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Thursday, 21 March 1985
Page: 557


Senator TOWNLEY(12.50) —It is nice to start off the non-controversial matters on a controversial note, Madam Acting Deputy President. I would like to point out very quickly that, had we not been moving to non-controversial matters, we would have adjourned at a quarter to one for lunch, if that was the normal pattern, and I think that is the way it should be in future. This time is one of the few times when senators can speak about various matters, and many of them want to. Today I want to deal with a couple of matters. On the first one, I want to give a very brief outline about the way uranium is used in the nuclear fuel cycle.


Senator Gareth Evans —I see.


Senator TOWNLEY —You would well see, Minister, because you are going to have to learn this, and I hope that you learn it better than you learnt your Attorney-General situation. But this is meant to be non-controversial, and I am trying to leave it that way. Some people, of course, worry a great deal about the use of uranium in any form, whether it be in defence or in peaceful uses, and, of course, I am one of those who feel that it should be used, quite often, in peaceful manner, and particularly to produce electricity; so for a few minutes I shall speak about it. Of course, the aim in any power generation is to somehow turn a generator which produces electricity. In the usual coal-fired station, water is heated by a coal-fired furnace, which produces steam, which is passed directly into the generator, and then it is quite often condensed in a rather large condenser stack outside. That gives many people a lot of worry, because of all the smoke and so on that they think is coming from the condenser; but in fact it is pure water vapour that is coming from there, and the real pollution from a coal-fired station comes from the smokestack.

In a nuclear reactor the fluid that circulates through the reactor is heated in a closed loop, and that than, by way of a heat exchanger, heats other water, which is usually at a lower temperature then it is in a coal-fired station, but then that other water that does not go through the nuclear plant then goes through the turbines to generate the power. Again, the steam that one sees outside a nuclear plant-or, rather, the water vapour that one sees; nobody can see steam-is in fact quite clear of any pollution whatsoever and quite safe. So the only difference between a nuclear power station and a coal-fired one is where the heat for the water or the steam comes from. In one it is from a coal furnace and in the other it is from nuclear reactor heat.

One might then ask: How is the nuclear heat produced, and how is the magic of a nuclear plant arrived at? The first thing that one has to do, of course, is mine the ore. When one mines uranium ore, one has to remember that it is a fairly common element throughout the world. There is quite a lot of uranium in most soils throughout the whole of this world, and even in the water there is 50 thousand million tonnes of uranium. When it is mined in Australia it is turned into yellowcake, which is a mixture of oxides, and they are shipped overseas to be enriched.

When I talk about enrichment, I do not mean enrichment to anywhere near the enrichment that is required for nuclear bombs. Uranium in nuclear power stations is enriched to about four or five times what it is in normal yellowcake, and that is about 0.7 per cent of uranium 235. To enrich yellowcake it is turned into a very pure uranium hexafluoride and at room temperature that is a solid but at somewhere between 50 degrees centigrade and 60 degrees centigrade it becomes a gas. There are two ways of enriching that uranium from the 0.7 per cent uranium 235 to about 3.2 per cent 235. The 235 uranium is one that we wish to get because it is the radioactive part of the uranium.

There are two ways of enriching uranium. One is by diffusion. Senator Jessop and I visited an enrichment plant in France toward the middle of last year. The size of that plant is very hard to describe. It had 14,000 diffusing units. The largest of them weighed about 150 tonnes each, and two-thirds of them were about that size; the others were smaller. But the whole plant needed three nuclear power plants, in fact, to drive it-it required so much energy-and the uranium hexafluoride of about 3,000 tonnes was within that enrichment procedure for about three months to become enriched. It is a very expensive process and a very complicated process, but one that is carried out quite safely by the French. If any of the uranium hexafluoride did leak, it would not be the uranium, the nuclear side of it, that would be dangerous; it would be the fluoride. Fluorides in a lot of ways are very dangerous to the human body, so the detection mechanism they have there is one that worries about not the nuclear side of it but the fluoride side.

That uranium hexafluoride, when enriched, is changed to uranium dioxide by various processes. It is heated, sintered and machined, and fitted into zirconium rods that are about 3 metres to 4 metres long and about 15 millimetres in diameter. About 225, I think, of these are placed in a small area alongside each other, and that becomes the core of the reactor. That is then lowered into the reactor, with certain rods that help to keep the reaction at a low level, and when the rods that stop the reaction are removed somewhat, the process starts up and it is used to produce heat that heats the circulating water that makes the steam to drive the generator.

It is not an extremely complicated process; it is a very simple process in theory, but there are, of course, some complications in making sure that it is a foolproof process because, as the nuclear process goes on, there are some very radioactive elements generated in the core. Those cores last for about three years. I think one-third are replaced every year, and the other uranium can be reprocessed. It can be done quite safely and effectively. Senator Jessop and I have also seen areas where that is done, in Germany and in the United Kingdom. At the end one has some high level liquid waste that has to be stored. In England it is stored within a glass inside a stainless steel container, and then those containers, a bit over a metre high, are placed in geologically stable places. This is a kind of safe, already developed, first generation storage. It is now quite feasible, and in a few years' time it may well be that synroc will be perfected to such a degree that that will be available to be used as a second generation type of storage. But at the moment this system is reasonably feasible.

I have here a table that shows comparisons of environmental impacts of coal and uranium power generation and the nuclear risks in a certain perspective. I seek leave of the Senate, Madam Acting Deputy President, to have that tabled.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Haines) —Is leave granted? Minister? Obviously.


Senator TOWNLEY —I thank the Senate. Finally, on this topic, I believe that Australia should let itself become known as a reliable source of uranium. With at least 30 per cent of the world's easily recoverable ore we would be crazy not to export it, because if we do not do so, other countries will. Also, it is the key to some 7,000 jobs, as was explained in an article in the Australian yesterday. This is something that we, as inheritors of so much uranium, really should be doing. Uranium is not, as I have said, a particularly rare element. It occurs in most parts of the world in various amounts, and if we miss the boat on the contracts that are available, others will move in and we will not have stopped in any way the supply of uranium to the power industry, but shall have done a lot of unnecessary damage to our economy.

This has simply been an overview of the way power comes from nuclear power plants, and I soon want to give a more detailed explanation, as indeed I and others have done in the past, notably Senator Jessop.

Turning to another subject, I congratulate Senator Tate on the speech that he made last night concerning drugs. He showed a very sensible view about the matter. I do not want to repeat all the troubles that come from the drugs that he was mentioning last night, but I would like to take him to task on one matter. A few days ago, on the radio, I heard Senator Tate on this topic, and he made a statement that lumped analgesics in with alcohol and tobacco, and, of course, analgesics do not belong in that area. If one wrote a book about the dangers of drugs and it was 100 pages long, one would devote about 95 pages to tobacco and alcohol and five to all the other drugs involved, all the other drugs that are known to man.

Those of us, myself included, who have more than the average aches and pains are grateful for the relief that sensible use of analgesics can give us-and let it be noted that I say 'sensible use'. I have a great interest in this matter because I have a very sore back. Many people fear analgesics because of the damage phenacetin was known to cause, and, of course, phenacetin was the 'P' that used to be in APCs. That 'P' is not there any more, but it was known that that caused liver and kidney damage. I had an occasion to take some aspirin a little while ago and a doctor said to me, 'You should not be doing that'. I said, 'Why not?' He gave me a few reasons. I did not argue with him, because I am not an argumentative type, but I went to the Parliamentary Library and obtained some very good articles about aspirin. For those who are a little worried about it, I would like to suggest that it has a lot of uses. Some doctors recommend it, particularly for males, to help to prevent strokes and heart attacks. It lubricates the blood, and that is with only one or two tablets a day. With diabetics it seems to delay the onset of cataracts for some 15 years. Of course, for pain it is very good in big doses. It is very effective for broken bones. It is an anti-inflammatory. It is a very safe drug indeed. Of course, it has to be taken as directed, but honourable senators might be surprised to know that the dose, for a person of ordinary weight, of 300-milligram aspirin tablets is 24 tablets in a day. If asked to take more than one or two of them in a day, many people get quite worried about the whole thing.

However, I emphasise that analgesics, used properly, are not in the same category as alcohol and tobacco. We do not always see the deaths that are caused by alcohol and tobacco. Sometimes we see alcohol-caused deaths on the roads, but unfortunately, when those who smoke get to the stage that the damage is really done, they are removed from our sight; they go to hospital or other places. I just wanted to put that matter in perspective. But once again, I thank Senator Tate for the genuine interest that he has shown in this matter, which is so important to so many of the young people and their families around this country.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Haines) —Order! Before I call Senator Missen, I would like to clarify a point with you, Senator Townley. You did seek leave to table the document which is now on my desk. I wonder whether you meant to incorporate it in Hansard.


Senator TOWNLEY —I am sorry. I seek leave to have it incorporated in Hansard.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator. You have that leave.


Senator Gietzelt —We have not seen the document.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I did try to attract the attention of the Minister at the time, when it was first mentioned, and he was busy having a conversation.

The document read as follows-

SPECIAL URANIUM FEATURE

Environmental Impact of Coal and Uranium

Impact

Coal

Nuclear

Annual fuel consumption

2.3 million tons

30 tons (U02)

-Acres/year consumed by mining and waste disposal

740

12

-Required fuels storage space

45-acre pile for two-month reserve

Small

Fuel Transportation requirements

27,000 railroad cars/year

5 truckloads/year

Carbon dioxide releases (tons/year)

7 million

Nil

Sulphur dioxide releases (tons/year)-with abatement

24,000

Nil

Annual wastes disposed (partial)

100,000 tons of fly ash 60,000 tons of sulphur (based on 3.5 per cent sulphur coal with 80 per cent stack efficiency)

90 c.ft. of solidified high-level radioactive waste concentrates, 175 c.ft. of low level

Source: Atomic Industrial Forum, New York. (Revised January, 1975).

Nuclear Risks in Perspective

Average chance

of death Accident Type

annum/individual

Motor vehicle accidents:

(a) occupants of vehicles 1 in 4,500 (b) pedestrians 1 in 20,000 Fires and hot substances 1 in 25,000 Drowning 1 in 30,000 Air travel accidents 1 in 100,000 Electrocution 1 in 160,000 Railway accidents 1 in 250,000 Lightning 1 in 2,000,000 Hurricanes 1 in 2,500,000 Nuclear reactor accidents (based on 100 reactors 68 sites in the USA for population living within 40 km of the site) 1 in 5,000,000

Source: Nuclear Power and the Environment. Questions and Answers, Published by The American Society, Hinsdale, Illinois 60521m 1976.