Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 408

Mr BRAITHWAITE(8.40) —The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1987 and cognate Bills have passed through the Senate where the Opposition sought amendments for what we believe would be the better functioning of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act. The introduction of this legislation tonight at this hour is, of course, no surprise in that that debate has already taken place.

It is interesting to note that according to the second reading speech of the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) the new organisation will be commercially orientated and cost recovery is contemplated. It is my earnest wish and hope that the commercialisation of the cost recovery program will succeed to a greater extent than Austrade did after 12 months in operation. I note also the orientation to the commercial side. There will be representation by user groups, which I think is always a good idea when trying to involve commercial activity.

I think it is pertinent to note that this legislation is, of course, allied to the peaceful use of uranium and not to the aspect of warfare, because the arguments in this country for too long have been misdirected, mainly by the Labor forces, against one aspect of nuclear energy-something we all abhor-as opposed to the peaceful use of uranium. Anybody looking at the world today must realise that the peaceful use of uranium not only is necessary but, I believe, will be obligatory in the years ahead. The purpose of this legislation is to repeal the outmoded provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and replace the Australian Atomic Energy Commission with a new organisation to be known as-I will seek the Minister's correction if this is not right-the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO.

Although we do not oppose this legislation, we are most concerned about the restrictions placed by the Government on the activities of this new organisation. The growth in the international nuclear industry offers many opportunities for Australia, and we should not be turning our back on the further development of indigenous nuclear technology where it relates to the peaceful use-I again stress `peaceful use'-of nuclear energy. I say from the outset that the Hawke Government should abandon its irrational policies on the development of uranium mines and the nuclear industry in Australia. To be specific, we see that Roxby Downs has been allowed to function, which apparently indicates that some uranium in Australia is good, some bad. I fail to understand how a government could have taken such an irrational or restrictive attitude towards a policy of such fundamental importance to Australia. In last year's Budget we had a specific item for the sale of stocks of uranium to France. I would have thought that the fundamental belief of the Australian Labor Party, if it does have one, would not be to approve such a sale and certainly not a sale to that country. Yet we have these sanctions in some cases but not in others, which makes Australia's uranium policy look like a pakapoo ticket. As I have said, in all of this irrationality, the argument has always been directed at the warlike use of uranium. It really sickens me that around Australia, basically under the protection of this Government and its policies, friendly ships from the United States of America are turned away from our ports or are having to be helped into our ports by other people than those belonging to the Seamen's Union of Australia because of this hang-up on what uranium is all about.

I believe that the growing use of uranium for peaceful purposes around the world should be encouraged, but it will not be encouraged under the irrational policies of this Government. Australia has few industries which offer such scope for growth and development. We should not delay the opportunity for further development of the uranium industry in Australia.

The Opposition supports the mining and milling of uranium, subject to stringent Australian health and safety standards and the removal of the veto on the development of new uranium deposits. We would also remove the present sanctions that have been imposed by the Labor Government against the export of certain uranium, as I said, and not other types. Most importantly, from a trade point of view, the export of uranium would be permitted subject to existing stringent safeguards agreements put in place by the Fraser-Anthony Government.

Australia has low cost uranium resources totalling some 530,000 tonnes. This is a staggering 28 per cent of the world's low cost uranium resources, and the Northern Territory alone possesses 350,000 tonnes of this total. The Roxby Downs copper and gold deposits in South Australia will recover uranium as a secondary product. Again, this indicates the deceit of this Government in putting it in such a category. Total content of uranium oxide or yellowcake in the Roxby Downs deposit is over 400,000 tonnes, but much of this may never be mined. At this stage some 140,000 tonnes of uranium oxide have been classified as low cost resources. Other South Australian prospects include Honeymoon and Beverley. There are also other small resources of uranium in Western Australia and Queensland. I note the Ben Lomond deposit, which people are anxious to develop, but which the policies of this Government retard at this time. Nearly all the uranium in the Northern Territory is found in the Alligator Rivers region, at the Ranger and Nabarlek mines, and in the proven deposits at Jabiluka and Koongarra. Numerous other uranium anomalies are known in the region and it is probable that existing resources would be more than doubled if exploration in the region were allowed to resume. The value of the existing Northern Territory uranium deposit is over $A30 billion.

I would like to comment on that figure. When we think of the foreign debt that we have of over $100 billion, I do not see how Australia can thumb its nose at such export potential and at such proven potential for industry in Australia. With over one-quarter of the Western world's estimated uranium resources, Australia should be a major force in the international market, rather than the very minor player that it is. We only have to look at these Bills to see what a minor player we are.

The mine production is low, when compared to possible Australian capacity because of the irrational policies followed by the Hawke Government in relation to restricting the mining of uranium. The possible returns of additional exports, under stringent safeguards, are several times our existing earnings from uranium. The longer we keep our uranium in the ground, the more difficult it will be for our producers, both current and potential, to expand their exports. We are therefore denying ourselves one further means of support to our bleeding balance of payments.

I think it is important that we stress at this time what those balance of payments are and the potential for uranium mining and export to fill that gap. I have just mentioned the foreign debt of over $100 billion. Whilst I acknowledge that that is, to a large extent, a commercial debt, we would hope that commercial enterprises would be able to develop those deposits of uranium and help close that gap. Apart from that, it should not be overlooked that that figure is three times what it was three years ago. But more importantly, the contribution that uranium mining could make to government revenue, indicates the seriousness of the Government's own position. That government portion of the overseas debt has, in the last three years, increased eight times. That is bad enough and it is out of proportion to the commercial debt.

We must also realise that in relation to the economy of Australia, the mining of uranium could well satisfy the constant requests we get from the unions of this country for the further processing of resources to give Australians jobs. The potential for this is unlimited not only in the mining but also in the productive stage of uranium, where this might lead us. If we look further at the argument of our being a safe repository for waste, that represents a magnificent opportunity for improvement in the Australian economy.

All of these things-jobs, waste disposal-are desperately required in Australia. To give one small indication of how desperate the Australian economy is, we see the record number of bankruptcies, with 8,000 businesses going to the wall in the recent six months, which is a great increase on previous years. We can only speculate as to how many of these bankruptcies have been caused by the policies of this Government, one of whose policies is to restrict and restrain a natural resource from being mined and further developed. It is really a pity that the Government could not get its troops into order, and control the left wing factions, to make sure that this did not occur.

I also add that there is a world need for the production of a clean source of energy. Only the year before last I had talks in Canada with quite a few of the people involved in the energy industry there. There is a major problem around the Great Lakes, where all those major industries involving the base resource energy, coal, are located, with smog and acid rain. Those industries have gone to the step to which we should have gone, but for another reason. They have a very safe method-I think it is called Candu-of producing uranium for peaceful purposes. They have developed that from their own resources. They are also very heavily into hydro-electricity. I believe that the Minister for Science, who is at the table, has been taken on an inspection of those places. That is the direction in which Australia should be heading, particularly with its potential to supply uranium to the export market and of being available as a repository for the waste.

Coal use in the future will be limited by environmental matters. I say this with some feeling because many areas of my electorate supply coal to international markets. We have only to see around the world today the decreasing use of coal for steaming and coking purposes to realise that Australia should be trying to capture that part of the market.

Another reason to develop our uranium industry is the opportunity it affords Australia to make a significant contribution to the development of a nuclear fuel cycle. The biggest single problem with the nuclear industry today is the disposal of waste. Through the development of synroc, Australia has shown that it can make a vital contribution to the world nuclear industry and the safe handling of nuclear materials. It is by involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle that we will be able to do more to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy than by an ostrich-like burying of our heads in the sand as this Government is doing.

A further important development that Australia should be involved in is uranium enrichment. If Australia were involved in enrichment, we would be able to help safeguard the security of movement of fissile material in the world. I note here that a commercial enrichment plant cannot produce material for weapons grade uranium. The report of the Australian Science and Technology Council, which I will mention later, states:

Our overall conclusion is that Australia will be best able to make a significant contribution if it is actively involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. By such involvement we consider that Australia will be able to make a direct contribution to the development of the civil nuclear fuel cycle in ways that will increase global energy security, help to strengthen the elements of the non-proliferation regime and help to reduce the risks of misuse of civil facilities and the diversion of nuclear materials from civil to military uses. Without such involvement we consider that global energy security would be less assured and our ability to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and to influence future developments in the fuel cycle would be reduced. We do not wish to exaggerate Australia's role in matters related to the nuclear fuel cycle but, as in most other human endeavours, it is only by active involvement that Australia can expect to be able to influence the future course of events.

It would be useful to examine briefly some of the background to this legislation and to Australia's nuclear energy involvement. In the early post-war years Australia developed a nuclear industry by mining and milling uranium; Mary Kathleen and Rum Jungle are the final reminders of that. That industry required an understanding of the uses of nuclear material and of preventative measures to stop abuse. The result of these developments was the Atomic Energy Act. This Act was developed under the defence power. During the 1950s, following increased understanding of the potential peaceful uses of nuclear energy, it became clear that Australia should not ignore these developments. A research establishment was set up at Lucas Heights. Lucas Heights was a purely research establishment. It had two small reactors of low power. It exists to train personnel such as science graduates and engineers to carry out research and development in aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and to carry out technical work in support of Australia's international obligations and interests in the nuclear field. Since the fuel crisis and worries about long term supply of non-renewable fossil fuels and acid rain, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission has become more development oriented. World-wide, nuclear power stations have been developed. Lately, worries about pollution generated by coal powered stations has stimulated further appraisal of the usefulness of nuclear power.

A number of reports have looked into aspects of the nuclear industry in Australia, from a major report by ASTEC in 1984 to the most recent review by the AAEC. The ASTEC report was commissioned by the Hawke Government. The reports were given in all honesty. It is rather a pity that some of the more important aspects of the recommendations have not been carried into this latest legislation.

The development of nuclear energy for power generation is but one of the many peaceful uses possible of nuclear energy. The Opposition has urged the Government to implement immediately all the recommendations of the ASTEC report on the nuclear fuel cycle and to abolish the ban on the development of further peaceful stages of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. The ASTEC report is an independent and objective audit of the policies and practices of the Australian uranium and nuclear industries. As I have said, the report was carried out at the request of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). It is a pity that the whole report was not acted on to the extent that we feel it should have been.

The Government's response to the report has been predictably doctrinaire. The Government rejected recommendations 1 and 9 relating to the mining and export of uranium and the further development of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. Recommendation 1 was that exports of Australian uranium should not be limited as a matter of principle but should be permitted, subject to stringent conditions of supply designed to strengthen the non-proliferation regime. I will take the time to read into Hansard some extracts of the recommendations in the report. One states:

Despite the fact there is at present an oversupply of uranium and that most consuming countries hold considerable stockpiles, there will continue to be market opportunities for Australian uranium. This is because assurance of energy supply is a basic requirement for national security and countries without adequate domestic energy sources seek to diversify and secure their foreign energy supplies. Countries with nuclear power programs therefore wish to obtain uranium supplies from several sources and to seek their supplies from politically stable countries. Australia is such a country, with an established record as a reliable supplier of raw materials to world markets.

Others state:

If international tensions are to be reduced and the prospects of a peaceful global environment enhanced, the importance of national and international energy security cannot be over-emphasised.

. . . .

It follows that, because of its substantial resources, Australia can make a significant contribution to the stability and reliability of energy supply through its uranium exports.

. . . .

The motivation for countries to move rapidly towards the development and utilisation of fast breeder reactors, which are fuelled largely with plutonium, would also be reduced by increased assurance of supply.

that means Australia-

Fast breeder reactors can produce as much fissile material as they consume and so offer a high potential degree of energy security . . . through being a reliable long term supplier of uranium, Australia is in a position to contribute significantly to international energy security. By so doing, Australia will also reduce to some degree the desire of nuclear power countries to seek greater energy security by the reprocessing of spent fuel and the commercial introduction of fast breeder reactors. Although there is public concern that, by being a supplier of uranium, Australia is likely to contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we conclude that this is not the case and that the risks of proliferation will be reduced. Australian uranium is supplied under very stringent safeguards against diversion to use in weapons.

The ASTEC report's recommendation in this regard, which has been entirely disregarded by the Government, is worthy of consideration. Recommendation No. 9 is:

That Australian participation in stages of the nuclear fuel cycle in addition to uranium mining and milling should be permitted, where such participation promotes and strengthens the non-proliferation regime.

The report highlights this recommendation by stating:

In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia could usefully take initiatives to seek joint national involvement in the provision of fuel cycle services. While a number of countries in the region can be expected to develop nuclear power programs, it would be undesirable, in terms of proliferation and economics, for most to have complete national fuel cycles. Similarly, it would be undesirable if such facilities were concentrated in one country. The complementary role of Australia and Japan as nuclear suppliers and the strong non-proliferation commitment of both countries could provide a focus for developing such an activity . . . We have already concluded that, as a reliable supplier of uranium under stringent safeguards, Australia makes a positive contribution to non-proliferation.

Recommendation No. 9 has not been taken into consideration by this Government. The Government's policy was announced on 7 November 1983 and remains unchanged in the face of this report. The Opposition believes that this situation is scandalous. The Government's policy is irrational. It perpetrates a general lack of knowledge about the uranium industry, Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle and international safeguards, and it seems to concentrate on the negatives and not the positives that the products of a resource can bring to Australia. It does not recognise the distinction between the development of peaceful uses of the uranium industry, from which Australia stands to benefit, and the link between our uranium industry and international involvement in global energy security and nuclear non-proliferation. The policy of this Government is inequitable and unfair. It results in a net cost to Government and lost opportunities in terms of employment, exports and income. It is ridiculous to suggest that a $30 billion resource should stay in the ground and cost the Government money by way of outlays to keep it there.

The ASTEC report was released in May 1984, almost two years ago, but the Government did not respond until May 1985. We are only getting this legislation now. The Government should not delay any further in regard to the matters I have mentioned before accepting and implementing recommendations Nos 1 and 9 of the ASTEC report.

I would like to contrast the record of the Government with what the coalition has always fairly laid on the line, both in the original reports of the Fraser-Anthony Government and in indications since. The coalition totally endorses all the recommendations of the ASTEC report on the nuclear fuel cycle. I have mentioned our qualifications on some recommendations and there may be other recommendations of the report we would not follow through. However, the recommendations regarding the nuclear fuel cycle are thoroughly endorsed by the Opposition.

Opposition members-Hear, hear!

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I thank honourable members. The coalition supports the mining and milling of uranium subject to stringent Australian health and safety safeguards. In this area secondary processing of the resource can make a significant contribution to the economy and the work force of Australia. The coalition would allow exports of Australian uranium subject to stringent conditions of supply designed to strengthen the non-proliferation regime under bilateral safeguard agreements and supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but we certainly do not believe in the indiscriminate sanctions which are applied by the Government at the moment. The coalition would remove the veto on the development of proven uranium deposits such as Jabiluka, Koongarra, Yeelirrie, Beverley and Honeymoon. We would support the exploration and development of further commercial uranium deposits. We would co-operate with industry in assessing the feasibility of establishing a commercial uranium enrichment industry in Australia for peaceful purposes only, and under IAEA supervision. The Opposition would encourage the continuing research and development in Australia of the technology of the safe disposal of nuclear wastes. We would promote improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of IAEA safeguard operations. We would maintain an active role in high international standards of safety and surveillance and advocate an expanded safeguard system incorporating the most stringent safeguards which are part of the existing bilateral arrangements.

What is worrying about the legislation before this House today are the restrictions imposed by the Government on involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. These restrictions will severely limit the functions of ANSTO. The functions defined for this new organisation are likely not to be broad enough to allow adequate support for the further development for peaceful purposes of uranium and nuclear industries. The Opposition considers that the proposed organisation to replace the AAEC should be able to participate fully in any future research and development of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, the Opposition believes that the Government should be able to educate the public and generally promote developments such as those we have mentioned.

The coalition does not oppose this legislation but welcomes a fully-fledged debate, for the first time in many years I believe, on the subject of nuclear power in Australia and the mining of uranium. If we look at our energy resource projects throughout Australia, such as the petroleum industry, we see that the taxing policies of this Government are slowly but surely killing off a very important industry to Australia as far as liquid fuels are concerned. A visit to the Bass Strait oil fields will indicate that the well is drying up and is fully past its potential. The chances of exploration for what oil resources might remain in Australia are being diminished and restricted because of the taxing policies of this Government. I hope that in this debate members of the more radical sections of the Government might realise the mischief they are creating to the economy. The opportunities are there. They must be grasped now if Australia is to become energy efficient into the year 2000 and beyond. We must also take into account the problems which face the world in the development and mining of energy and consider what other countries have done about them.

It is ironic that while the Government condemns the use of uranium this Government, which seems to take a lot of its messages from Moscow, has a nuclear power base for peaceful purposes. We had the disastrous example of Chernobyl last year, but at least the USSR is prepared, with all the resources it has-unmined petroleum and coal-to develop the fuel cycle. It should not be taken from my comments that the coalition adheres in any way whatsoever to a belief in the use of uranium in the cycle for the purposes of warfare. That is certainly not my view or the view of my colleagues. It is about time this Government took its head out of the proverbial sands-the tar sands I think, because it is up to its neck in them--

Mr Lloyd —They need a new clear policy.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —It needs a very new clear policy in this regard. It is about time it took away the blinkers of the Left, the rearguards and all the other guards, which seem to bind them to the idiotic view that the use of uranium for any purpose is not on.