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Urgency debate on the implications of Fukushima Daiichi and the 22 Sept. UN High Level meeting on Nuclear Safety & Security

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 21 Sep 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:35): I move:

That the Senate discuss the implications of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and Australia's participation at the High Level Meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security to be held on 22 September 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters.

I thank the Senate for agreeing that there is in fact an urgent need to discuss the implications of the disaster in Japan and at this important meeting being held at the UN tomorrow. The issue on Japan's Pacific coast is ongoing. It is vastly worse than most people realise and it will be smouldering for decades. This is an appropriate time, just after the six-month anniversary, to be considering it.
As reported by the ABC today, 60 per cent of Japanese people surveyed want the Japanese government to rely less on nuclear energy. It is a stunning turnaround from the popularity of this technology. That is why 50,000 people took to the streets of Tokyo this week to demand the phase-out of nuclear energy in Japan. It is not difficult to understand why, given the extraordinary devastation visited on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, victims of radiation are calling for an end not just to nuclear weapons but to the civil nuclear industry. They know better than anyone. The Japanese have experienced this tragedy before.

The majority of Japanese feel this way because they now know that 76 trillion becquerel of plutonium 239 have been released. This is a hideously dangerous radioactive isotope that the Japanese government thought had been contained. That figure was released on 6 June and is 23,000 times higher than had been previously announced by the Japanese government. The truth about this disaster still has not been told, even though it may have faded from the front pages of Australian newspapers.

The Japanese people also know that the IAEA and the Japanese government have done medical tests on children living in three towns near Fukushima. About 45 per cent of those surveyed-kids up to 15 years old-have had thyroid exposure to radioactive iodine. As we all know, radioactive iodine is something that children and babies are much more susceptible to. They are doing tests on products such as spinach, tea, milk and fish, hundreds of kilometres from the plant, that show them heavily contaminated with iodine and caesium. There are hot spots now all away across the north-east of Japan.

Something that senators probably did not know is that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, announced a High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security on 11 May, a couple of months after the disaster. He said:

We have to reevaluate nuclear risks and nuclear safety in response to the disaster in Japan.

Indeed we do. He told reporters at the time:

This exercise will also need a serious global debate on broader issues, including assessment of the costs, risks and benefits of nuclear energy and stronger connections between nuclear safety, nuclear security and nuclear non-proliferation.

This is something the industry is very keen to not talk about at all. I understand the UNSG was visited by several governments after making these statements. What is called a 'demarche' took place, a coordinated diplomatic onslaught from countries heavily invested in nuclear power that do not want the disaster on Japan's Pacific coast to impact popular opinion or the fortunes of the industry in their countries. They were not happy that the SG wanted to have a dialogue on the costs and risks of nuclear power. Despite opposition to this meeting and the concerns of the secretary-general, on 16 September 2011 the secretary-general released the UN system-wide study on the implications of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I indicated to the whips that I was going to seek leave to table this document, so I do so now.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall): Is leave granted?

Senator Bernardi: No.
Senator LUDLAM: Before leave is denied, I should say that the whips were notified yesterday that I was proposing to seek leave to this document and another.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I am sorry, Senator Ludlam. Leave is not granted.

Senator Abetz: I will check it.

Senator LUDLAM: I might seek leave again towards the end of my speech, on a nod from the opposition.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That would be appropriate. Thank you.

Senator LUDLAM: Picking up on the tension between nuclear states and the UN Secretary-General, and fearing that the meeting might become imbalanced or even manipulated by the industry, non-government organisations and experts came together to provide analysis and country reports, including a report on Australia. The effort was coordinated by Ray Acheson, the Director of Reaching Critical Will, a great project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. They produced what is sometimes referred to as a 'shadow report', an alternative to the official report, to make sure, essentially, that updated information and evidence on the costs and risks of nuclear are available. For the benefit of Senator Abetz and the opposition whip, I foreshadow that I will also seek leave to table that report later-so that is one report from the United Nations Secretary-General and one shadow report from the non-government organisations who pay very close regard to what is going on in those international fora. The title of the shadow report is Costs, risks, and myths of nuclear power.

The UN report includes inputs from 16 UN entities whose work is affected by the disaster at the Fukushima plant. Unfortunately, the IAEA was tasked with being the lead coordinating entity for the study. The IAEA, of course, is responsible for promoting the use of nuclear energy around the world. Having an organisation with such conflicted responsibilities coordinating the study resulted-I do not think any senators will be surprised-in the study being overwhelmingly and conclusively pro nuclear power. All the same, it does clearly acknowledge the severity of the disaster at Fukushima and the threat of international nuclear incidents elsewhere. It acknowledges the inadequacy of current threat assessments and mitigation planning, including risks from severe and unpredictable weather events related to climate change, which is very interesting. It acknowledges the lack of an agreed approach to facility decommissioning and high-level radioactive waste management. It acknowledges the weapons proliferation links related to nuclear power. All these are things that I doubt senators, particularly those on the conservative side-but I know they have got their allies in the ALP as well-would acknowledge, topics that do not want to understand: weapons proliferation and the threats posed by climate change to nuclear energy, which is something to ponder.

The study also cautions against the trend towards longer service lives of nuclear plants. The only thing I would want less than to live next to a nuclear plant would be to live next to one that had been running for 60 years, but of course the industry, which can no longer afford to build new ones in places like the United States and Western Europe is relicensing old facilities for an additional 20 years. These things will have been running for longer than the lives of any of the people operating them, in order to squeeze more of a profit out of clapped-out assets. I think it is a shocking risk to play like that with the lives of people in those communities and the surrounding areas and countries.

The study says that plant extension:
... brings its own challenges, such as ensuring that safety margins remain adequate. The extension of the lives of existing nuclear plants and the expansion of nuclear power programs are also placing an increasing strain upon the limited human resources available to design, construct, maintain and operate nuclear facilities.

These cautions are being written by the international agency charged with promoting nuclear energy. It is a pretty lukewarm endorsement.

The UN study also insists that the environmental, social and economic consequences of major accidents must also be considered and included in decision-making processes to identify and consider such costs-precisely the kinds of risks that have been ignored around the world. This recommendation has been taken up in the shadow report by the NGOs, by Australia's Dave Sweeney and Dimity Hawkins, who between them have many, many years of experience in analysing this sector. The report says that since some states 'remain committed to developing or acquiring nuclear power', disaster risk analysis 'must therefore ensure that nuclear plants are built and operated safely and able to withstand any possible threat that could give rise to a radiation emergency'. Surely by now we know that such an assurance is not possible. Dr MV Ramana points out, in his chapter on nuclear safety: 'Catastrophic accidents are inevitable with nuclear power.' We have seen that now just in the limited period of time that these plants have been operating. Entire areas have been depopulated and turned into radiation sacrifice zones.

So what position will Australia take to the meeting in New York tomorrow? We have a strong interest in this. Nobody wants nuclear power in this country, apart from Ziggy Switkowski and a handful of others, but Australia has 40 per cent of the world's uranium reserves and is a supplier of around 20 per cent of the global market, including to most of the world's nuclear weapon states.

Ministers in both of the old parties obsess about uranium mining, despite it not being in our top 16 exports. The facts here in Australia are that Australian uranium mines have an absolutely miserable record. The BHP Olympic Dam mine that they are proposing to expand will create five cubic kilometres of radioactive tailings-a radioactive carcinogenic mountain range created by the expansion of one single project. The Ranger mine that senators will be aware of and have had a long association with has seen over 200 leaks, spills and licence breaches since it opened in 1981.

The meeting in New York tomorrow should be a thorough examination of the facts rather than assurances and glib assertions that deny the fact that the state of nuclear safety is as poor as its market prospects. That is why investors have deserted the sector. The meeting should not deny that the nuclear industry is rife with accidents, incidents and profound secrecy. It should not deny that nuclear power is a massive subsidy parasite that burns money far more efficiently than it burns uranium. I very much look forward to the contributions of other senators to this debate.



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