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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3563

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(8.56) —Mr Deputy President--

Senator Georges —What is this going to be?

Senator Boswell —What do you suppose it is going to be?

Senator Georges —I don't know. I didn't think we were going to have a continuing debate at length. If that is the case, why were we not given--

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Georges, Senator Sir John Carrick has the call.

Senator Boswell —If you want to make a contribution you get up and have a go.

Senator Georges —Is that right?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Georges, Senator Sir John Carrick has the call. Senator Georges will not interject.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Mr Deputy President, if I may start again--

Senator Georges —What are the arrangements? That is what I want to find out. I thought we had certain arrangements.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Georges, I just told you not to interject. Senator Sir John Carrick has the call.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Let me be the judge.

Senator Georges —Oh no, I think this is outrageous; absolutely outrageous. The Opposition is getting a straight go to talk for as long as it likes and now we have this outrage.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Georges will cease interjecting. Senator Sir John Carrick has the call.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —The Senate has before it the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1985, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill 1985 and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill 1985, which deal with the Australian nuclear industry. The background to these Bills needs to be spelt out so that we have an understanding of them. Australia, in the early post-war years, developed a nuclear industry by mining and milling uranium. That industry called for an understanding of the peaceful use of uranium and thorium and for preventive measures to stop abuse. Accordingly, legislation was enacted then which is still in existence. The Atomic Energy Act was a piece of legislation developed under the defence power and it remained under that power because, significantly, the use of atomic energy had been connected, however sadly, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That Act remained in force for many years and had very strict powers indeed. But over the 1950s it became clear that Australia should develop an understanding of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Accordingly, in the 1950s two reactors were set up at the research establishment out at Lucas Heights near Sydney under the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. I happen to have been privileged to be there at its opening. It was purely a research establishment and remains so. The two reactors are small and low powered. That establishment is there to train our science graduates and post-graduates; it is there to train our engineers and chemical engineers; it is there to develop an understanding of the peacetime uses of nuclear energy; it is there to look at the nuclear fuel cycle and to train our people to participate in the International Atomic Energy Agency-a major safeguard for the peacetime use of uranium-and it is there to understand our good neighbour policies in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Senator Jessop —It produces radioactive isotopes.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —As Senator Jessop reminds me, it produces radioactive isotopes for both medical and industrial purposes. That is a very important point indeed. The development of our nuclear science understanding took a number of steps forward over the years as the world saw that it would eventually run short of our major non-renewable fossil fuels-coal and oil. A series of nuclear power stations developed around the world. Those who remember Chernobyl in the past year should understand that nuclear power stations have now been functioning for some 30 years and, whilst one does not underestimate such an accident as that which happened in Russia, the fact of the matter is that more than 300 nuclear power stations are operating today and an equal number are in the process of being built. All the Western industrial nations are now moving steadily toward nuclear power being their source of power. We have oil shortages and it will eventually run out. Coal, which creates acid rain, is doing great harm to the community and is creating real problems for the world. There is a need for Australia to look to the development of nuclear power and to understand it.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was privileged to be the Minister for National Development and Energy. That was at a time when there was a world oil crisis, at a time when there was an energy crisis and at a time when each nation was looking to see what it could do to take part in ensuring that the great advantages of peacetime nuclear power could be used and that there were massive safeguards against the use of nuclear weapons. That can be done only if one understands what the problems are. As I have said, one can participate in the full scientific understanding through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Australian Safeguards Office, which monitors our fissile materials, and our partnership with 133 nations in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

When I was Minister for National Development and Energy we were not only mining and milling uranium and, as good neighbours, sending it overseas-I will come to that in a moment-but also we had had the benefit of Professor Ringwood's development of a synthetic material called Synroc. The biggest single problem for the world in terms of the peacetime uranium industry has been how to dispose of nuclear fuel waste, which is highly radioactive. At this moment the waste fuel is processed, placed in glass, in vitrification, placed in stainless steel canisters and stored above ground in an air-conditioned situation for 30 years. Vitrification is a good method of storing but it has one great disadvantage. If glass is placed in the earth at any temperature at all the effect of water in the soil leaches the glass and some radioactivity can escape. We have to store these canisters, which I have seen and stood alongside in France and the United Kingdom, on the earth's surface for 30 years and that in itself presents some hazards.

Professor Ringwood has come forward with what he has stated to be, and what appears to be, the most inert mineral material that man can devise; material that, it is claimed, in millions of years will not change its form. It is material which is capable of taking within itself in volume four times the mass of highly radioactive material that glass will take. More important than that, it is claimed that Synroc, or synthetic rock, the radioactive material having been combined with it, can be put immediately in gas drill holes four kilometres through the earth's crust into safe, stable areas and be disposed of immediately. If this succeeds, it is of immense importance to the world. Nothing could do more good to the safety of the peacetime nuclear industry than for Australia to lead the world in safe radioactive waste disposal. Professor Ringwood and his team deserve full marks on this. The Australian Atomic Energy Commission out at Lucas Heights deserves full marks because it has developed a pilot plant and is working it up. The synthetic material is being tested in the reactors and can be tested there, simulating millions of years of stress upon it. It has been tested overseas in highly radioactive waste. There is a tremendous interest in it. So Australia is doing something quite important at Lucas Heights.

There is another very great and important step in the nuclear fuel cycle-uranium enrichment. If Australia were to play its role we could help to safeguard the security of the movement of fissile material in the world as well as provide employment for ourselves and get much more export earnings. In my time at Lucas Heights a centrifuge pattern was set up to study whether or not a centrifuge system would be the system for enriching uranium. To understand it, one needs to realise that it is a chemical plant, not a radioactive plant. The situation is that there are two isotopes of uranium in yellowcake. If one takes yellowcake and puts it with fluorine gas, one gets uranium hexafluoride. It is spun and the heavier isotopes separate. There is 0.7 per cent of the isotope one wants in it at the start. It is then enriched to 3.7 per cent.

If a commercial enrichment plant is established, that plant cannot produce material for weapons grade uranium. That is terribly important. The commercial enrichment plant enriches to 3.7 or 4 per cent, whereas a weapons enrichment plant enriches to 90 per cent. So what has been recommended is that Australia can be a good neighbour to the world in providing the plant that can only provide enrichment at the peacetime nuclear fuel level. That, in itself, has been strongly recommended and had been developed.

I will come to that in a moment. In my time we set up a commercial interest that went around the world. It came back and reported, firstly, that Australia could do such a technology; secondly, that it was commercially viable; thirdly, that there would be a market in the early 1990s; and, fourthly, that the technology should be centrifuge and that the ideal would be an arrangement with the European Urenco-Centec. All that has stopped.

Against that background, where we have been taking a great part in an understanding of what is happening to the peacetime nuclear fuel cycle, the Hawke Government set up the Australian Science and Technology Council. It produced a report entitled `Australia's Role in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle', a report that I hold. It was chaired by one of the most distinguished scientists and environmentalists Australia has, Professor Ralph Slatyer, to whom I pay tribute. Professor Slatyer would be first and foremost in Australia to look towards the environmental safety of Australia's ecology and the world's ecosystem.

What did that report state? It looked at what Australia should do in terms of nuclear technology, not just for its commercial benefit at all but at how we could play a part in this world to secure world peace, to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to make sure that there would not be a shortage of peacetime fuel. I will read from the report. The main conclusion in the report states:

Our overall conclusion is that Australia will be best able to make a significant contribution if it is actively involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. By such involvement we consider that Australia would be able to make a direct contribution to the development of the civil nuclear fuel cycle in ways that will increase global energy security, help to strengthen the elements of the non-proliferation regime and help to reduce the risks of misuse of civil facilities and the diversion of nuclear materials from civil and military uses.

It goes on to state:

Without such involvement we consider that global energy security would be less assured and our ability to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and to influence future developments in the fuel cycle would be reduced. We do not wish to exaggerate Australia's role in matters related to the nuclear fuel cycle but, as in most other human endeavours, it is only by active involvement that Australia can expect to be able to influence the future course of events.

That recommendation states that the very best way that Australia can help to secure peace in the world and to prevent proliferation of weapons is for us to involve ourselves in the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle. Paraphrased, it states that, if we do not do so, we will be making a lesser contribution. Sadly, we are making a lesser contribution. It goes on to state:

. . . exports of Australian uranium should not be limited as a matter of principle but should be permitted subject to stringent conditions of supply designed to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

That means that, instead of having a limited policy of exporting some but not all uranium, the best way that we can help in making sure that uranium does not go astray and that it is monitored is to export it wherever there is a demand for it within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. More importantly, it states that there would be some very large markets indeed for uranium sales throughout the world and that Australia is likely to miss them. It states:

The market provides opportunities for Australian uranium producers to gain additional contracts and to increase exports beyond present levels. If Australia were to secure one third of the uncommitted share of the market, a reasonable assumption on the evidence available, that would lead to a doubling of the amount contracted for delivery between 1984 and 1996. Most of the new exports would occur in the 1990s.

It goes on to state:

In recent years, uranium has become a major export item for Australia, with sales comparable in value to some other important mineral and agricultural products. The annual value of uranium exports increased from $70 million in 1978 to over $360 million in 1982. If sales were to increase in future to the extent suggested in the preceding paragraph, and if the price of uranium were to remain at $A77 per kilogram of uranium oxide (a reasonable expectation for long term contracts, which generally fluctuate less than the spot price), the annual value of Australian uranium exports would rise to over $1000 million by 1993. The total value of exports in the decade 1984 to 1993 could exceed $6000 million.

Here is the most authoritative body in Australia saying that to preserve the peace and to ensure that there is no nuclear proliferation, we should do these things; that there is a huge market for us and, of course, it implies that we ought to get in so that our balance of trade can be fixed. But along has come a government which has done the most extraordinary thing. It has produced a Bill which bears no relationship at all to the second reading speech. It bears absolutely no relationship to the second reading speech. Clause 5 (1) of the Bill states:

5. (1) The functions of the Organisation are-

(a) to undertake research and development in relation to-

(i) nuclear science and nuclear technology;

(ii) the production and use of radioisotopes, and the use of isotopic techniques and nuclear radiation, for medicine, science, industry, commerce and agriculture; and

I pause there. The second reading speech says, in effect, that the reform of the Atomic Energy Commission under a new name will be such that in fact its interest in the nuclear fuel cycle will virtually cease. In his second reading speech the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) said in plain words:

While moving away from nuclear fuel cycle activities, in line with the Government's policy, which is that Australia not become involved in any stages of the nuclear fuel cycle other than the mining and milling of uranium and the disposal of waste, the Atomic Energy Commission has continued to apply its substantial expertise to research activities into the uses of radioisotopes and radiation.

The fact of the matter is that the Government has said that not only will we have a limited export of uranium against the advice of the Australian Science and Technology Council and against the advice of the agreement we have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but also that it will close down the research into uranium enrichment. The Minister continued:

In recent years the AAEC has ceased its involvement in the uranium mining industry, and the uranium enrichment research based on centrifuge technology, which has been undertaken by the Commission since the mid-1960s. . . .

So in point of fact what is happening is that the Government is going out of the whole nuclear fuel cycle. It is not game to go out of the Synroc experiment because the public of Australia would scream with rage if it did. Demonstrably, this experiment could be of enormous benefit to humanity. The Government, therefore, is not going out of that. However, it has moved right out of the enrichment situation where enormous good could be done for humanity by making sure that only reactor grade enrichment is made in terms of industry and that weapons grade uranium is not produced. It is beyond my belief why a government would not want to help this world to move into greater nuclear safeguards. I do not know why this Government would want to reject the advice of ASTEC which is the brains in this field. I do not know why it would want to reject the advice of the Chairman of ASTEC who is one of the great environmentalists. I think he was chairman of the World Heritage Committee. He is a man of world renown. In my time as a Minister I was responsible for recommending him as our Ambassador to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. I did so because he is a man of immense understanding; a man who is totally absorbed in the protection of the ecosystem.

The truth of the matter is that this Government is running away from all of its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency. I pause and say that it is very important that we should be on the governing body of the Agency. Whether or not Australia has a nuclear industry we want to be sure that we understand the kind of accidents that happened at Chernobyl, that we can have a say in what is done in respect of phophylaxis or remediation in this world of ours so that these things cannot occur again. We have been members of the Agency because we are good neighbours in the export of uranium and we have been active in moving into the enrichment field.

Unless we understand these things, unless we understand the technology which is rapidly increasing and unless we understand the changing nature of the various types of reactors, how can we participate in a world dialogue, a world in which navies are moving virtually to nuclear propulsion, a world in which oil fuel will run out and merchant vessels will in the decades ahead move by nuclear propulsion? This country needs to have the highest technical understanding of reactors, whether they be used in submarines, merchant vessels or naval vessels or whether they be on the ground. We need to understand why the Chernobyl reactor had imperfections and what happened at Three Mile Island.

It is true that for 30 years we have basically had a very safe situation. But we have to play our part in keeping this world free. I have said in recent days that there can be no nuclear free zone in this world while there is a chance of any kind of missile being dropped in this world, or indeed while there is any danger from any kind of nuclear leak. The fact is that the fallout from Chernobyl blew over nuclear free zones and created irradiation. What is needed now is for us in Australia to play our full part. But what has happened? Great damage has been done to the Atomic Energy Commission. It will be given a new name, but the truth is that it will be virtually emasculated. Almost no nuclear scientific knowledge is necessary in the mining and milling of uranium, so that can be put aside. The fact is that it is a simple mining technique which poses very little danger to health. The conversion from the actual ore itself to the yellowcake is a very simple alkaline process and the dangers are those of radon gas from waste pits.

Senator Jessop —Coal mining is more dangerous.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Yes. Senator Jessop said that coal mining has many more hazards than that. Let us not have nonsense from the Government saying that we will have an Atomic Energy Agency to tell us what we are going to do about mining and milling. That is the nonsense of the century. Do not tell us that we will do great things with commercial or industrial isotopes because we do not need an atomic energy commission, under either the old or the new name. The Minister knows, and the Senate should know, that an ordinary cyclotron can be put up anywhere as a commercial venture and it can produce industrial or medical isotopes. What the Minister has said in his second reading speech is that he is virtually going to abolish the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. That will be cheered loudly by large sections of the Australian Labor Party. It will cause many highly valuable people at Lucas Heights and elsewhere to try to find other jobs. There will be a fall in morale because--

Senator Gareth Evans —Oh, come on!

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —The Minister says: `Oh, come on'. All I can say is that I have had private expressions from highly placed officers at Lucas Heights saying that to me.

Senator Gareth Evans —Well, name them.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Oh, the Minister does the cheapest trick. I have never heard a cheaper little trick than that. That is a schoolboy debating society trick. The fact is that he is hurt because he knows that he has taken away from Lucas Heights the whole of its reason for existence.

Senator Gareth Evans —I am trying to keep the morale of the organisation intact. You are a disgrace.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Let him shout his head off on this, because it only shows how much I am touching the core. In his second reading speech he said: `We will leave the mining and milling'. He knows, because the Australian Science and Technology Council says, that there is no nuclear industry involved in mining and milling and it is a purely mining concern. So that one goes out the window.

He is then left with two things: Synroc, which he is not going to get rid of because it is a message to the world at large, and it was not started by his Government; and, of course, a pretence that we need this huge industry for medical and industrial isotopes-a nonsense situation. What we need this industry for is for Australians to be trained to understand the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and indeed the dangers that will come from wartime use. We need people to be trained so they can take part in the International Atomic Energy Agency, in advice to governments as to what they do in terms of the protection of the environment, if it is necessary, in nuclear-propelled vessels and nuclear-armed vessels. We need all these things.

Senator Gareth Evans —I accept all that.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I wish the Minister would remain quiet. He does not add to the debate at all.

Senator Gareth Evans —I am accepting what you are saying; that is how I am adding to the debate.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Well, go ahead, I take it he is really saying that he agrees with me. Well, is that not good? If he agrees with me perhaps he could observe a decent silence, because it is quite unusual for the Minister to agree with anyone, except his own Narcissus self.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Jones) —Senator, would you pass your remarks through the Chair, not directly across the chamber?

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —Let me repeat: I said `the Minister'-talking through you, Mr Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Thank you, Senator. Continue on.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I was not speaking to the Minister himself, so I do not need that kind of guidance, save in your presence. I was not talking to the Minister at all.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I hope you are not reflecting on the Chair.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I was talking in the third person to you.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I said thank you, Senator.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I was talking but he went on interrupting, not being rebuked by the Chair, if I may say so.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Yes, Senator, as long as you are not reflecting on the Chair. Thank you very much.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —You know that I am not reflecting on the Chair. It happens that I was using exactly parliamentary privilege. It is better to pick the target that is causing the trouble than to pick the innocent bystander in this situation.

The fact of the matter is this: We are delighted now because the Minister says that he agrees with what I have said. What we need is an industry that will give to Australia the skills, the technology and the understanding that will enable us to take part in this world to make a peacetime world, to make a safe world. What the Minister has done is basically to set out to destroy that. He pretends that he has not, but his second reading speech destroys the nuclear cycle. He says that we are not going to take part in the nuclear cycle any more except in terms of Synroc. That is the only thing we are going to do. How can we have an atomic energy industry if we are not going to take part in the cycle at all? In point of fact, it is a very sad day for Australia that this should be so. It is a very sad day that the left wing of the Labor Party, as usual, wins, as indeed the volume of decibels from Senator Georges has indicated throughout this debate. It is a sad day for Australia's participation in this world, to try to secure nuclear peace and non-proliferation, that what we should be doing in Australia is weakening our ability to do so. Only the Hawke Government, dominated by the Left, would do that.