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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 766


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:17): I appreciate the fact that the minister has sorted that out and I look forward to getting a copy of it. I ask you to take on notice and put to your advisers, since they are here, the question that I was seeking specifically, given that the figures are up to date as of last October: what is the proportion of long-lived, intermediate-level waste, the spent fuel that is residing at the moment at Lucas Heights, compared with the amount that is due to come back from Europe, from reprocessing? My under¬≠standing is that the proportion is approximately 15 or 16 to one. I am seeking advice on that, because it is going to be difficult for me to establish that while we are in the middle of the debate, unless the minister would care to adjourn the debate. If the advisers can just tell us whether that apprehension is correct or not and, if not, give us the appropriate numbers, that would be useful. I am not interested in the low-level material in this context; I am interested in information relative to what is being brought back from Europe—how much we have had sitting out the back of Lucas Heights for the last however long, decades or so.

Before I move to the Greens first amendment, I will take the minister up on one last thing he said in his response to my comments before—that in the United States they are dealing with high-level waste, whereas here in Australia we do not produce such material. That is something of a trick of definition. Australia is the only jurisdiction that actually adopted a classification of long-lived, intermediate-level waste. That is a classification that exists only in Australia. The Australian government did not want to say that we produced high-level waste; we produced other stuff called long-lived, intermediate-level waste. We obviously do not have commercial power reactors 10 or 100 times the size of the research reactor pumping out spent fuel, so it is not a question of quantity; it is a question about what the stuff is. It is spent fuel. It is fuel that has been burned in a fission reactor and then set aside because it is full of contaminants and is too hot to continue to be fissioned. It is spent fuel, so let us not pretend that we are producing some kind of benign material whereas in other jurisdictions they are producing other stuff. I will leave it there. My understanding is that the difference between the two categorisations that were invented for the purpose of diplomacy or convenience here in Australia is that long-lived, intermediate level waste, after it has been set aside for a while, does not require thermal shielding. It is not necessarily going to boil its way out of whatever you put it in as a high-level spent fuel will, but nonetheless it still requires active shielding from the environment and from all living beings until effectively the end of time. That is the material we are dealing with. Obviously, they are vastly smaller quantities than that of countries which, to their profound and internal regret, have a nuclear power industry, and I do commend the government for maintaining its position that there is no point whatsoever in entertaining such an industry here.

I will probably come back and ask a couple of general questions about the bill, but I acknowledge the minister's point that it might provide more structure to the debate if we begin moving through the amendments. I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 7037:

(1)   Clause 3, page 2 (lines 4 to 12), omit the clause, substitute:

3 Objects of Act

      The objects of this Act are:

   (a)   to provide for the selection of a site for a radioactive waste management facility on voluntarily nominated land in Australia; and

   (b)   to ensure that the site selected is the most suitable site on the Australian continent for radioactive waste storage and management taking into account environmental considerations, geology, geography, hydrology, seismology, infrastructure and cultural heritage values; and

   (c)   to provide for the establishment and operation of such a facility on the selected site; and

   (d)   to ensure that parties with waste management responsibility take appropriate steps to ensure that, at all stages of radioactive waste management, individuals, society and the environment are adequately protected against radiological and other hazards;

so that radioactive waste generated, possessed or controlled by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth entity is safely and securely managed.

[objects clause]

This amendment goes to the objects clause of the bill. From the objects clause flow the intent and purposes of the bill. An objects clause is commonly included in legislation to guide decision makers in the event of statutory ambiguity and to assist courts and tribunals in the same situation if there is a problem of statutory ambiguity. That evidence was provided by ANU lecturer Dr James Prest.

The Greens welcome the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs on this bill calling for an objects clause to be inserted. So we have created the first objects clauses to emphasise the need for responsibility and for action to be taken to ensure that individuals, society and the environment are adequately protected against radiological and other hazards. This would apply whether the dump turns out to be a shed out the back of Tennant Creek with two security guards looking after it or if it ends up remaining, at least for a period of time, where it is. So when the material returns from overseas it is my understanding—and this was confirmed for us the week before last in estimates—that that material will at least be temporarily stored at a location in Sydney. Nonetheless, wherever it is, whether it is the people of Tennant Creek or the Barkly region or residents in Sutherland Shire that we are protecting, this should apply, and I will explain why we believe that that is important.

Radiological hazards are real. Ionising radiation damages our DNA. It is not good for living creatures. It damages the genetic material in all living cells. The nuclear age has introduced materials that emit radiation in forms that become airborne and are breathed in or find their way into the water table and the gene pool, entirely unlike naturally occurring background radiation.

Nuclear reactors routinely release radiation as part of their normal operations. The facility in Sutherland Shire is no exception to that. For a long while—and perhaps the minister can tell us whether it is still in force—there was an exclusion zone around the reactor in which people were not permitted to produce food. I believe that was listed a while ago. I have had people ask me whether breastmilk qualifies as food. The reason for that is that all reactor facilities, no matter how large or small, as part of their normal operations emit very small but detectable trace amounts of various kinds of radioisotopes—iodine and tritium in particular.

Nuclear waste stockpiles, obviously, are growing daily, and the minister has given us some detail this afternoon about that in an Australian context. Elsewhere they include tonnes of plutonium which remain toxic for 250,000 years.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War know about radiation and the health effects of radiation. IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for their efforts to galvanise medical professions to cross the Cold War divide against the nuclear madness of that time. It is the legacy that we are still attempting to clean up today.

The 200,000 IPPNW medical professions in 60 countries have a clear position on both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy: they oppose both because there is no safe level of radiation. This thoroughly considered position arises from medical expertise, scientific facts, concern for future generations and simple common sense. Radiation is uniquely hazardous, persistent and indiscriminate, damaging our most precious legacy: the core human blueprint stored in our DNA and passed down through our children to future generations.

The scientific community today understands in 2012 what it did not fully comprehend in 1945: that there is no level of radiation exposure below which we are at zero risk. Widely accepted scientific evidence tells us that not only is the health risk from radiation proportional to the dose—that is, the bigger the dose, the greater the risk—but also there is no level without risk. Even very low-level medical exposure such as chest X-rays—0.4 microsieverts per test—carry a quantifiable risk of harm such as cancer. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that all radiation exposure be kept as low as achievable in deference to this evidence. For the public, on top of background radiation and any additional medical procedures, exposure should not exceed one millisievert per year.

A US National Academy of Science Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation report, the so-called BEIR or BEIR VII report, estimates that one millisievert of additional radiation is associated with an increased risk of solid cancers—that is, cancers other than leukaemia—of about one in 10,000; an increased risk of leukaemia of about one in every 100,000; and a one in 17,500 increased risk overall of dying from cancer.

But a crucial factor is that not everyone faces the same level of risk: for infants under one year of age, the radiation related cancer risk is three to four times higher than for adults, and female infants are twice as susceptible as male infants; females' overall risk of cancer related to radiation exposure is 40 per cent greater than for males; and foetuses in the womb are the most radiation sensitive of all. It is relatively easy to understand why that is, because cell division proceeding rapidly in children or in the womb is enormously vulnerable to showers of radiation whether that be from any of the sources that the nuclear industry is producing or even from medical X-rays during pregnancy.

The pioneering Oxford survey of childhood cancer found that X-rays of mothers involving doses to the foetus of 10 to 20 millisieverts resulted in a 40 per cent increase in the cancer rate amongst children up to age 15. In Germany a recent study of 25 years of the national childhood cancer register showed that even the normal operation of nuclear power plants is associated with more than doubling of the risk of leukaemia for children under five years old living within five kilometres of a nuclear plant. Isn't that extraordinary—the normal operation? We are not talking a Fukushima-scale meltdown which requires the evacuation of hundreds or thousands of square kilometres of area. The normal operation of nuclear power plants in a country with the technical and engineering expertise of Germany has a doubling of the risk of childhood leukaemia of kids under five who will get cancer because they live close to a nuclear power plant operating as normal and spewing trace quantities of tritium, iodine and various other fission products into the environment.

Increased risk in those studies in Germany were seen up to 50 kilometres away from the plant, depending on wind direction, localised weather factors and so on. This was much higher than expected. It was certainly much higher than the nuclear industry was happy to acknowledge. It highlights the particular vulnerability to radiation of children in and outside the womb for reasons that I have spoken about. Nuclear research reactors such as the one in Sydney do not escape this. It is simply the engineering reality.

Uranium mining of course emits radon gas, so radiation workers in the uranium mines in Australia are among the highest exposed radiation workers in any sector of the nuclear industry around the world. Radioactive waste, the kind of material we are discussing today, emits radiation. Our amendment seeks acknowledgment of that and an object to protect health and the environment from that harm.

Radiation health authorities use scientific modelling to calculate and set permissible limits for ionising radiation exposure. As our understanding has increased, the recommended exposure doses for both the public and for workers in the nuclear industry have steadily been reduced. If you look at a graph over the last century or so—or at least half a century, 60 or 70 years—of permitted radiation exposure for radiation workers in the industry and for the public, they decline exponentially. Every couple of decades we cut the dose threshold by more than half or by a factor of up to 10. In other words, what we were being told was safe a couple of decades ago was not safe at all, and that is why people have very little confidence in what the industry tells us today. Radiation health authorities use scientific modelling to calculate and set so-called permissible limits for ionising radiation exposure and, as our understanding has increased, these levels have been reduced. These are permissible limits not for the prevention of disease but for allowing and enabling the industry to operate. Levels once regarded as safe are now known to be associated with those risks. It is now acknowledged in the medical literature that there is no safe level of radiation at all. No additional dose can be absorbed by a human being, or another living creature, without a measurable increase in risk of a cancer of some form.

The releases of radiation from the nuclear age have contributed to cancer plague of the 20th century. I do not ask the minister to stand up and tell us what that death toll is because it is simply not known; the studies have not been done, and it is formidably difficult to separate what causes are leading to what responses. But we know that genetic impacts are also discussed less frequently than cancer. Altering the collective gene pool of the biosphere of not just our species but also the species with whom we share the planet is not an experiment that is reversible. Once this damage is done you cannot take it back. We know that radio nuclides with long half-lives are cumulatively being loaded into the environment and may result in ongoing impacts on health, as well as long-term damage to the gene pool.

I have a number of other comments to make, but first I seek the support of the chamber for the Australian Greens' amendment to simply embed the principle that there is no safe dose of radiation. I thought this facility would be controversial, because I do not think anybody in this chamber comes in here thinking that radiation is good for us, despite what some of the lunatic fringe elements of the nuclear industry might like us to believe. I would imagine that all participants in this debate would support at least the basic principles behind the objects clause that we are proposing, which says that, though we might disagree on the means, the purpose of legislation like this is to prevent these exposures to surrounding communities, whether they be in Barkly, Sutherland or on the transport corridor—wherever it is that the government eventually decides to put this material onto trucks and take out to Tennant Creek, or wherever. I would expect that all of us in here should at least be united in seeking to reduce the risk and the exposure to the host communities.

I have a number of other comments, but I will let them go if there is support for the amendment. I commend this amendment to the chamber.