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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 413


Mr TICKNER(9.10) —It would be a tragedy for the debate on such important pieces of legislation to degenerate into a mere exchange of slogans and some of the hackneyed and, I think, rather discredited arguments that have been trotted out in the uranium debate over the last decade in Australia. In the course of the debate I would hope that we can move beyond that to some constructive debate about not only the question of nuclear energy but also the role that Australia ought to play, given the events of Chernobyl and the resources that we have available to us.

I speak on this package of legislation not just because I have a long-standing interest in the subject matter of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill but also in my capacity as the local Federal member for the electorate of Hughes, in which the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights is located. This legislation replaces the Australian Atomic Energy Commission with a new organisation to be known as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. This reform is decades overdue and is indicative, I believe, of the winds of change that are sweeping through the Lucas Heights research laboratories. These changes have long term implications and will promote a significant expansion of employment opportunities for residents of my electorate.

The legislative package before the House will remove for all time what must be considered by a fair-minded legislature as a blot on the legislative landscape; that is, the Atomic Energy Act 1953. I propose in my remarks to look to the future but I do want to refer to that old legislation in order to stress the need for reform. That Act was a draconian and secretive piece of legislation born of the Cold War era. It was primarily based on what the then Minister for Supply, Mr Beale, described as the Government's-that is the Menzies Government-determination that newly discovered uranium deposits would `be vigorously and promptly exploited for the defence of Australia and its allies' or in the words of the more forthright W. C. Wentworth, the then honourable member for Mackellar:

Our prime duty is, within the minimum time, to get the maximum amount of uranium into the arsenals of the free world.

I quote from the Hansard of 1953. The aim, in other words, was to contribute to the greatest extent to the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

The Atomic Energy Act, which was of doubtful constitutional validity, was passed at a time when Australia was used as a testing ground for nuclear warheads developed in the United Kingdom. As an indication of the draconian nature of the legislation, it inhibited journalists, scientists or workers from discovering or disclosing any information about dangerous or doubtful activities at Lucas Heights or about occupational health and safety issues. These provisions are nowadays quite properly rejected as absurd by the Atomic Energy Commission and by all thinking members of the community. It is a strange irony that over a decade ago I was publicly campaigning for the repeal of that obnoxious piece of legislation, never dreaming that one day I would be representing the electorate of Hughes and speaking on the very Bill that was to give effect to that repeal. (Quorum formed)

As the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) pointed out in his second reading speech, the Bills before the House constitute far more than a superficial change of name, as the Bills are intended to transform the Organisation to meet the expectations of the community. One matter worthy of comment is that the legislation will prohibit the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation from undertaking any research or development into the design or production of nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. The Labor Government has gone far beyond this by the passage of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Bill. That Bill, which my colleagues unanimously supported, closes off the nuclear weapons option for Australia. Australia has now become the first independent sovereign country in the world to have ever passed a law which prohibits the development or acquisition of nuclear weapons. That Bill also prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons in our country and the permanent stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia. That Bill was opposed by all Liberal and National Party members of the Australian Parliament, to their everlasting shame.

The details of the legislation will be covered by my colleagues in their contributions to the debate. I propose instead to deal with broader issues of social policy, and environmental and employment questions relevant to ANSTO's future. I begin by reiterating my close relationship with the work force of Lucas Heights, ranging from senior research scientists to metal workers, drivers and the trade unions and associations which represent them. It was following my visit to Lucas Heights and discussion with scientists that I proposed to the Australian Labor Party Caucus that the Government initiate the establishment of a House of Representatives standing committee on science and technology. This proposal, which I believe has bipartisan support, has now been accepted by the Government. As I have indicated before, I believe that I am well qualified to talk about the future of Lucas Heights. I also mention that many of my close friends and supporters who work at Lucas Heights are active members of the ALP. I also reiterate my continuing public commitment not only to maintaining employment at Lucas Heights but also to supporting initiatives which will greatly boost employment opportunities.

One reason why I welcome the new legislation is that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation will be able to take up the recommendation of the 1986 Committee of Review of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission chaired by Professor R. E. Collins of the Australian National University, and become applications oriented and outward looking. The most interesting recent proposal for Lucas Heights is that a technology park be set up alongside the research laboratories for the development and manufacture of technology intensive products. It was reported correctly in the Australian newspaper on 31 December that the Sutherland Shire Council supports this proposal and that the park would have links with Wollongong University, the Illawarra Technology Centre and the Macarthur and Nepean institutes of technology. Of course, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission has been heavily involved with the proposal and supports it.

The main advantage of siting a technology park at Lucas Heights is that the very considerable engineering, testing and computing facilities of ANSTO would become available for nuclear and non-nuclear research and development as needed by the park's private enterprise inhabitants. This would represent a considerable advance on some other technology parks in Australia. It is my view that in addition ANSTO would be strongly motivated to carry out contract research for the adjacent companies. Under the right conditions a technology park would stimulate that outward looking, applications oriented research development which I believe is so important. It is for this reason that I am a strong supporter of the technology park proposal and have had detailed discussions with members of the steering committee set up to investigate the park.

The proposed site for the technology park is on the border of the 1.6 kilometre buffer zone around the Atomic Energy Commission in New Illawarra Road, Lucas Heights. I look forward to working closely with the steering committee and will be lobbying my colleagues in the Federal and State governments to give their support to the proposal. I urge the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation also to become actively involved in this exciting project.

As the local Federal member, one of my aims has been to stimulate and promote greater government, scientific, trade union and community debate-informed debate-about the future of the Lucas Heights establishment. It is often mistakenly thought that concerns about the safety aspects of the Lucas Heights reactor are of recent origin. In fact, my predecessor, Mr Les Johnson, who is now the Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand, in his maiden speech in 1956, 31 years ago, said:

Large numbers of my constituents have emphasised the need for placing the utmost importance on measures to ensure the safe operation of the reactor, the most stringent supervision of waste effluent disposal, and the many and complex safety considerations.

That was a long time ago and showed a great deal of foresight by my predecessor, Les Johnson.

The Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) has rejected calls for the immediate decommissioning of the reactor, but both he and the Commission have repeatedly publicly indicated that the lifetime of the refurbished hifar Australian reactor will end in 1990 or the 1990s. That stated time is not very far away. In the light of that, it is vital that planning begin now for that time. There is no doubt that the technology park proposal and the development of a national cyclotron facility are vital parts of planning for that event.

I turn now to what I see as the vital question of whether or not ANSTO will be able to meet the expectation of the Collins review; that the Commission should be outward looking and that the days of excessive secrecy should be put to an end. My hope is that the new leadership of ANSTO and its advisory bodies will ensure that ANSTO takes up the idea initiated by Sir John Carrick, a former Liberal Minister with responsibility for the Atomic Energy Commission, who spoke in a very moving and well thought out way in the Senate following the tragic Chernobyl accident. I quote what he said, because of the importance of his words:

We must not simply say: `It has not happened to us so it cannot happen'. I talk of a world scene. In my judgment, there is a need for full and frank scientific discussions on an international level-international conferences and scientific seminars to bring out the details. There is a need to look at the International Atomic Energy Agency and to equip it with the full power not only . . . to examine whether any reactor is adding to nuclear proliferation of weapons, but also to look at the safety details and to report in a global fashion.

I draw those words to the attention of the honourable member for Dawson (Mr Braithwaite). Sir John Carrick continued by stating that there is a need immediately to set up in Australia an expert task force drawn from the Atomic Energy Commission and our universities. He said:

We should equip that task force with the power and the responsibility to collect all information about what has happened at Chernobyl, about the fall-out of radioactivity over the European land mass and about the various accidents that have happened in reactors around the world. It should have the power to look at the International Atomic Energy Agency to see whether we can give it more power to ensure that safety factors are being observed.

I regard it as absolutely fundamental that we in Australia should not just sit here getting caught up in what will be the ugliest nonsense-all sorts of pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear arguments-when the real situation is that Chernobyl has sent us a message about the universality of radioactivity and the need for us all to act quickly.

In the light of that, I turn to the record of the Atomic Energy Commission in this area. I note that the Commission has spent a vast amount of public money on public relations. Arising from a question I have asked in the Parliament, it has been revealed that the figures for 1978 to 1985 show that an amount exceeding $1m has been spent in those years. The tragedy for Australia has been that, in the past, sections of the Atomic Energy Commission's management have been, in my respectful opinion, unnecessarily paranoid. Rather than the Commission being independent and scientific in its approach to nuclear energy and research it has at times been little more than blinkered and at times even intellectually and scientifically dishonest in many of its official publications.

I felt deeply saddened when, in the wake of the tragic Chernobyl accident, the Commission, with the wisdom of hindsight, purported to speak with authority about the dangers and faults of the Soviet nuclear power reactors. It should be the job of ANSTO not to express concern with hindsight but to be forthright, honest and open in its assessment of the safety of reactors, not only in Australia but throughout the world.

As a graphic demonstration of the past failures of the Commission in this area, I refer the House to question on notice No. 3906, which I asked in 1986, directed to the Minister for Resources and Energy. I asked whether the Atomic Energy Commission in its entire history had ever once in its official publications been critical or expressed concern about the safety aspects of the nuclear power industry anywhere in the world. The answer to that question was no, on not one single occasion had that concern been expressed.

I draw the attention of honourable members also to question on notice No. 4206 of 1986, in which I highlighted the fact that the uranium producers' forum had applauded the expansion of nuclear power in the Soviet Union and commented that problems encountered earlier had then been overcome. Regrettably, that was only two months prior to the Chernobyl accident. Those questions demonstrate graphically the need for the Lucas Heights establishment to be more open and accountable and to act in the public interest to independently assess the safety of nuclear reactors world wide. I believe that under the new legislation exciting new opportunities will be available to ANSTO. I compliment the Commission for its work and the recent announcement of the development of the gas phase enrichment monitor, which is an improved method of monitoring adherence to the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. These are the sorts of initiatives which can bring great credit to ANSTO.

I have two particular concerns which have not been adequately addressed in the Bills before the House. I believe that it is essential for proper local accountability that the Sutherland Shire Council should be continually and closely involved in the future work of ANSTO. I note with approval the Council's call for the monitoring of safety issues to occur with greater independence from ANSTO and the Council's call for involvement in this process. Local resident groups, which have expressed deeply felt and well researched concerns about issues of public safety at Lucas Heights, also should be involved in the future of ANSTO. I hope that my good friend the Minister for Resources and Energy and the new board of directors of ANSTO will act to involve the Council and local residents in the work of ANSTO. There will have to be a breaking down of barriers to achieve effective communication and accountability.

I conclude as I began, by saying that the package of legislation before the House will enable the winds of change to continue to sweep through the Lucas Heights establishment, bringing benefits not just to nuclear science and the employees of ANSTO but also to the entire community of the Sutherland Shire and hopefully, dare I say, to the world.