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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 525


Mr MILTON(4.50) —The House is presently considering nuclear energy legislation comprising three Bills, namely the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1987, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill 1987 and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill 1987. I intend to concentrate my contribution in this debate on the provisions of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill which deal with the need for a greater emphasis on the commercial aspects of the Organisation. In this respect I read with great interest the contributions made in the debate in the Senate on the Bills on Tuesday of last week. In that debate comments were made by a number of honourable senators on food irradiation.

I was rather disturbed to find that Senator Puplick appears to have made up his mind that the irradiation of food by nuclear isotopes is a safe process. I would remind honourable members, in case Senator Puplick may have been speaking on behalf of the Opposition, that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation is presently undertaking an inquiry into food irradiation to ascertain whether the process involves dangers to human health. As honourable members will know, I am Chairman of the Standing Committee, and I was pleased to note that the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, made it clear that he had no intention of pre-empting the report of our Committee or pre-empting the soon to be delivered report of the Australian Consumers Association on the same issue, as Senator Puplick was apparently prepared to do. However, despite the Minister's assurance, it was perhaps a little unfortunate that in some of his remarks he appeared somewhat partisan in support of food irradiation, although he did at least agree:

There may be issues deserving the justification of further research and report.

As the Standing Committee's inquiry is well under way, I will say no more about food irradiation except to suggest to honourable members that they await the presentation of our report in November before jumping to conclusions.

A matter of great concern to me has been how the debate on the Bills has progressed in this House. Last week and today members of the Opposition and, regrettably, at least one member on our side of the House enthusiastically supported the development of nuclear power. A number of honourable members described nuclear power as the cleanest method of energy production yet devised, a claim which is complete poppycock and which indicates an abysmal lack of knowledge about the by-products of nuclear power. In fact, the nuclear industry is responsible for the greatest repository of poisonous waste the world has ever seen, far more deadly to human beings, for example, than the noxious fumes resulting from energy produced from coal or oil. Members of this House must appreciate that currently there is in operation no known method to dispose safely, either permanently or in long term retrievable storage form, of the dangerous radioactive wastes produced by the nuclear industry.

The nuclear industry is now over 40 years old and has found no permanent solution to its waste problem. We must recognise that, even if there were a complete and immediate shutdown of the whole nuclear industry, there would still remain the major problem of the nuclear waste stockpile to be dealt with. In this respect the success or otherwise of the synthetic rock synroc as a means of waste encapsulation is a vital issue. I will deal in more detail with synroc later in my speech. Suffice it to say that it is not being unrealistic or alarmist to say that what we do with radioactive wastes will have a major impact on the future of this planet and, as such, is an issue which cannot be left to the nuclear industry, which has a vested interested in minimising the problem. It is about time that the honourable members on the Opposition benches realised that the abhorrence of nuclear power which is held so strongly by many honourable members of this side of the House is based on cold, hard facts. I will have more respect for the speeches of the pro-nuclear members in this House when they give some recognition to the fact that a severe problem is presented by nuclear waste.

In October last year I, with other members of the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, took the opportunity to visit the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's organisation at Lucas Heights. The high flux Australian reactor, or hifar as the Lucas Heights reactor has been called, became active on Australia Day in 1958. So it is a very aged nuclear reactor indeed. Whilst it was clear to me during the inspection that the staff are most sensitive about the safety procedures, it is understandable that many local residents would like to see the nuclear reactor closed down and the operations of the highly qualified work force diverted to non-nuclear activities. It is in this particular respect that I welcome the legislation presently before the House, because it permits a wider application of the scientific and technical work of the organisation to research which is not so closely related to the nuclear fuel cycle. (Quorum formed)

Once again, we find the Opposition wasting the time of this House, calling quorums quite unnecessarily. Let me make my position clear. Whilst I recognise the great value of nuclear isotopes in, for example, the detection and eradication of disease in human beings, I am totally opposed to the mining and processing of uranium and to the nuclear industry in general. I do favour, however, the establishment of a cyclotron which could perhaps be constructed on the Lucas Heights site after the decommissioning of the hifar reactor, which because of its age cannot be far away. I have noted the remarks of the Minister for Resources and Energy in the Senate about the limitation of cyclotrons in the production of certain nuclear isotopes but remain unconvinced that we need a nuclear reactor in order to produce those isotopes which are in greatest demand for medical uses.

My visit to Lucas Heights served to arouse my interest in the alternative employment opportunities which can be offered to the staff at Lucas Heights with the acceptance of this legislation by the House. I understand that approximately 1,215 people are employed by the Government at Lucas Heights. In addition to the large reactor which I inspected there is also a much smaller reactor, although much of the nuclear research is carried out in laboratories, some of which are located a kilometre away from the large hifar reactor. The research facilities at Lucas Heights are notable as being amongst the best equipped in Australia. The highly trained staff, comprising scientists, engineers and technical, trade and clerical workers, with the use of the industrial research, engineering equipment and laboratories, could be re- directed into vital research work on important high technology industrial processes and product development. Examples would include advanced ceramics, silicon chip, optical fibre and telecommunications. Research in such developments is vital in providing the necessary support for Australian raw material and manufacturing processes.

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for high unemployment in Australia is that we have, because of the economic mismanagement of successive Liberal-National Party Governments, failed to develop manufacturing industries which can process our raw materials. Conservative governments were foolish enough to believe that Australia would always survive on the export earnings of our mining and primary industries. The Australian Nuclear Service and Technology Organisation is custom built for expansion into these value-added areas of development research and a move away from research into uranium enrichment, nuclear reactor design and nuclear fusion technology anticipates that in time the new non-nuclear research activities would mean a gradual lessening in the involvement of the work force in nuclear research, the de-commissioning of the two reactors and the phasing out of all nuclear research activity.

However, I do support one activity which is related to the nuclear fuel cycle and that is the development of the synthetic mineral, synroc. I have spoken about synroc in the House on a number of occasions, mainly to criticise those people, including Ministers, who attempt to portray synroc as the answer to all the problems of the alarming world accumulation of high level radioactive waste. Synroc is not the answer but it does appear to be a process which may be used to dispose of some of the most dangerous of radioactive wastes.

Let me remind the House that a 1983 report prepared for the United States Environment Protection Agency estimated that by the year 2,000 the civilian nuclear power industry in the United States would have produced 800 million litres of high level waste. The world-wide figure would be roughly three times that amount, amounting to 150 litres for every man, woman and child in Australia today. If military high level waste were included, there would be almost one litre of this toxic and life destructive waste for every human being on earth.

I noticed that in Tuesday's Senate debate the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, scathingly referred to emotional comments in uranium debates. I hope that he has the opportunity to note the facts on high level radioactive waste which I have presented to the House. There is nothing emotional in my comment, just cold hard facts, and I have made no mention of the even larger quantities of low level and medium level wastes which are constantly being produced by the nuclear industry. It is irresponsible of the supporters of nuclear power, both inside and outside this House, to ignore the nuclear waste problem.

I hope, in the next few weeks, to produce an up-dated edition of the January 1986 paper entitled `Radioactive wastes and nuclear accidents: Unresolved problems of the nuclear industry, jointly produced by Chas Collison, one of my research assistants, and me, which will cover in some detail why, in my opinion, the nuclear industry should be wound down. Suffice to say that the facts contained in the paper are most alarming. Whilst I have, as mentioned previously, been critical of the extravagant claims made that synroc will solve the radioactive waste problems, I believe that the Australian Government should support its development in view of the serious accumulation of high level waste.

I take the opportunity to point out that even if the nuclear industry were to cease its operations around the world immediately, the grave danger to human life presented by the ever-growing stockpiles of radioactive wastes is so great that synroc, if proved successful, can deal only with some of those dangers. Incidentally, while I had the opportunity to inspect the demonstration plant at Lucas Heights which is producing synroc, I was unable to ascertain whether current experiments were indicating the more refined synroc material could successfully contain high level radioactive wastes.

Research in Japan includes encapsulating high level waste in synroc as well as borosilicate glass and szedite ceramics. The Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute will incorporate high level waste from spent fuel elements into small synroc specimens in 1987-88 for testing purposes. In Britain, high level wastes from spent fuel elements have also been encapsulated in small samples of synroc at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. It is reported that testing will commence soon. Here in Australia at Lucas Heights, low level radioactive waste has been encapsulated in small laboratory scale specimens of synroc and the product tested with reported excellent results.

Let me emphasise that whilst synroc is being tested by Japan, Britain and Italy as well as us, it is still at the experimental stage. Even if synroc is proved to be a suitable repository for high level radioactive wastes, there is a problem of what happens to the waste while it is stored in cooling systems for some 20 to 60 years to allow partial decay and to reduce the heat energy being given off. Where is the waste to be stored and what about the cost of eventual encapsulation in synroc? Some people have suggested that this waste could be transported from the cooling ponds to Australia. I point out to them that that is virtually impossible. There is no safe and known method by which that material could be transported by ship.

Let nobody be fooled into thinking that the development of synroc means that the nuclear industry should be allowed to continue its operations while it produces the most deadly and harmful wastes known to human beings.

I hope that I have said enough in this House to make it clear that we can only hope that synroc is proved to be successful as it is most necessary to help to clear up some of the dangerous mess that already exists. But make no mistake, the cost will be phenomenal. People in those countries using nuclear fuel should be asking who is going to meet the cost of the clean up. The large multinational corporations using electricity derived from nuclear power will, I am sure, not be paying their share. It will be the taxpayers as, indeed, taxpayers are already paying for the cost of developing synroc. The nuclear industry should be paying for the development costs of synroc and the other radioactive waste containment costs, not ordinary taxpayers. Let me emphasise again that the nuclear industry is now over 40 years old and has found no permanent solution to its waste problem.

Up until the late 1970s nuclear power was considered vital to our future and the natural successor of fossil fuel in power generation, despite the unresolved problems of plant safety, waste disposal and links with nuclear weapons proliferation. The 1980s have seen mounting opposition from environmental and peace groups to the nuclear industry and the bold economic claims for cheap electric power have proved to be ill-founded. Furthermore, the controversial waste disposal issue has raised more questions and provided fewer answers over the last decade. We must recognise that even if there were a complete shutdown of the whole nuclear industry today, we would still have a major problem to deal with-the waste stockpile. In this respect, the success or otherwise of synroc as a means of encapsulation is a vital issue.

Let me also add that so far no site for permanent disposal of high level waste has been selected anywhere in the world. There is no general consensus as to what geological formation should be used, nor are there any plans to retrieve the waste for treatment and reburial should something unplanned happen at the permanent disposal site, such as a major leak or a geological disturbance. How do we leave details for future inhabitants of this planet, warning them of what we have hidden beneath the earth's surface? What kind of language would need to be used for those messages? Remember those messages have to be read by somebody perhaps 100,000, 200,000, or 300,000 years, and maybe even longer, into the future. All these questions need to be answered before we can say that the waste problem is solved.

Approval of the Bills before the House means that the successor to the Australian Atomic Commission, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, can diversify its highly skilled research activities into non-nuclear research and the legislation, accordingly, has my strong support.