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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 24219

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:23 PM) —The Democrats welcome the tabling of this report. Senator Chapman is right in one respect, and that is that this report is the latest in a long line of reports that have examined the many questions concerning Australia's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. Many of those reports have been disregarded or their recommendations not implemented. Every report so far has come up with new issues and concerns and prompted more queries. Certainly, this inquiry was long overdue and I am glad that there was an agreement to implement the Senate select committee into this issue.

At the outset, I would like to note for the record that the Australian Democrats unequivocally oppose the building of a new nuclear reactor. We urge the termination of the contract with INVAP. Moreover, we are deeply unimpressed by the justifications that have been provided by the government to date, and indeed from ANSTO, for the building of a new nuclear reactor. As the majority report clearly details, the quality of evidence and the lack of transparency concerning the tendering process and contractual arrangements are little short of disgraceful. How can we possibly justify a new nuclear reactor when the government has, firstly, failed to carefully examine viable long-term alternatives to a research reactor for the production of isotopes and, secondly, not considered the substantial costs of the reactor in the context of the serious underinvestment in research and development in our universities and research agencies, including the CSIRO?

I must note for the record that last night's budget did not address the significant disinvestment that we have seen over the past five years in those very areas. Government senators have stood up in here today and boasted that this is one of the single largest spendings in the science portfolio in the history of not only this government but all governments in Australia at a federal level. But I do not think that is a particularly impressive boast, considering the lack of money properly invested in research and development and training and education institutions, or even the money that has been ripped out of those very institutions.

One another reason we cannot possibly justify a new reactor is the fact that the government persists in an irresponsible and complacent approach to nuclear waste management, which has to still be the clear issue that comes out of this inquiry.

Few Australians would dispute that it is in the national interest for Australia to be a well-informed and active participant in nuclear non-proliferation and safeguard measures. However, we strongly challenge the assertion that Australia needs a modern research reactor to have an effective role in nuclear disarmament matters. And, yes, that is an assertion that we heard over and over through this inquiry and in previous inquiries. The former diplomat Professor Richard Brinowski made it quite clear to the committee that officers working in the area of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear safety are not nuclear trained scientists but diplomats. As our supplementary report makes clear, we consider that the assertions and arguments that nuclear science expertise developed at home is a necessary condition for negotiating agreements, setting standards and strengthening safeguards are spurious, unsubstantiated and self-serving. Nuclear non-proliferation is fundamentally a political matter—not a technical one—and one where Australia, as a country with recognised credentials in the field of nuclear disarmament, might have some influence.

The main issue I want to address today on behalf of the Democrats is that of waste management. The McKinnon review of 1993, which of course remains the benchmark for analysis of Australia's need for a nuclear reactor, set a number of conditions that needed to be put in place before a decision to proceed with a new reactor could be made. Notable among these was a need for a high level waste site. While the original context was an Australian high level waste site, McKinnon's key point remains: that is, effective and reliable management of high level waste is a necessary condition for any decision to proceed with a new nuclear reactor. While we acknowledge that some progress has been made in establishing a storage facility for low level radioactive waste, the Democrats believe that the government's contract with INVAP and the serious limitations of contractual agreements with Cogema manifestly fail this crucial test in relation to high level waste.

The Cogema contract is the linchpin of this government's assertions that it has a sound waste management strategy in place. On that note, I would like to draw the Senate's attention to the following extract of the contract between ANSTO and Cogema. At 2.2, where it states, `for the additional quantities to the basic quantity' it reads:

The spent fuel to be delivered beyond the basic quantity is deemed to be suitable for the reprocessing at the reprocessing site.

It shall be compatible with the presently implemented processes at the reprocessing site (including the shearing - dissolution, separation and waste conditioning processes).

The already tested and unacceptable fuel meat compounds are: U-A1 and UMo alloys, U oxide and A1 dispersant. U3Si2 and U-Zr alloys are not acceptable.

In any case, COGEMA shall be consulted by ANSTO as regards the suitability for reprocessing at the reprocessing site.

Let me reiterate the key element: `U3Si2 and U-Zr alloys are not acceptable.' That is what it says and that means the reprocessing of USi—silicide—is explicitly unavailable under the contract. This does not sit well with the original ANSTO submission to our inquiry, which states:

Silicide would, in principle, be reprocessable.

Moreover, it raises serious questions about the evidence from ANSTO's Professor Helen Garnett, who stated:

We have agreement with COGEMA that they will take certain amounts of silicide fuel.

Professor Garnett also said:

As I have repeatedly said, we have a contract with COGEMA—and had supplementary agreements with COGEMA—in relation to the handling of certain amounts of silicide fuel.

The supplementary agreement is most explicit: reprocessing silicide is not acceptable at Cogema. There is nothing in principle about this at all. The government's persistent claims about its waste strategy are not substantiated by the contract.

The Democrats condemn the government for this extraordinary complacency on waste management issues, and we remind the chamber that strategies for dealing with long-term management and eventual disposal of waste are a matter for the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources and, I guess, the Minister for Health and Aged Care rather than ANSTO itself. This means that every time the minister and this government have told Australians or claimed in parliament that the government has a proper nuclear waste management strategy in place, it has not been true. This is an extraordinary state of affairs and adds greater weight to our insistence that there be no nuclear reactor, that the contract with INVAP be terminated immediately. That is the position of the Australian Democrats.

I commend the report to the chamber. I thank the secretariat for their very hard work and very good work on this. I congratulate the chair of this select committee, who did a fine job in dealing with all of us.