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Tuesday, 30 November 1976
Page: 2980

Mr BIRNEY (Phillip) -My perception may be keener than that of most people but the soundings that I perceive emanating from the Fox report are all in tune with the establishment of a uranium export industry, subject only to adequate safeguards. Let there be no mistake, the Government is committed to this latter all important pre-requisite. Australia is a great and proud nation, blessed in many ways, particularly in its wealth of mineral resources, the rewards from which are the property of the people who go to make up this nation. Sadly, there are people in the ranks of the Australian Labor Party Opposition who would strangle this financial birthright and so the well being of all Australians. I believe that few issues of greater significance for this nation, and indeed the world, have faced this Parliament. Much debate has raged on the uranium question. Unfortunately much of it has been ill-informed and emotionally illogical. We must accept, because of the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that people are naturally apprehensive about widespread nuclear developments. However, these fears have been unnecessarily inflamed by emotionalism on the part of certain environmental groups and fanned by irresponsible utterances of Labor politicians. Substantial progress and change often produce hysterical reactions. The scare tactics being used by those committed to stopping the development of an Australian uranium industry have already been seen through and rejected by the American public in a recent series of referendums. I note that the Fox report comments that a number of wildly exaggerated claims about the risk of nuclear power were made by witnesses. I hope we do not get a repeat of that in this Parliament.

Placing this question of uranium development in a global context, the first point I make to the House is that the world has no short term alternative to the use of uranium as an energy source. We must accept the fact that oil can be viewed only as a short term energy provider. Natural gas has similar limitations. Additionally, this energy source should be seen as almost exclusively the long term source of raw material for the petrochemical and related industries. It is often suggested that coal could be used as a practical alternative to uranium in meeting the world 's energy needs for the rest of this century. However, this would be physically impossible, and coalfired power stations are a major source of atmospheric pollution already. For example, the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States of America has estimated that at least 50 per cent of pollutants in the air capable of causing biological damage result from the burning of fossil fuels for electric power generation. The Fox report indicates similarly that the operation of fossil fuel stations is more of a health hazard than the operation of nuclear reactors.

While arguments in favour of solar energy are attractive, the plain fact of the matter is that this energy source is not capable of commercially meeting the energy crisis which is looming large as the world's oil sources dry up. Solar energy may be a solution to the energy problems of future generations but certainly not to our own or our children's. The first thing we must face in this debate is that uranium and the development of nuclear energy represent the only solution to the world 's immediate energy problems.

Turning to some substantive questions about the nuclear industry, the first recommendation of the Fox report indicates that the mining and milling of uranium in Australia is a safe process. In informed debates there is agreement, on both sides of the nuclear power issue, that uranium mining carried out under today's tight regulations is neither an environmental problem nor a health hazard. People are prone to forget that uranium mining was carried out in Australia from 1954 to 1971 successfully and safely. It could hardly be argued that any new radical dangers have developed since then. All Australians can rest content that their own Federal Department of Health, after consultation with federal and State government departments, trade unions, trades and labour councils, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and mining companies, has developed the world's most stringent code to govern the mining and milling of our uranium.

The second recommendation of the report gives a similar green light to the operation of nuclear power reactors. It is in this area that much of the attack on nuclear energy is astray. Many people honestly believe that nuclear reactors can explode in the same way as a nuclear bomb. Such a theory is nonsense and I refer the House to the Rasmussen report which is the most authoritative study on reactor accident risks. As a result of this report this risk can now be compared to other technological and natural hazards with which society must deal and will always be confronted. That study came up with a quantitative evaluation based on the simultaneous operation of 100 nuclear reactors. A person living near one of these plants would face an average probability of being fatally injured in a nuclear accident of one in five billion per year. His chance of fatality from an automobile accident is one in 4000 while from drowning it is one in 30 000, from air travel it is one in 100 000 and from lightning it is one in 2 million. Among a society of 1 5 million people residing around these sites some 9000 deaths and nearly 600 000 injuries would be expected each year from car accidents, falls, fires and other causes. By comparison less than one fatality and less than one injury would be expected annually from a nuclear accident. One should also appreciate that nuclear reactor usage is no longer at an experimental stage.

I stress that there is no necessity for Australia to have nuclear reactors now or in the immediate future. We can continue to generate electricity by conventional means to meet our own energy requirements adequately. This may well be the key and, if so, the arguments against the mining and milling of this precious commodity, the rewards from which belong to all Australians, would of necessity vanish like a dream. The question of the disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors has also been enveloped in ill-informed hoo haa. Basically 2 separate questions are involved and one is the short term disposal of nuclear wastes. A solution already is at hand for this. Wastes will be stored in massive concrete casks which can withstand all natural phenomena such as earthquakes and floods as well as man-made forces such as fire, sabotage and aeroplane crashes. The important point to remember is that the world should not be stampeded into a rash decision on the question of long term disposal.

I turn now to the question of the benefit to Australians of a uranium export industry. This industry is capable of satisfying by 1985, 20 per cent at least of the world market and could be expected to earn for the good of this nation in the vicinity of $3,000m per year at projected prices. By comparison, the wool industry currently earns about $800m while our total mineral exports currently earn about $2,500m. The Fox report at page 83 indicated that foreign exchange earned by uranium exports would rise to a maximum of about 5 per cent of total export earnings by the early 1990s.

Mr Uren - It is 0.5 per cent.

Mr BIRNEY - I will be getting around to the honourable member in a minute. It must also be noted that uranium prices will slide as time goes by. This will occur particularly as a result of the introduction of fast breeder reactors. This point also is made in the report at page 63. Nowhere is the dithering more evident than amongst honourable members opposite. We have seen a series of conflicting public attitudes expressed by them which leaves me, and I am sure the people of Australia and others in the Parliament, thoroughly confused about who speaks with authority on their behalf or who can make a statement which will not be contradicted or rolled by some other faction in the Labor Party. All I can say is that this nation is lucky those honourable members are now in Opposition. If they were in Government Australia's uranium would grow steadily worthless while they argued with one another. If we continue to dither we could well be sitting on a worthless rather than a valuable commodity.

Australia with a large share of the world's uranium reserves must also look to its international responsibilities. The peoples of the world, poor and wealthy, want more and more power to improve standards of living and Australia has a moral obligation to contribute to that improvement by the supply of uranium. I ask the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to bear that in mind next time he pontificates on the morality of the uranium issue. In a speech to the Australian Railways Union on 26 June this year he said:

If the companies and the present Government want to take it out of the ground and out of Australia then they must be prevented from doing so.

Such a statement is an appalling condemnation of this gentleman. The only authority which has a mandate to make policy on the export of uranium is the democratically elected Parliament. No union has the right to defy the decisions made by the Government on this issue. It is interesting to contrast that statement with the attitude taken by the American trade union leader, George Meany, who recently said:

Because of the efforts of the labour movement progress in America will not be strangled due to unwise and obsessive restraints on development of safe nuclear energy.

The attempt by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to incite union blackmail on this issue is both serious and sinister. Perhaps this so-called great proponent of the 'fair go for all Australians' does not want an industry which will provide employment for 10 000 Australians by 1985 and produce a wages bill alone which will make available some $2m to be fed back into the economy every week. Denying the world access to Australia's uranium reserves will not help to alleviate this most serious problem. Page 70 of the Fox report states:

Clearly, the development of nuclear power in the rest of the world can continue whether or not Australian uranium is made available.

It is not essential to have nuclear power stations to produce a nuclear weapons capability. All nations have access to uranium ores from the ever-growing milling industry or from sea water. Separation processes can be used to acquire weapons material from these sources. Of course it is common sense that any country hell bent on building a nuclear bomb would hardly be deterred by having to obtain uranium at a high price from sources other than Australia. Finally I refer to my own maiden speech in this House on 4 March this year. I said:

I think it is important that we develop uranium markets as soon as possible. Let there be no mistake, the world wants Australia's uranium and it is prepared to pay vast amounts for it.

Since that time interest in the uranium issue has certainly been increased, but nothing has occurred to change my firm conviction on this issue.

Let us then proceed with the development of a full- scale uranium export industry from which all Australians of this great nation can benefit.

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