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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 989


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:32): The Greens would prefer that the bill not stand as printed in any such form—surprisingly enough! Regarding Greens amendment (2) on sheet 7037 this amendment relates to effectively putting to rest the ambiguity in the bill that the radioactive waste dump that is being contemplated and discussed today could be used for waste of international origin. Senators will be very well aware that Australia does not have a domestic nuclear power program. We have never had such a thing. It is government policy that we will not have such a thing and it is certainly Greens policy that a domestic nuclear power industry would be a pretty dumb idea.

However, there is support within the Labor Party, from members past and present, and there is certainly strong support within the coalition, from members past and present, for an international radioactive waste dump and for a domestic nuclear power industry. Those issues just bubble away below the surface, so my second amendment on sheet 7037 effectively puts it beyond doubt that the purpose of the amendment specifically is to insert 'that is of domestic origin' into the bill.

Senators by now will be grimly aware that the Greens do not support a remote shed-like facility as an emplacement site for Australia's long-lived intermediate level waste and other radioactive waste materials, so I am not insinuating in proposing this amendment that we support waste of domestic origin going to the site at Muckaty. However, this amendment quite sensibly proposes to put absolutely beyond doubt the idea that we could be importing foreign high-level spent fuel—there would be no ambiguity about whether it is long-lived intermediate level material or not—requiring thermal and radiation shielding from the environment and from living creatures for all time, that we will not be supporting the large-scale transhipment of that material from countries that were foolish enough to go down the civil nuclear power option and then to see the great, empty, vast terra nullius of the Australian inland as an appropriate place to dump that material.

In case senators think that this is an abstract point or that this is perhaps off topic for a domestic waste dump, during the debate on this bill in the other place the member for Lyons stated very clearly what many have feared: that a national nuclear waste dump would pave the way for Australia to become an international nuclear dumping ground. Let us be really clear about this: such a site does not exist anywhere in the world, and the possibility of such a site opening in Australia will be hugely appealing, potentially to smaller countries in our region such as Taiwan, Japan, and China—the smaller countries, in particular, that have got a domestic nuclear power industry afoot without a clue about what to do with the waste material at the end of life.

Here is what the member for Lyons said when the debate was going on in the other place in the middle of last year. He said;

As part of any plan, taking others’ waste could be an industry in itself for us into the future.

The argument about making the world a safer place by taking waste is also considerable.

…   …   …

For our own good, we should offer a little patch of Australia—

presumably not in Lyons—

to store nuclear waste.

… in the long term—

that is something of an understatement—

… we might look at storing other people’s waste—of course, at a cost.

What a brilliant business plan that is! At a cost we will look after the radioactive waste of other nations that did not bother to come up with a waste disposal plan for, say, the next quarter of a million years—to take us maybe through the next two or three ice ages. It is a very impressive plan!

The proposal has a lengthy history and it also has powerful advocates. Bob Hawke ran it recently at the US-Australia friendship society dinner. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer repeatedly calls for a high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia, most recently saying it would have enormous economic benefits. The business model is pretty clear. Countries around the world like Australia, without a clue as to what to do with this material, presuming that deep geological disposal is the best option—which is a deeply unsafe assumption, if you will pardon the pun—would actually be quite happy to pay a certain amount by negotiation to a country to just take this stuff off their hands. Perhaps it will be a surprise to senators to know that the growth of the domestic nuclear power industry—certainly in the United States and in some parts of Asia—is severely curtailed because the waste is just piling up at the reactor sites. So across the board, right around the world, there is no idea coming from the industry about what to do with this stuff but an assumption that, at the end of the life of this material, it will be dumped down a hole in the ground somewhere.

Here are what we would probably call senior Australian 'elder statesmen'—with tongue in cheek—saying it would be a great idea for this stuff to go to the outback—maybe out to Senator Scullion's electorate, or maybe to mine. I hasten to acknowledge that the Minister for Resources and Energy has said that nuclear waste from other countries will not be placed in a waste dump being created by this legislation. Well, guess what: where that minister is concerned, trust is in pretty short supply. In 2005 Mr Ferguson responded to Bob Hawke's call for Australia to establish a high-level nuclear waste dump by saying:

In scientific terms Bob Hawke is right … Australia internationally could be regarded as a good place to actually bury it deep in the ground.

Hugh Morgan said in 2006:

To put together an internationally managed repository would bring great standing in the international community for Australia.

As if being the planet's nuclear toilet will create great standing for us! These people have a genuinely warped idea about sustainable economic development.

On 3 June 2007, the Federal Council of the Liberal Party unanimously endorsed a resolution supporting the establishment of a foreign nuclear waste dump in Australia. I do not know whether Senators Scullion or Kroger, who are here with us this afternoon in the chamber, were present at that meeting. I would be interested to know how that conversation took place. The resolution says:

24: That Federal Council believes that Australia should expand its current nuclear industry to incorporate the entire uranium fuel cycle, the expansion of uranium mining to be combined with nuclear power generation and worldwide nuclear waste storage in the geotechnically stable and remote areas that Australia has to offer.

The head of the World Nuclear Association—a sort of global peak lobby body, if you will, for all facets of the nuclear fuel chain—is one of the many foreign corporate voices calling for Australia to accept the world's nuclear waste. What is the history of that proposal? Actually, it is something that I have a certain amount of familiarity with. One of the things that got me into the antinuclear movement in the late nineties—and I guess eventually into this place—was a corporate video that was leaked to the media in 1999 that revealed the existence of an international consortium called Pangaea Resources, which was secretly lobbying to establish a high-level radioactive waste dump in Australia. This was within a year or two of me getting involved in the antinuclear movement as a wide-eyed kid, and here is this consortium, backed by Swiss expertise and a great deal of money from British Nuclear Fuels, as they were known at the time—from BNFL—to off-load the world's radioactive garbage somewhere else, a long way from them. Pangaea Resources now calls itself Arius, and it is still lobbying to build a nuclear dump here. Savory Basin in the Pilbara was one of its chosen locations, but it also targeted South Australian and Central Australian locations.

That video—that advertisement—was fascinating, because it leaked well before the company or various policymakers on different sides of politics had their stories straight. It was as if you lifted up a rock and suddenly there were all these things scurrying around. People had not quite worked out what it was that they thought about the idea of a commercial radioactive waste dump, the business model being: 'For 40 years we will conduct the largest shipment of radioactive waste in human history—the high-level spent fuel—in these protected CASTORs. We will put them on railcars. Maybe we will take them inland from Esperance or Port Augusta or something like that. We will take them through a military protected corridor out to a remote site in the Western Australian bush—say, out the back of Laverton'—as the mob out at Cosmo Newberry discovered when they got to see the video—'and we'll dump it half a kilometre below ground, in some of the most stable, silent, quiet and dry geology on the planet's surface—places that haven't been disturbed in millions and millions of years. Then, 40 years after that, liability passes to the taxpayer. Brilliant!'

Pangaea now calls itself Arius. It is still lobbying to build a nuclear dump here. I think it is very worthwhile keeping an eye on some of the principles of that proposal, because none of them ever went away. The approach taken by Pangaea recognised that no form of engineered barrier could conceivably contain this thermally hot, corrosive, chemically toxic and radioactive material for tens of thousands of years. That is the whole purpose for seeking remote, stable geology a long way from people. The little video that Pangaea released put it beautifully, and it is rare to see this kind of honesty from the nuclear industry. What the little video showed is these CASTORs placed underground, backfilled and walked away from, and leaking. When the material has burned its way out of the engineered containment that you put it in, you had better have stable geology a long way from population centres, with very low, deep, slow-moving groundwater, an absence of earthquakes and so on. The argument for remote geological storage of this material is that, when the dump leaks, you want to be as far away from it as possible.

That is why the government is having trouble, and why the Howard government had trouble, selling this proposal to people in Tennant Creek. As senators here know, we are not talking about a deep hole in the ground but about a shed-like facility, so this is not a geological store, but we are going to park the long-lived intermediate-level waste on this cattle station for 300 or 400 years while we work out what to do with it, where the hole in the ground should be, whether it should be an international dump and whether it should host waste from Australian civil nuclear power stations in the event that they are ever built. The reason that we want it in Tennant Creek, on the Muckaty block, is that it is a long way from where most of the white people live. That is why this bill is obscene, and why proposals for deep, remote geological storage or temporary parking in shed-like facilities are a terrifically bad idea.

Here is what I think we should do, and in Australia we have some of the best expertise for this kind of work anywhere in the world—people who have been fooling around with synroc for the last 20 or 30 years. We have expertise. In 10 years time or in five years time or—who knows?—maybe tomorrow, the boffins down at Lucas Heights might say, 'Guys, we've worked out how to isolate this stuff. We've done it. We have worked out a form of engineered containment that this toxic and lethal material won't burn its way out of.' That will be a fantastic day. If I am invited—I suspect I will not be, but if I am—I will go down there and help them knock off some champagne, because that is something that the nuclear industry have been promising for 60 years; they certainly have not delivered it to date. A form of engineered containment that this stuff will not leach its way out of will be a great thing. If in the meantime we have parked this stuff in a hole in the ground on somebody else's country in Central Australia, that option is foreclosed; you cannot go back into the hole and get it back. That is the problem that I have with remote geological storage, and it is equally the problem that I have with taking this stuff out in shipping containers, dumping it on a block in Tennant Creek and saying, 'We'll be back in a couple of centuries when we've worked out what the plan is. In the meantime we're employing two local kids as security guards to look after it. Keep the lights on.' It is insane. Minister, I wonder whether you could establish for us what the government's criteria are and why we are pursuing remote centralised storage. I understand why we are pursuing centralised storage. We canvassed some of the arguments yesterday and late last year when the debate kicked off. I understand why you want to gather this material together and why you do not want it in filing cabinets, although why it is there in the first place is a bit of a mystery. I would like the minister to explain, with the help of the advisers who have joined us this afternoon again, why 'remote'? Why in Senator Scullion's electorate? Why does it have to be as far from centres of population as possible?