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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 516


Ms McHUGH(4.00) —This Government makes no apology for caring about restrictions on the nuclear industry. In rising to speak on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill I commend the Government for one restriction that it has removed in these Bills; that is, the restriction on free speech. The Government here is removing those severe and offensive security provisions of the old Atomic Energy Act-the sorts of things that the Opposition approved of. These provisions have been a blot on the statute books of the Commonwealth since the Act was introduced in 1953, when we were in a cold war situation and Australia was a testing ground for the development of British nuclear weapons.

The Atomic Energy Act not only could publish the disclosure of accidents in the uranium mines of the Northern Territory and machinery malfunctions at Lucas Heights but also made it impossible for many persons who might be prosecuted under the Act even to present a defence. In other words, the Act reversed the onus of proof and relied upon guilt by association just to deem guilty a person who published disclosures about the nuclear industry. These security provisions contained in Part IV of the Atomic Energy Act 1953 should be repealed if for no other reason than that they no longer reflect government policy or practice concerning the development of the uranium industry in Australia. Of course, a better reason to repeal them is that they encroach upon the fundamental civil rights of free speech and the due process of law. That is the sort of restriction that we lift in this legislation.

The Government should also be commended for introducing the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1985, which explicitly prohibits ANSTO from undertaking research into the design or production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosives devices. This is specifically prohibited by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Australia signed in 1973, and reinforced by the South Pacific nuclear free zone legislation.

Let us look at what ANSTO provides for. It is to be governed by an executive of up to seven members, a majority of whom will be required to be drawn from outside the Organisation. It is to be hoped that a trade union representative will be included in this executive. The ANSTO Nuclear Safety Bureau will be directly responsible to the Minister for monitoring and reviewing the nuclear safety of any nuclear plant operated by the Organisation. The present unit with this function is self-regulated and reports only to the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. It has been subject to much criticism, as was acknowledged by the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans).

The functions of the ANSTO Nuclear Safety Review Committee will include the present functions of the AAEC Safety Review Committee to periodically review and assess the effectiveness of the safety procedures of the Organisation. It would be very useful if this Committee could engage in community and local government consultation. The ANSTO Advisory Council of up to 11 members will provide independent advice to the Minister and the executive. This Council is to include at least one staff elected member but the majority of the members are required to be drawn from outside the Organisation-including ANSTO user groups. In setting up the Organisation in this way the Government has attempted to bring about some form of public accountability which simply has not existed before.

Let us look at the history of our only nuclear reactors, which are located at Lucas Heights, a southern suburb of Sydney. The Atomic Energy Commission was formed in 1953 with its primary task being to promote the rapid development of Australia's uranium resources. Because it was recognised that this role required a research establishment with a range of facilities including a research reactor; the establishment at Lucas Heights was begun. The first chain reaction took place in the hifar reactor in 1958.

It is hard to imagine now why Lucas Heights was chosen as a site for the reactor. It was selected because of its remoteness from residential areas. Only 5,000 people lived within 4.6 kilometres of the site. The population was confined within a 20-degree sector. The rest of the area was greenbelt land under the County of Cumberland planning scheme-not to become residential. Also, it was selected because of its ability to drain noxious waste and because of its proximity to the universities of Sydney. It gave the experts, who were nuclear physicists, ease of travel and an attractive living environment. There was also plenty of room for expansion.

The then Liberal Government, under the Ministry of Sir Howard Beale, the Minister for Supply and Development, authorised the development. It was opposed at the time by progress associations from all adjoining suburbs, by residents who had to close farms and market gardens and by oyster growers, because all cultivation of food products was immediately disallowed within three miles of the reactor. None of these people received any compensation. Concern by the authorities in those days resulted in severe restrictions: No further land to be rezoned residential within three miles of the reactor; no food processing; no institutions; and no development within three miles. These restrictions were imposed by none other than the Hon. P. Morton, a member of the Askin Liberal Government. It appears that the Liberals too were concerned about the safety of Australia's only nuclear reactor-and it was then only a few years old.

Let us look at the situation now that the reactor is over 28 years old. The zoning restrictions no longer apply. The population of Sutherland has mushroomed. By the year 2000, the population of Sutherland Shire is expected to be 200,000. A population of 60,000 is planned for the Menai area, the location of the reactor. As I said before, when the reactor was built, only 5,000 people lived within 4.6 kilometres of the site. Over the past two years, large tracts of land have been released within the three-mile buffer zone, just 1.6 kilometres from the reactor. This 28-year-old reactor has a history of leakages and shutdowns due to coolant problems. In fact, there have been 544 reported accidents since 1978 involving workers and others inside the establishment. In July 1984 there was a release of uranium hexafluoride at Lucas Heights. The State Pollution Control Commission and the Radiological Advisory Council were not directly advised of the accident. It took a whole month for the public at large to be informed that there had been an accident at Lucas Heights.

This new legislation is designed to make sure that that does not happen again. There have been continual reports of leakages of radioactive material, gaseous and toxic emissions and vandalism, operational faults causing a nine-month shutdown and, of course, bomb threats. A thousand spent fuel rods remain stored on the site. They will continue to be produced. Four hundred and fifty of those spent fuel rods will be transported through suburbs in the Sydney metropolitan area en route to the United States. Road transport will be used to take the spent fuel from Lucas Heights to the docks in Sydney and this will be carried out under strict security arrangements in accordance with the requirements of the Australian Safeguards Office.

But no matter how strict the arrangements are, and how much evidence the nuclear industry produces to convince us that the transport of spent fuel is efficient and safe, the best guarantee that it is possible to give about the trans- portation is that `preparations for the Australian shipment will ensure that it poses minimal risk to life and environment'. That is the conclusion of Mr David Coleby, assistant editor in a `Forum' article in Nuclear Spectrum. So there is good reason to have concern and to impose the most stringent safeguards possible. Minimal risk is not good enough. Residents in the surrounding area have every right to be concerned. It is no use people saying that Lucas Heights is not Chernobyl. There was a terrible accident at Chernobyl, as there was at Three Mile Island, which showed the world what can happen whenever there is a nuclear reactor. Lucas Heights is a much smaller proposition than Chernobyl; it is just that it deals in the same material.

The transportation of fuel rods and other radioactive substances requires Federal and State legislation to cover the consequences of any injury to persons or property. It is a very complex question and one which will need a great deal of informed debate. I am pleased to know that the Minister's Department has already started to develop a paper on this matter. Liability in these matters is a problem world-wide. Who accepts the responsibility? Is it the Government? Is it the industry? Is it the insurance companies? The accident at Three Mile Island showed us that this problem has not yet been resolved. Is it any wonder that the residents of Sutherland Shire are extremely concerned about living with a nuclear reactor? It would be foolish of any government or authority to dismiss their concerns as being trivial or emotional.

Thirty years ago the problems were recognised by the authorities and restrictions were imposed. That is not quite the case today. Those restrictions do not remain. The nuclear industry has been shrouded in secrecy for years. Lack of information has hindered the public in making appropriate responses and it has hindered governments as well. I was appalled at the way in which the concerns of the people of Sutherland were treated in the debate in the Senate earlier this week. The residents of the shire of Sutherland are concerned, intelligent and extremely well informed people who have spent years asking questions and who still have some questions unanswered. The people of the area are understandably worried that this establishment has the potential to be dangerous and harmful, and it is important, in the setting up of the new committees under this legislation, that recognition be given to community representatives who represent their interests and not those of the nuclear industry alone.

Personally, I would like to see the nuclear related research phased out at Lucas Heights. That is my personal position, which all honourable members are well aware of. This legislation, of course, does not permit that. It does, however, make provision for research on other matters to be carried out as the Minister directs. I hope that in the future we see our research efforts directed to work on high technology applications for industry, and alternative energy research in co-operation with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation-research programs that are designed and developed to suit the long term industrial needs of Australia. Such programs could retain all existing staff and utilise existing research facilities. Employment retention and opportunities are of deep concern to the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Tickner), and there is plenty of scope for employment opportunities. I say again that I will not see the residents of Sutherland disparaged as having groundless fears. In a recent report on safety in the nuclear industry it was shown that evidence pointed to the need for more research on the effects of low level radiation-and I certainly hope that more research is done in that area in Australia.

The Commission's research facilities at Lucas Heights are noted as being among the best equipped in Australia at the present time. Much of this industrial research and engineering equipment, its laboratories and its highly trained staff could, without too much difficulty, be redirected into undertaking important research work on industrial processes and product development in such important high technology applications as advanced ceramics and the silicon chip, optical fibre and telecommunications industries. Such important research is central to providing the necessary support to proposed new developments in the Australian manufacturing and raw material processing sectors. Advanced ceramics is an area which holds out promise for new applications in fields such as silica, alumina and zircon, all of which Australia has readily available. In fact, at present we are the world's leading exporter of zircon and alumina. The Materials Division already operates a ceramics laboratory which contains facilities for the manufacture of and research in industrial ceramics. Because these minerals are the building blocks of a new growth industry from which the Government can expect to benefit in terms of increased employment, taxation revenue and export earnings, there should be an immediate commitment to a program of encouraging investment in and the development of this industry.

An important component of this program is to provide our local industry with the ability to produce high technology goods which we otherwise have to import at great cost. The research establishment at Lucas Heights is a ready made, virtually custom built research facility for this purpose. It has been estimated that only 25 per cent of materials and equipment on site are suitable for nuclear research. Seventy five per cent of the facilities could easily be used for other purposes, leading to stability of employment in the area and a winding down of Australia's involvement in the nuclear industry. It is hoped that this legislation will be able to accommodate this important non-nuclear related research, as that would be a very positive and welcome consequence of this Bill.