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Thursday, 15 September 1983
Page: 951


Mr MILTON(9.47) —I have spoken in this House on a number of occasions about the nuclear industry and its attendant problems. I make no apology for bringing the matter before the House once again because it is a life and death issue in view of the ever increasing number of nuclear weapons, the hundreds of accidents in nuclear power stations so ably documented by Senator Ruth Coleman, the poor economic future of the nuclear industry and the complete failure of scientists and engineers to develop any satisfactory method of disposing of radioactive wastes. Nuclear power represents an energy source which the human race may find extracts a terrible price for its power.

In this debate I want to concentrate on what I perceive to be the core problem of the whole debate, namely, the failure of the nuclear industry to develop effective waste disposal mechanisms and its failure to develop satisfactory arrangements for the storage or disposal of the products of uranium mining, such as equipment or material contaminated by radioactivity, spent fuel, plutonium and depleted uranium as products of reprocessing and high level wastes separated by reprocessing. Federal Labor Party policy is quite clear that, if radioactive wastes cannot be satisfactorily contained, an Australian Labor Government will utilise its right to apply trade embargos to ensure that those conditions are met.

With about 260 nuclear power plants currently operating in some 27 countries and another 230 on order or under construction, it can readily be seen that there is a waste disposal problem which cannot be contained. However, when one also takes into account the 350 nuclear warships of the United States Navy, together with the growing number of nuclear warships of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Britain and France, the magnitude of the problem becomes horrendous. High level radioactive waste comes from the spent fuel rods of the nuclear reactors and, finally, the reactor itself when its working life has ended. Low level wastes arise from the operation and maintenance of the nuclear power stations.

Great store has been set by the new material called synroc which was created by Professor Ted Ringwood and a team of research workers at the Australian National University. In a recently published discussion paper, Professor Ringwood has claimed that independent scientific studies have confirmed synroc as a generally accepted method of containing high level nuclear wastes. However, there are two problems associated with synroc which have not been solved. Firstly, it has yet to be proven whether the substance can be produced on a large scale at economic cost. A study is at present being funded by the Australian Government for three years to ascertain whether synroc is an economic proposition. The 1983-84 Budget indicates a figure of nearly $1 1/2m has been allocated to the study. In this respect, Professor Ringwood in his discussion paper has quoted a recent Swedish report which estimates the total costs of the incorporation of spent fuel, intermediate storage, final geological disposal and decommissioning of reactors at about 10 per cent of the value of the electric power produced by the reactor. Of course, this does not include the costs of vast quantities of existing high level waste, nor the cost of the waste from reactors used for military purposes, nor the cost of low level wastes.

The second and more important point I wish to make about synroc is not that it may or may not be more than a laboratory experiment, but rather what happens to the high level nuclear wastes before they are incorporated into synroc. Professor Ringwood in his article is rather vague about the time span involved. In fact, the high level wastes must be retained in cooling ponds for periods from five to 10 years to enable the more intense radioactivity to be dissipated; that is, when the radioactivity is at its highest.

A number of questions immediately present themselves. First: How many of these cooling ponds will be necessary? How large will they be, bearing in mind that the nuclear industry is establishing itself in many countries? How safe will these many hundreds of cooling lakes be? Would anybody listening tonight like to have one located anywhere near his home or place of work? It is too much to expect that the nuclear industry will be able consistently and to safely handle the large quantities of this highly dangerous liquid, given its present accident prone record.

A newspaper article in the Melbourne Age today indicates that the companies involved in clearing up after the Three Mile Island nuclear power station accident has 'been circumventing proper procedures and adopting others that may not be safe'. An additional problem is the fact that the surface storage lakes will be prime targets in the event of a war with the conventional weapons being used against the cooling ponds to cause similar fatal consequences to that of a nuclear bomb.

All my present references to high level wastes have been in relation to spent fuel rods. I would now like to consider the high level wastes contained in uranium mill tailings. Several hundred thousand tonnes of uranium ore must be mined to provide the fuel for one large reactor to operate for one year. The residue of this milling process is discarded in a tailings pond or lake and eventually allowed to dry. Mill tailings contain radioactive thorium which decays to radon gas, radium and other radioactive elements, usually mixed with sand. The radioactive material has frequently been used as construction materials. In the United States of America some 800 individual structures have been found to contain the waste. The estimated cost to the public has been over $US17m. It has been estimated that by the year 2000 mill tailings from all the uranium mines will total some 1.5 billion metric tonnes. This huge amount is hard to imagine, but it would bury the entire 31 square kilometres of Canberra under 85 feet of radioactive tailings. The sheer enormity of the mill tailings disposal is, I presume, one of the matters currently being investigated as part of the feasibility study of synroc.

I would now like to turn to the problem of the disposal of low level nuclear wastes. Nuclear power stations use, for cooling purposes, huge quantities of water which becomes radioactive. The power stations also emit radioactive gas into the atmosphere. In addition, other material, such as tools and protective clothing, become radioactive in the nuclear cycle production. For some years the United States of America has dumped its low level wastes into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Britain, Belgium, Switzerland and Holland dump their radioactive wastes into the Atlantic Ocean. A newspaper article, again in today' s Age, reports plans by the Department of Home Affairs and Environment to the British Government to go even further with its dumping of wastes by dumping high level radioactive wastes into the sea. The Department has let out two contracts, one for the design of containers for placing high level nuclear wastes onto the ocean bed and the second for land disposal. The article goes on to report that the Department admitted that going ahead with its plans would directly contravene the Multilateral Consultation and Surveillance Mechanism for Sea Dumping of Radioactive Waste which Britain signed in 1972. International agreements are obviously not worth the paper they are written on when the nuclear industry is involved.

The Japanese nuclear industry has an enormous problem on its hands as it is holding 41,000 44-gallon drums of low level radioactive waste. The quantity of drums is likely to rise to 70,000 by 1990. The Japanese Government is keen to dump the drums in the Pacific Ocean to the north of the northern Marianas Islands, but the Pacific islanders are strongly opposed to the Japanese plans. The Japanese Government plans to dump the drums and then monitor the effect for several years. If the monitoring indicates there are no leakage problems, they will then dump the balance of thousands of drums into the Pacific despite the fact that the monitoring should take place for at least 20 years to ascertain whether leaks are occurring. The Japanese are proposing to carry out their dumping despite the fact that the London dumping convention approved a two-year moratorium on nuclear waste dumping to allow more time for further scientific studies.

As is the case of the British Government, where nuclear power is involved the Japanese have decided that the international agreement is not binding on them. The nuclear ships of the Soviet Union, United States of America, France and Britain are constantly discharging radioactive waste materials into the sea. For example, when a nuclear submarine shuts down its engines it releases 500 gallons of radioactive cooler water into the sea. When the engines are started up again another 500 gallons is discharged.


Mr Hand —Shame. That's pollution.


Mr MILTON —The honourable member for Melbourne is quite correct. It is horrendous. The situation is getting worse all the time. Other radioactive wastes, such as resin and decontamination solids used in maintenance work and reactor shield water, are also discharged. The liquids and resins are routinely dumped 20 kilometres from shore when the vessel is on patrol. The solids are buried on shore. It is estimated that some 40 million gallons of nuclear waste is polluting the seas annually from nuclear ships. Taiwan also in May last year began dumping its low level radioactive wastes from two nuclear power plants on a small island named Lanyu, 60 kilometres south of Taiwan. The Taiwan Government plans to have 12 nuclear power plants by 1989, and used the island of Lanyu as a nuclear dump because it is far from the Taiwanese mainland. The local Aboriginal fishing people, the Yami, are very worried that the storage site will affect their fishing grounds. They are also worried about the long term radiation dangers. This is one final example of the irresponsibility of government in relation to nuclear power.


Mr SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.