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Tuesday, 20 September 1983
Page: 977


Mr LIONEL BOWEN (Minister for Trade)(3.20) —This matter is of public importance. It is of public importance that we at least have a debate about what went wrong with the administration of uranium policy over the years it was under the control of the National Party. I emphasise that. The National Party has been running uranium policy. It is no good running away from that. The rump of the Opposition has always had the ability to control resources and has always controlled them on its own terms-'Dig them out of the ground and flog them at any price; it does not matter'. But in the case of uranium the world has a real concern about what happens. The International Energy Agency has many safeguards to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are 50,000 nuclear weapons now in the world because those safeguards have not been able to prevent that proliferation. Because of the free market force orientation of the National Party, what has this country done? We have already sold and sent overseas 12,000 tonnes of our uranium and have committed another 42,000 tonnes. Let me put this as a matter of record: My Government permits the export of uranium under existing contracts, and that will continue.


Mr Steele Hall —I thought you had put it off for a month.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The honourable member often thinks wrongly, and that is why he is in that position. All other aspects of uranium development-mining, production and export, including the international safeguard aspects of export-are currently being examined by the Government as a matter of serious concern. Why would we do that, honourable members might ask. That examination has not cost one job. It has not lost one contract.

Let us look at the confusion of the former Government's policy. Where is the strength of a policy that says: 'Dig it out of the ground and flog it at any low price that might be available'? When I looked at this position on 17 March this year I found that the distinguished gentleman who brought forward this matter of confusion had given approval for the two existing mines to get contracts and for four other mines to get contracts. As a matter of interest, he did not give approval for Roxby Downs. He is so concerned about it! So let us get to where the confusion is. What sort of policy was it that said: 'I am not too clear whether I will give you approval but I will let you explore and develop these mines'? We had no doubt about the two existing mines and we still have no doubt about them; they are continuing to mine. But does it not seem incredible that, when the two existing mines have not sold their production, the previous Government allowed another four mines to seek contracts? I do not know what that was going to do for the financial stability of the existing mines. Then there were another five or six mines lined up, all apparently saying: 'We will be all right too.' But the biggest mine, Roxby Downs, contains 1.2 million tonnes whereas the market for uranium in the next ten years is less than that figure. Yet the right honourable member opposite had already given approval-


Mr Anthony —It will not be before the 1990s that Roxby Downs comes into production.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —Let us look at what the right honourable member opposite did. If ever we saw a hotchpotch confusion of policy, it is this one. There are two existing mines whose production cannot be sold, yet the right honourable member says: 'There is dreadful trouble'. Of course, the trouble is the problems of the uranium industry in the world. Following the Three Mile Island disaster there has been a real downturn in the market for uranium. Those whom the right honourable member had authorised to go into the market place to look for contracts could not get any. That is virtually the position. I want to tell the House how incompetent his administration was, as shown by some of the complaints coming to me now. They are coming on this basis: 'Well, Mr Anthony said it would be all right if I executed such a contract'. There is no record in the Department of the right honourable member having said that it was all right. I refer to his administration and to the reason for the confusion. This is what Mr Grey of Pancontinental said: 'I want to make it very clear that I got approval for a contract from Mr Anthony. I was informed by Mr Anthony during a telephone conversation with him that if the contract could be renegotiated it would meet his requirements'. That was a telephone conversation. The Department has told me that it has no record of approval having been given. I invite that right honourable member to consider the confusion and the problem that the Leader of the Opposition has created for Pancontinental, to consider how much money it has spent in exploration.


Mr Anthony —What are you going to do about it?


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —I would not do what the Leader of the National Party did about it. I would not have a telephone conversation with the man. He said this: 'I sent you a contract in December 1982 and I sent you further evidence of it later '. I have a report from my Department saying: 'Look, as far as we are concerned, yes, they were sent, but we gave no response'. Where is the efficiency? Where is the confusion? The Leader of the National Party should have a yarn with Mr Grey of Pancontinental about where he sees his confusion lying because he never got approval to a contract from the Leader of the National Party. Yeelirrie is another one to which the Leader of the National Party gave approval. There were no contracts for that, but again they came and said: 'Let us make it very clear, Mr Anthony said it would be all right for us to negotiate these matters and we virtually had approval from him'. They said that in a long telex to me, but no approval was given.

Let us put it on the record: It is a question of what he really meant to do. He was anxious to get as many mines as possible developed in Australia, but for what purposes? The purposes had nothing to do with the stability of the uranium industry, nothing to do with advantage to Australia. Two of the mines were completely foreign owned. Koongarra was 100 per cent owned by the Canadians and Ben Lomond was 100 per cent owned by the French. So where was the Australian interest and value to Australia in owning a fuel resource that we have to monitor carefully?


Mr Hodgman —Are you for or against uranium mining?


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —Is it any wonder that we have to say: 'Let's have another look at this policy. Let's look at it from the point of view of what should be done on development'. There are very serious concerns, not only in Australia but throughout the world, about what could happen if there were not adequate protection of the uranium cycle. It has always interested me, on looking at the safeguards policy announced by the previous Government-I must admit, that it was announced by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs-to find a watering down of the safeguards. Every time we had a debate on this matter we found that consent for reprocessing was automatically given. It was given away in advance.

We found that there was no real Australian policy on high level waste disposal. I invite the right honourable gentleman who proposed this matter of public importance to stand up and say that he would accept high level waste disposal in his electorate of Richmond. If he were to do that, if it were suggested that he had said that it would be all right to have high level waste disposed of within the electorate of Richmond, he would be run out of office by his own people. He would not last three minutes. What is going to happen to the high level waste? At present we have the problem of Japan considering dumping waste in the Pacific Ocean.

On one occasion consent was given in advance, to France in particular, to enrich uranium to a level above 20 per cent, which is well up towards weapons grade capacity. Why would anyone want to give such consent in advance? We found also that consent was given to Finland.


Mr Anthony —That is not right-


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —It is right. I will refer the honourable member to the relevant section in Hansard later.


Mr Anthony —You pick it out. That is quite wrong.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —We will have a yarn later. I would not make the statement without knowing that it was right. With the sale to Finland it was understood, it was accepted, that the enrichment would take place in the Soviet Union. We do not regard any of these matters as indicating that a satisfactory method of handling safeguards proposals has been adopted. I go over them again: Consent was given in advance. There was no satisfactory concept of high level waste disposal. It was indicated that enrichment or reprocessing could certainly take place in countries with which we really do not have a close affinity. I make it very clear-


Mr Anthony —Is that France?


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —No, the Soviet Union. The right honourable member must be deaf. I have just made the point.


Mr Anthony —There is no reprocessing in the Soviet Union.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —I am talking about enrichment in the Soviet Union.


Mr Anthony —You said reprocessing, so be correct in what you are saying.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —It can be reprocessed. I make it clear that we would not be able to identify the Australian uranium once it went to the Soviet Union. We would have no knowledge of what happened to it because we would have lost physical possession of it.


Mr Hodgman —Are you in favour of it or not?


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —The honourable member for Denison has now made that interjection six times. I think he has made his point. I ask him to cease interjecting.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —We are debating today what went wrong with the previous Government's policy. The two existing mines have not yet been able to sell their product. The previous Government's policy allowed another four mines to enter the market place-with another five mines following them, the biggest mine, of course, being Roxby Downs-with a proliferation of uranium at the basic natural level. If the previous Government had really been interested in developing the industry for Australia, it would have looked at safeguards for the nation in terms of how the uranium was mined; safeguards in respect of what would happen to it when it was exported overseas; a guarantee that it would not be used in respect of weapons; and a guarantee that high level waste disposal would at least have been developed using satisfactory technology. But the previous Government did none of those things. I can understand why it did not do so. I make the point that the uranium policy was left to the National Party of Australia. The Liberal Party had no input.

The problem we now find in Australia is how best to grapple with this industry that has been allowed to develop in a slipshod manner. People feel that they are entitled to have contracts when in fact they have been given no approval. I made it very clear to all of them on 17 March that I withdrew all of their determinations. I invited all of them to re-apply, and some of them did so. I reissued rights to remain in the market place to the two existing mines. So there is plenty of consistency about our policy. At present those existing mines state that they have about 100,000 tonnes of uranium which is still not sold.


Mr Anthony —Which ones?


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —From Ranger--


Mr Anthony —It is not even that size.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —Does the right honourable member say that the uncommitted amount is not of that size? Ranger has 138,706 tonnes.


Mr Anthony —You said uncommitted.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The uncommitted amount is 92,150 tonnes. This information was supplied by a department which the right honourable member used to administer.


Mr Anthony —Okay.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The right honourable member says 'okay'. It is about time that he made some admission. Queensland Mines has an uncommitted amount of 4,000 tonnes. That is a total amount of 100,000 tonnes of uncommitted uranium from existing mines. The honourable member talked about confusion! He gave the other producers the right to enter the market place. They would have supplied almost two million tonnes; if they ever get it out of the ground. What did that policy do for the market? It certainly suited the multinationals around the world to believe that there was a proliferation of uranium and that they could get it at any old price. What was the right honourable member doing to get the best value for our uranium? The right honourable member talked about confusion. Did he give consent to Pancontinental Mining Ltd and Yeelirrie? The answer is that he did not.


Mr Anthony —I gave a determination, you know that.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The right honourable member gave consent over the telephone; that shows the amount of representation. He talked about administration and confusion. Those companies were allowed to spend substantial sums of money on his verbal advice.

We want to make it clear to the nation that we are concerned about the uranium cycle. We are not satisfied that our uranium cannot be diverted into weapons. We are not satisfied that sufficient technology has been developed for the disposal of high level waste. We are not satisfied to find that consent in advance was automatically deemed to have been given to reprocessing simply because the uranium had been sold. We are not satisfied to have a safeguards regime which indicates that we will be bound by determination or arbitration by somebody else .

This issue is very serious to the Australian people. There are divisions amongst all sections of the Australian community about whether we should be mining uranium. A strong body of opinion says that we should not. The facts of life, when the right honourable member talked about confusion and uncertainty, are that they were his policies. The only thing that we can say is this: We have given a clear indication that existing contracts will be able to continue. But we will certainly have a good look at the whole uranium cycle. We will look at whether we can guarantee that if it must be used-maybe it does not have to be used-it will not be used to the detriment of mankind or to create more nuclear weapons or to pollute the environment. We will guarantee to Australia that we will own and control our resources.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! The honourable gentleman's time has expired.