creek, or wherever. I would expect that all of us in here should at least be united in seeking to reduce the risk and the exposure to the host communities.
I have a number of other comments, but I will let them go if there is support for the amendment. I commend this amendment to the chamber.
Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:39): I thank the advisers, who have obviously just been flicking through the report. That bears out the point I was making. The sense of urgency that the government has been proclaiming-not just this government, but also the previous one-the justification for needing to dump this stuff in a shed on a cattle station, is that we have got this vast amount of material coming back from overseas and we have nowhere to put it, that there is nowhere for it to go, and that that is the deadline. Successive ministers have been using the urgency of this material being returned from overseas as a pretext for the claim that we need to set up a shed in the outback at Muckaty or whatever given site has been targeted. I have not worked out exactly what the proportion is, but I will take the minister's advice that there is 427 cubic metres of this material already banked at Lucas Heights, already sitting there, and an additional 32 cubic metres of this very long-lived lethal material due to come back in reprocessed form from Europe. We already have well over 10 times that amount of stuff parked at Lucas Heights. So what is the urgency? Where on earth does that come from? Could ministers stop using that as a pretext.
We heard again from the advisers, and from the officers who appeared at budget estimates the week before last, that this material, when it does come back, will be parked at Lucas Heights. It has been in the budget for at least two budget cycles that I am aware of. Preliminary studies have been done. ARPANSA consider their guidelines to be appropriate whether it is a remote site or a site at Lucas Heights. So that justification has evaporated. And it was actually never there in the first place because the same people spinning us that line knew very well that the material that was coming back from Europe was not going to be an enormous burden that was going to overwhelm our abilities, our management structures or our capacity at Lucas Heights to look after it. That was simply not true. I thank the minister for providing that information and for the fact that it is reasonably up to date. I trust that, if there are any amendments or significant changes to that, you will let the chamber know. I was not after a specific quantity down to the last kilogram, but you have given us the order of magnitude and that is appreciated.
We live in a naturally radioactive environment. The sun, and uranium locked up in granites, produces background radiation. But human activities from 1945 onwards have increased our exposure to ionising radiation, and entirely different isotopes and transuranic materials have been created that are vastly different from background radiation. So you cannot say that people who have been exposed to plutonium downwind of weapons tests are suffering from something that is just like background radiation only more of it. Plutonium did not exist on planet Earth, apart from in absolutely trace quantities, until we began producing it in uranium reactors for weapons. These isotopes are different from background radiation. They come in various forms that can become airborne and be breathed in, or find their way into the water table and gene pool, which is entirely unlike background radiation.
For example, miners are exposed to radon in Australian uranium mines. They say that radon can come from very slow uranium decay in granites, which will sometimes build up in basements and so on, and therefore it is okay for workers to be exposed to elevated levels of radon because it is somehow natural. But if you grind up a uranium deposit, turn it into something as fine as talcum powder, disperse it across a mine site into a uranium mill, and the workforce breathe it in, they are getting quantitatively and qualitatively different levels of exposure. Because radon is an alpha emitter, it is going to be repelled or will not actually expose the worker to dangerous levels if it is coming from outside. Alpha radiation dissipates across a very short distance and can be stopped by skin or by the paper suits that people wear and so on. If you get that material inside you, if you pulverise that uranium deposit and convert it into a very fine powder, you have got a very serious problem because the material is resident in your lungs. Each link in the nuclear fuel chain releases radiation, beginning with drilling for uranium. To protect future generations from being damaged by it, we must stop creating more radiation and phase out the sources. We must also responsibly contain radiation from the environment.
Instead of truthful data about radiation, over the decades we have received government denial, self-serving control of information and refusal to redress the shameful wrongs. Governments have not made archives of information available about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example. The French government has been equally shameless in the instance of the health databases from France's weapons testing in the Pacific. And, even in the instance of Maralinga, we are still fighting to provide a gold card for veterans who were exposed to radiation from weapons tests conducted by our ally Great Britain during the Cold War. So resolving the effects of nuclear activity and the nuclear threat is now a matter of our survival. We cannot contain nuclear threats or environmental damage or support the sick and dying without truthful information. We have other suitable objects clauses for this bill to ensure that the most suitable site on the continent is based on environmental considerations, geography, hydrology and so on. But the object embeds in the legislation that we need to find the right place. It would not necessarily be an earthquake zone-and Muckaty is in a seismically active area-and the locals would have told the minister that if he had had the courtesy to go and meet them and look them in the eye.
You would not necessarily select a flood plain. I have obviously spent more time in Tennant Creek and the surrounds than the minister. I had the invitation from traditional owners, but when I tried to visit the site we could not get in because the area was flooded out. It does not sound like a particularly good idea for a shed.
It would not be adjacent to or on top of a sacred site, as Muckaty is. Muckaty is a men's site and the men have been telling the government that through the kinds of letters that Senator Di Natale read in before and that I have tabled as correspondence from these people. They have been saying, 'Don't put that stuff there. It is not appropriate that it goes there.'
When the government promised to establish a process for identifying suitable sites-that is: scientific, transparent, accountable, fair, allowing access for appeal mechanisms, ensuring full community consultation in radioactive waste decision-making processes, committing to international best-practice scientific processes and so on-that was what the government committed to. Instead, we are seeing quite the opposite. Best practice involves putting this material where it is most appropriate, where there are the right characteristics. While it might be a politically convenient characteristic for the minister to be able to say that some people have nominated it, it does not make it the best place. A process that involves landowners, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, nominating lands or parcels of land as possible sites for a dump is not a scientifically rigorous process. This gets back to the debate that we were having before about the principle of volunteerism. I happen to believe that calling for volunteers from some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities on the planet is not the only alternative to simply walking in and coercively dumping it on somebody. What we have here today is the worst of both worlds.
What we need in order to achieve 'international best practice'-since the minister has used that phrase a number of times-is a regulatory framework that strategically locates a site based on best science and risk management but also takes into account the impacts on economic and social issues. It should be one that applies strict criteria, standards and policies designed to deal with all environmental risks to the facility-very long-term environmental risks-and one which has input from and is acceptable to the community, not just something determined by Minister Martin Ferguson sitting in his electorate office in Batman while the clock on his turfing-out ticks down. The framework should provide constant vigilance, community oversight, risk removal, and prevention of pollution or contamination, rather than just project assessment, approval and condition, and it should provide a framework which deals with the residual risks, emergencies and contaminated lands if things go wrong. The objects clause would ensure that an overall object of the bill is to ensure that this material is not put where it is convenient but where it is appropriate, and that means for the stuff that is here and the material that is due to come back from overseas.
Unless Senator Scullion feels like making a contribution to explain why he does not think these very sound and sensible principles, which I am sure that he and his party agree with, should be embedded into the objects clause-principles that will guide the way that this bill is interpreted for the next several centuries-I will not detain this chamber any further. I hope we might at least hear something from Senator Scullion, or perhaps I have managed to change the minister's mind in the course of this short debate. Otherwise I commend this amendment to the Senate.