Mar 25, 2003

Ministerial Statements: Maralinga: Nuclear Test Sites

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS: Maralinga: Nuclear Test Sites


25 March 2003


Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.23 p.m.) —It is with a considerable sense of sadness that I respond to the statement of the Minister for Science on the Maralinga Rehabilitation Technical Advisory Committee report, Rehabilitation of former nuclear test sites at Emu and Maralinga. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, Prime Minister Menzies agreed to the British request for a permanent site to test nuclear weapons. Seven atomic bombs were detonated at Maralinga during 1956 and 1957, and a number of trials were undertaken, codenamed with very pleasant names: Kittens, Tims, Rats and Vixen. This was a political decision by a government that was subservient to the British government, and today there are parallels, with the Australian government being once again subservient to the decisions of a foreign power. Just as today the result of the decision to enter a war in Iraq has very negative consequences for our national sovereignty, certainly in the fifties the subservience that the Menzies government showed to its British masters had dire consequences for Australia. The Vixen trials were particularly ruthless, scattering radiotoxic plutonium over the desert to simulate accidental damage done to nuclear weapons from fire, explosion and accidental detonation. It appears that most of the contamination of the soil was the result of smaller, often clandestine trials rather than due to A-bombs.

The MARTAC report does indeed describe in immense detail the $108 million clean-up of the former sites, yet the report and its 6,500-page CD attachment forget to make any mention of the lives lost, the heartache caused and the total and ongoing sense of dispossession felt by the local Indigenous community. In 1951 the Menzies government invited the British government to undertake nuclear testing on Australian soil, and the people whose land they were to destroy were not taken into account. The minister today made the same mistake. From the start, the Labor Party has been keen to say that the focus has to be on the best outcomes for the local Indigenous people. This whole exercise has not been about whether we can manage the best clean-up but about whether people can return to their land and to their lives.

The minister’s focus has been on the technical elements. He has bravely declared that the project has achieved world’s best practice, in a technical sense. This fact remains in dispute. His focus was on the style of the report, not on the substance. The fact is that there is still going to be a restricted area of some 120 square kilometres which the minister said would remain `lightly contaminated’—land that was not to be camped on although it would be safe enough for the Maralinga Tjarutja people to hunt on. What parent would let their child go anywhere near land that was described as `lightly contaminated’, let alone hunt for food for their family on that land? Yet somehow the minister thinks it is safe for the local Indigenous people.

Leaving any land even lightly contaminated is contrary to the 1985 royal commission findings which recommended that the `sites be cleaned up so that they are fit for unrestricted human habitation by the Aboriginal traditional owners’. What the minister did not say today should be our focus: nowhere in his speech did he say that the Commonwealth would guarantee that the land was indeed safe and that Maralinga Tjarutja people need not fear—even though this clean-up is the result of three previous, unsuccessful attempts.

The minister has said that the clean-up is world’s best practice. The importance of this claim to the minister was evident when, in the course of his statement, he attempted to explain away the dumping midstream of the preferred in situ vitrification process of treating contaminated material, going instead for a cheaper reburial option. While it is claimed that this decision was made for safety reasons, when you look at page 138 of the report you find that there is a $5 million saving to the government by going for the cheaper option. At the heart of the government’s problem is its overriding concern with cost control at the expense of quality control. It is notable that even today there was an attempt to justify this by referring to the national code of practice. When it is understood that the code of practice applies to low-level, short-lived waste and not to lethal, long-lived plutonium, government claims to best practice appear increasingly fragile.

Despite three attempts, no effective clean-up has been conducted by the British authorities. In fact, they only succeeded in worsening the problem by spreading radioactive waste around the site. Despite this, the British believed that they had signed off on the problems associated with the site. It was only when Labor came to government in 1983 that the ineffectiveness of the previous clean-up attempts was exposed. The relevant report, Rehabilitation of former nuclear test sites in Australia, was produced by the Technical Assessment Group and published in 1990. It became the benchmark for subsequent rehabilitation programs. As a result of this report, the then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Simon Crean, now Leader of the Opposition, in December 1993 pursued the British government, which agreed to pay £20 million to settle Australia’s claims and make a contribution towards the damage that they had caused. This contribution was estimated to meet half the cost of the rehabilitation. The effectiveness of Labor’s response stands in stark contrast to the history of blunders that marks the current government’s management—or mismanagement—of this process.

This report also brings to bear the Howard government’s approach to nuclear issues, because there are obvious links between the government’s botched job of cleaning up Maralinga and the problems with determining a site for the storage and management of low-level and intermediate-level nuclear waste. The selection of a site for a repository for low-level waste was set in train in 1992 under the previous Labor government. Crucial stages of the process of site selection have taken place under the current government. One of the parameters for the siting of this waste repository was to be effective community consultation. That clearly is not the case at the moment. Rather than consulting with Indigenous owners of the land around Woomera, where the government’s preferred site is, the government has instead responded by having a $300,000 publicity campaign designed to persuade South Australians that the federal government knows best. Of more concern is the refusal of the government to release any of the 667 submissions received for the site environmental impact statement. This lack of transparency has been perhaps triggered by a further problem in that the Department of Defence has, for a number of years, been expressing its concerns at the proposal to virtually co-locate the waste repository with a missile testing range.

Mr McGauran —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is a ministerial statement on the Maralinga clean-up. Since you came to the chair, the honourable member opposite has been speaking about an entirely different issue: a proposed repository at Woomera. There is no connection between Maralinga and Woomera.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Having just resumed the chair, I was not aware of that. But the member for Grayndler should be well aware that he must speak to the motion, and I ask that he stick to that.

Mr ALBANESE —I certainly am. It is no wonder that the Minister for Science is very sensitive about a discussion of nuclear issues and that he suggests that there is no relationship between Maralinga and a proposed repository for nuclear waste. It is quite extraordinary. What has become patently clear is that the decision to abandon the preferred ISV methodology followed increasing pressure to modify or abandon the process, as the costs of treating the contaminated material became larger than anticipated. While the issue of cost is of course relevant, in the final analysis this work must meet necessary levels of safety and public need rather than simply conform to a predetermined bottom line. What we are left with is a cheap and nasty solution which certainly saved money but which failed to meet the standards adopted at the outset of the rehabilitation process and which also failed to conform to international safety standards and practices. It is also a process from which the traditional owners, the Maralinga Tjarutja, have disassociated themselves.

Mr McGauran —Says who? Which scientist? Name the source.

Mr ALBANESE —The minister asks who is saying this. The American geophysicist Dale Timmons, having spent five years working on this site, raised just last week the issue that there were problems with the accuracy of the report. To compound the scientific evasion practised by the government, they have also engaged in a process of denigration of anyone daring to question their management of the Maralinga clean-up—something we are seeing once again here today from the minister and his only friend, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I assume he is here to back up the siting of the waste dump in South Australia. He is here to givethat support—and the minister nods in agreement.

One of the foundation members of MARTAC and a key government representative on the project, Alan Parkinson, has also been the subject of denigration. He was dismissed by government sources as an engineering adviser and as only one of many. In fact, he was an engineering consultant, a contract manager, a government representative to whom a number of contractors reported and a MARTAC member until 1998. Others are categorised as loners or some other equally dismissive phrase when they dare to raise concerns.

Contrary to the minister’s assertions, the Maralinga rehabilitation has not been completed to world’s best practice or even to the methodology agreed at the outset, while questions remain over the reburial process adopted. This report will certainly need to be dissected in great detail and its implications explored in greater depth. The opposition, of course, received the report only two hours ago. Despite the obvious preference of the minister, this report fails to close the public debate over this government’s mishandling of the Maralinga rehabilitation program. The opposition will continue to pursue these issues because we believe that this debate is far from over, and we intend to hold this minister and this government accountable for their actions and for the weaknesses in the report. We believe that Australia and, in particular, the local Indigenous owners of the land deserve world’s best practice in the way that this site is rehabilitated. We also believe that we should learn the lessons of the past, when an Australian conservative government was, five decades ago, subservient to the needs of a foreign power.