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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 87


Senator VALLENTINE(5.56) —I rise to support Senator Sanders's amendments to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill because they raise a number of important issues which are of great concern to me regarding this piece of legislation. The establishment of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to replace the Australian Atomic Energy Commission raises far more questions than it answers. Central to this debate must be ANSTO's future role and purpose in the 1980s and beyond. I would like to put forward some suggestions as to its future direction while responding to proposals already made by the Government and in terms of the amendments proposed by Senator Sanders. In his second reading speech, the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Evans) stated that:

The Australian Atomic Energy Commission's research program has been without firm legislative directions for the future.

Yet this could equally apply to ANSTO. This legislation says very little about why we need a new organisation. Indeed, there is a fuzzy blandness about the proposed legislation. It seems as though we are setting up another quango which will be left to do pretty much as it pleases. However, the people have a right to know what is going on within the Organisation.

For instance, we have the right to information regarding the Organisation's role in uranium enrichment research based on centrifuge technology. The Minister said in his second reading speech that such research was `soon' to be terminated. My question is more fundamental: When is this very secretive research going to be abandoned, and what is the exact nature of the phase down program which the AAEC and the Australian Safeguards Office have agreed to undertake on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Commission? This example of uranium enrichment research based on centrifuge technology is an excellent example of the grand dreams and designs for nuclear technology and research entrenched in the old atomic energy ethos of the 1950s and 1960s. Will ANSTO continue in the same vein? Will it continue to promote other nuclear research dreams? This legislation is an opportunity to revitalise an organisation which has become stuck in its old ways. Yet will this happen if ANSTO is still to be largely comprised of a work force still pining to do the same old research.

The Government has given some new sense of direction in indicating that ANSTO would increase its commercial orientation by applying nuclear technology to areas such as medicine, science, industry and agriculture. But what specific applications are envisaged, and are such applications necessary? Surely many of these functions could be carried out without using nuclear technology. The economics of the proposals, particularly the enrichment program, should be subject to serious scrutiny. Nuclear technology is extremely wasteful of finite resources. For example, continuing production of medical radioisotopes in the nuclear medicine field is seen as one of ANSTO's main commercial activities, even though these isotopes have been produced at a loss under the management of the AAEC. But the really important question is: Cannot these medical isotopes be produced without using a nuclear reactor with all its inherent nuclear waste and safety problems?

We know that a decision has been made to purchase a cyclotron for a Sydney hospital, but there are still medical radioisotopes which only a nuclear reactor can produce. This raises a serious dilemma for the Government. With each passing month, the Lucas Heights reactor becomes increasingly unsafe. The 27-year-old reactor is fast reaching the end of its so-called safe life. For the production of these reactor specialised isotopes the Government faces only two unsatisfactory options: Either to build a new reactor, or to import the necessary radioisotopes. Neither is a satisfactory solution. The Government will not be able to site a new reactor anywhere in the Sydney area without causing a community outcry. My understanding of the medical use of these radioisotopes is that they cannot be produced too far from the major client hospitals. The second major option is no answer as it relies on importing radioisotopes from other nations' unsafe, immoral nuclear industries. Both options lack credibility, in my opinion, leaving the only hope out of this dilemma being increased funding and research into alternatives to the current medical treatment or, better still, more research into ways in which these illnesses can be prevented.

The question of nuclear safety is absolutely central to any discussion of ANSTO's future role. There is no doubt that the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights is becoming too old and too unsafe. With great concern I noted that the Federal Government had allocated $3.25m for what could only be a patch up job. There is only one way to deal with an old reactor and that is to shut it down. The Lucas Heights reactor, particularly in this precarious condition, is a danger to the large suburban population which has mushroomed around it in the past 27 years. The Sydney metropolitan area is no place for a nuclear reactor.

All activities involving the use of a nuclear reactor also involve the production of radioactive wastes. When the Government talks blithely of extending ANSTO's commercial nuclear activities it should know that this will mean a significant increase in the nuclear waste problem. This begs the question: Are these commercial nuclear activities, such as the irradiation of food stuffs, really necessary? Are we once again hopping on to the technological bandwagon instead of taking notice of recent disasters such as the Chernobyl accident? Have not such disasters warned against putting too much faith in high technology?

The problem of nuclear waste disposal is immense. The public needs to know to what extent ANSTO will be involved in this area, particularly in the development of Synroc. I noted with some alarm the recent report that the inventor of synroc, Professor Ringwood, is now involved in a process whereby nuclear waste, including plutonium, could be stored in deep drilled holes in the Australian outback. Evidently, these holes may be up to four kilometres deep. Professor Ringwood has also talked of accepting and reprocessing foreign nuclear warheads and developing a reprocessing industry in Australia. In other words, if there are dollars in it, this will be done. The Professor has proposed that the final resting place of much of Australia's uranium production, and that of other nations, could be in a geologically inert and seismologically stable area of uninhabited Australia. Is he proposing that this work, which is currently being researched at the Australian National University, be transferred to ANSTO if and when the project comes to commercial development?

I remind honourable senators that today there are more than 60,000 tonnes of nuclear waste material in the world. Australia has more than its fair share with its finished, obsolete uranium mines; the British nuclear testing sites on the Monte Bello Islands and at Maralinga; and smaller commercial dumps at Lucas Heights and in other States. Will ANSTO be given the job of supervising all these clean ups? Already spent fuel rods from ANSTO present an embarrassment to the Government which knows that it cannot store them indefinitely and is considering shipping some of the spent fuel rods to the United States where they could very easily end up in the nuclear weapons program.

In spite of my belief that the only lasting solution to the nuclear waste problem is not to produce the waste, I acknowledge the usefulness of some research being directed towards trying to solve the waste disposal problems that already exist. But I am reluctant to accept the idea of burying vast amounts of waste for tens of thousands of years in four kilometre holes deep in the Australian outback. I turn to the debate on the safety procedures through self regulation under the AAEC. The proposal to establish a nuclear safety bureau is totally inadequate.


Senator Gareth Evans —That is not the amendment now before us.


Senator VALLENTINE —No, it is not, but it certainly needs to be discussed because this body--


The CHAIRMAN —Order! Senator Vallentine, this may need to be discussed but now is not the moment to do so. You may speak again when that matter comes up, if you wish.