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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 408


Mr BARRY JONES (Minister for Science)(8.37) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This legislation repeals those parts of the Atomic Energy Act 1953 which deal with the establishment and operations of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and repressive security provisions.

Repeal of AAEC enabling legislation

A new organisation to succeed the AAEC, as I adumbrated earlier, will be created by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill which was earlier introduced to the House. The present Bill repeals those parts of the Atomic Energy Act which dealt with the establishment and operations of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission to make way for the establishment of the ANSTO. ANSTO, of course, will take over all of the existing staff, property, assets and liabilities of the abolished AAEC.

Repeal of Security Provisions

The Atomic Energy Act was originally drafted in the political climate of the Cold War. At that time uranium was considered to be a scarce resource of major strategic importance as well as a potential future energy source for Australia. The Atomic Energy Act was therefore framed with the intention of using Australia's uranium resources as a lever to gain access to the emerging body of nuclear knowledge and expertise available overseas. It was also contemplated that uranium might be exploited for defence purposes. Section 17 of the Atomic Energy Act provides that the functions of the AAEC `should be performed only for the purpose of [inter alia] ensuring the provision of uranium or atomic energy for the defence of the Commonwealth . . .'.

Against this background, repressive security and penal provisions were included in the Act. For example, section 48 places a general prohibition on any communication of `restricted information', whatever the intent of the communicator. The penalty provided is seven years gaol. `Restricted information' is defined in such a way that it would include almost any unpublished information one can think of in relation to a uranium mine, including information on the environmental or safety impact of production methods.

Needless to say, these provisions quickly became irrelevant to the activities of the AAEC. Their repeal will remove from the statute book an offensive anachronism. The Government has been particularly concerned at the potential of these provisions to threaten the civil liberties of Australian citizens. All of the excessive security provisions and penalties, including those applying to the communication of restricted information, sabotage and the search and arrest of suspected persons will cease to exist.

No longer will offences which are dealt with in other contexts by recourse to the general law be singled out as they were under the Atomic Energy Act for specific and excessive penalties. Nor will it be possible to apply the provisions of the Approved Defence Projects Protection Act 1947 to nuclear research and development activities. The only provisions of the Atomic Energy Act to be retained will be those dealing with the authorisation of the Ranger uranium project and Commonwealth title to uranium in the Northern Territory, and the requirement to report discoveries of uranium and production of yellowcake. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Braithwaite) adjourned.