Sep 6, 2006

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006

Second Reading

6 September 2006

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (1.36 p.m.)—The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006 is a timely reminder of the dangers of the nuclear fuel cycle and the Howard government’s extreme approach to nuclear power. The bill serves three main purposes. Firstly, it allows ANSTO to assist Commonwealth, state and territory governments in responding to a nuclear accident or terrorist incident. Secondly, it allows ANSTO to manage or support the establishment of an intermediate-level nuclear waste dump. Thirdly, it clarifies arrangements for the storage of spent nuclear fuel from the Lucas Heights reactor.

While the Labor Party support this bill, we remain extremely concerned about the Howard government’s extreme approach to nuclear power. That is why the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved the amendment standing in her name. I intend to speak in support of that amendment. The bill amends the ANSTO Act 1987 to deal with the consequences of an accident or terrorist attack involving radioactive materials. Let us hope and pray that this never happens and let us make sure that every conceivable step is taken to prevent it from becoming a reality. But the truth is that, in proposing this legislation, the minister is explicitly acknowledging the cold, hard reality that must shape the nuclear debate—that is, that any further involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle involves Australia further in potential nuclear terrorism.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned about the dangers of nuclear terrorism. He said this:

Our fears of a deadly nuclear detonation—whatever the cause—have been reawakened.

In part, these fears are driven by new realities. The rise in terrorism. The discovery of clandestine nuclear programmes. The emergence of a nuclear black market.

We know that there have been arrests in Australia of people allegedly plotting a terrorist attack on Lucas Heights. That is one of the reasons Labor is opposed to Australia becoming further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle and building nuclear reactors, which are a terrorist target.

According to the Oxford Research Group, a nuclear weapons designer could construct a nuclear weapon from just three or four kilograms of reactor grade plutonium. About 250,000 kilograms of civil plutonium has been reprocessed worldwide. This is enough to generate 60,000 nuclear weapons. The Oxford Research Group has also suggested that two or three people with appropriate skills could design and fabricate a crude nuclear weapon using a cricket ball sized sphere of reactor grade plutonium.

It is a fact of life that the production of uranium and its use in the nuclear fuel cycle present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks. We cannot resile from that. You can guarantee that uranium will create nuclear waste but you cannot guarantee that it will not create nuclear weapons. That is precisely why I strongly believe that Australia is as far into the nuclear fuel cycle as Australians want to be.

The provisions in the ANSTO bill which allow ANSTO to assist in the response to a terrorist attack are sensible and they should be supported. We must, however, do everything we can to stop such an incident occurring, and that includes limiting our involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. The Howard government, however, takes a different view. It has an extreme agenda. It has a nuclear obsession that is putting Australia at greater risk of terrorist attack. ANSTO has said we need four or five nuclear reactors along our coast to make the industry viable in this country. Make no mistake: that means four or five potential terrorist targets.

The French terror suspect Willie Brigitte allegedly told investigators he was part of a cell planning to blow up the Lucas Heights reactor. According to an article in the Australian Financial Review on 12 November 2003, Australian authorities who searched Mr Brigitte’s flat found photos of Lucas Heights and a list of materials needed to make the explosive TATP.

The then Acting Prime Minister John Anderson said that security around potential terrorist targets such as Lucas Heights was broadly adequate. The truth, however, is very different. The Weekend Australian reported on 19 November 2005:

The back door to one of the nation’s prime terrorist targets is protected by a cheap padlock and a stern warning against trespassing or blocking the driveway.

This is typical of the Howard government’s approach to security issues: big on rhetoric but lacking in substance and action.

We also know that a number of other possible sites for nuclear reactors have been considered by the Howard government. In 1997 the Howard government compiled a shortlist of 14 possible sites but kept the list secret from the public. The confidential briefing, which was signed ‘good work’ in the handwriting of former science minister Peter McGauran, said the short list should be kept secret because ‘release of information about alternate sites may unnecessarily alarm communities in the broad areas under consideration’.

Just think about that. The cabinet was considering 14 potential sites for a nuclear reactor and making a conscious decision to keep those sites secret from the public because it may alarm communities in the areas under consideration. Communities were not even given the right to know that their areas were being short-listed. Those areas included: Goulburn, Holsworthy, Lucas Heights and Broken Hill in New South Wales; in South Australia, the Mount Lofty Ranges, the river and lakes region 50 kilometres east of the Mount Lofty Ranges, Woomera and Olympic Dam; in Western Australia, sites in the electorates of O’Connor, Pearce, Brand and Canning; in Queensland, Mount Isa; and Darwin in the Northern Territory. What that document showed was that the Howard government has now had 10 years of secret planning and keeping information on these issues from the public.

I put a question in writing to the Prime Minister on 31 May 2006. The Prime Minister is given 60 days to answer questions in writing. It was a very simple question: will he rule out locating a nuclear reactor in each of the 150 federal electoral divisions? The Prime Minister has refused to answer that question, contrary to the rules of this parliament, because he does not want to rule out any sites because that will narrow where potential nuclear reactors will go.

He did provide an answer to a second question, question No. 3591, placed that day, asking him to rule out a high-level nuclear waste repository in the 150 federal electoral divisions. His answer to that was to refuse to rule out a single potential site but to indicate that he has established his nuclear energy review committee. That, of course, is a committee stacked with proponents of the nuclear industry. There is no-one on that committee who has ever expressed any scepticism about nuclear energy and furthering Australia’s involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed, a prerequisite for being appointed to that committee would appear to be support for the nuclear fuel cycle. It is being chaired by Ziggy Switkowski, who, of course, was the chair of ANSTO. He has stepped aside—he has not resigned—from his position as the head of ANSTO while the inquiry is going on, but as soon as it is over he will go back as the chair of ANSTO.

It is a bit like having an inquiry into what the best football code is for Australia and asking the AFL commissioners to conduct it. It is absolutely absurd. But it gets worse because this inquiry will not look at where the reactors or the nuclear waste will go. So we have an inquiry which is going to examine the economic cost of Australia becoming further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle without looking at the sites where nuclear reactors will be located. It is like a ‘virtual’ debate.

You cannot have a nuclear energy industry in this country without having the nuclear reactors somewhere. They have to be somewhere. It is a bit like asking for the price of a pie without the pastry and the meat. It is absolutely absurd. What is more, this inquiry specifically will hold no public meetings whatsoever. There will be no public process whatsoever. There will be no opportunity to have a serious examination of the issues. Everyone knows that, whether you are establishing a residence to live in or a business to operate from, location is a key component of cost. It is like a real estate agent advertising a house without saying where it is and how many rooms it has. It is absolutely absurd. The government does not want a transparent debate on involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

At the place where there is a facility, at Lucas Heights, there have been significant concerns about how the Howard government has dealt with these issues. On 1 May 2006 ANSTO ceased having health physics surveyors, who monitor radiation levels and safety measures, on site between 11 pm and 7 am. What that means is that firefighters may not be able to immediately enter the premises during an emergency. The New South Wales Fire Brigade may be unable to fully respond to an emergency at the reactor unless these health physics surveyors are present on site to brief those officers. Let us be honest: that decision could put at risk the safety of employees and those in the local community. The Lucas Heights nuclear reactor has recorded 13 safety breaches in the past 18 months. It is in that context that I want to talk about what ANSTO’s response is to that.

The head of safety at Lucas Heights spoke to 2SM on 20 June this year and responded to the fact that Labor had raised questions on the floor of this parliament which the science minister had no idea about and no capacity to answer. The response was this:

… the fact they get into the press worries us because our local community starts to get concerned for no good reason.

I actually think that, if there is a problem at the Lucas Heights reactor, the community around it has an absolute right to know what is going on in their local community, just as it is an absolute right of this parliament to be told about these occurrences. The Howard government is seeking to expand ANSTO’s role. I think it needs to have a good hard look at how ANSTO is operating because the culture of incompetence and secrecy must end and it must end now.

The arrogance of the Howard government is also seen in its contemptuous approach to the establishment of a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory, and this bill reinforces that arrogance. This bill reinforces ANSTO’s ability to operate the Commonwealth nuclear waste dump should the government decide to transfer overall responsibility to ANSTO. This essentially fast-tracks the imposition of the nuclear waste dump. It is worth recalling the extreme approach the Howard government took towards the establishment of this dump. The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act is an extreme piece of legislation which was rammed through this parliament in March 2006. State and territory laws prohibiting nuclear waste dumps were overridden. Environmental protection and Indigenous heritage bills were overridden. The Native Title Act was overridden. The Lands Acquisition Act was overridden. Procedural fairness was removed.

It is an extreme act built on broken promises. Just before the last federal election, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage stated:

The Commonwealth is not pursuing any options anywhere on the mainland. So we can be quite categorical about that because the Northern Territory is on the mainland.

In June 2005 the member for Solomon also ruled out a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. The member for Solomon said:

There’s not going to be a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory … That was the commitment undertaken in the lead-up to the federal election …

We know that the Howard government’s promises, when it comes to all issues relating to the nuclear fuel cycle, are not worth the paper they are written on. The government simply breaks promise after promise.

As the minister’s second reading speech acknowledges, this bill allows ANSTO to:

… condition, manage and store radioactive waste produced by other Commonwealth agencies and to fully participate in the establishment and operation of the— nuclear waste dump— in the Northern Territory.

Under this bill, ANSTO will be given responsibility for storing all Commonwealth radioactive waste, not just its own. Two facts are important to note here. Firstly, the Northern Territory nuclear waste dump will not be operational until at least 2011, if it operates at all. Secondly, the environmental impact statement for the nuclear waste dump states the disposal of nuclear waste ‘would occur at intervals of between two and five years’.

Given these two facts, the inevitable conclusion must surely be that Lucas Heights will operate, at best, as an interim store for all Commonwealth nuclear waste. Under this bill, Lucas Heights will also be the interim storage site for the spent fuel rods which are currently sent to France for reprocessing. Further, the bill provides for nuclear waste from Commonwealth sites around the country to be transported to Lucas Heights—that means the regular transport of nuclear waste through Sydney.

The science minister, in her second reading speech, stated:

… the Commonwealth has absolutely no intention of establishing the ANSTO Lucas Heights premises as the main radioactive waste storage or disposal facility for the Commonwealth.

Given the Howard government’s appalling record in breaking promises relating to nuclear waste, it is hard to take this commitment seriously. Because, while this bill does contain some practical measures which are worthy of support, Australians are right to remain extremely concerned about the Howard government’s extreme approach to nuclear issues.

This is a government that is determined to involve Australia further in the nuclear fuel cycle. This is a government that is determined to promote uranium enrichment here in Australia and to impose nuclear reactors on the community. It is ironic that, at the same time as it does that, it has knocked off the member for Tangney for being honest.

The member for Tangney, a nuclear advocate, had the honesty to say a nuclear reactor has to go somewhere, and he would welcome it in his electorate. So what has it done? It knocked him off in a preselection, because he at least had the decency to acknowledge you cannot have a nuclear energy industry without having nuclear reactors, and you cannot have nuclear reactors without having high-level nuclear waste. For his sins, an honest man has been rubbed out after just two years in this parliament. The member for Tangney is the first victim of nuclear fallout from the Howard government.