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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 544


Mr BARRY JONES (Minister for Science)(8.31) —in reply-This has been a cognate debate and, as usual, it has been very wide-ranging. About the only thing common to every speech is that the word `nuclear' has appeared somewhere. I will not take the time of the House to answer at length all the points made but I should identify some major ones. The contribution by the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Everingham) raised the question of Commonwealth ownership of uranium. The Northern Territory Government does not have executive authority for the granting of mining titles for the development of uranium, unlike the States, where titles can be issued without reference to the Commonwealth, although the Commonwealth export control powers are a de facto control on development in the States.

In the Government's view transfer of ownership of and executive power over uranium-prescribed substances-to the Northern Territory would not be consistent with its policies. The Commonwealth's ownership of prescribed substances in the Northern Territory was preserved under the provisions of the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act in 1978, brought in by the Fraser Government of blessed memory-which, in retrospect, looks like one of the great radical reforming governments of our time-which recognised the special significance of uranium and decided that continued ownership was appropriate for the full implementation of its policies. That is a view to which this Government subscribes. Additionally, any transfer proposal would be inconsistent with the Government's policy of prescribing the development of additional uranium mines, which is a general policy applying to all prospective developments, irrespective of their location. The Government accepts that the Northern Territory does not have the same rights as State governments with respect to ownership, but that in itself does not prevent the development of new uranium mines in the Territory. The essential element is that the Government's uranium policy prevents further development. This policy applies equally whether uranium prospects are in the States or the Northern Territory.

There was some discussion of supply and demand and what the industry's prospects were in the long term. The latest projection in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development red book shows that annual uranium production in WOCE countries-for a reason that I do not quite understand the acronym WOCE actually means `world outside centrally planned economies', which really should be WOCPE, but it is not-is now in line with annual reactor demand, but that stocks held by utilities still represent three to four years of reactor demand and world production capability is likely to remain above requirements until around 1990.

The market for uranium is confined by announced plans for new nuclear reactors. In that context, the Government believes that its three mines policy is appropriate, having regard to the high inventory levels and the availability of uranium from other sources. The Government's position has never been that there is no market for uranium but rather that the share of the market which Australia could reasonably expect to obtain in the immediate future can be supplied from the expansion of Ranger to 6,000 tonnes of uranium 308 per annum and Olympic Dam production from 1988 to around 2,000 tonnes of uranium 308 per annum. These two mines provide the basis for a twofold increase in Australian exports from around the turn of the decade.

I refer to the issue of uranium enrichment. During the term of the previous Government a private consortium called the Uranium Enrichment Group of Australia, UEGA, was studying the feasibility of a commercial uranium enrichment industry in this country. It selected the centrifuge technology of the European consortium, Urenco-Centec, for further study. The Australian Atomic Energy Commission's centrifuge technology was regarded as being too far behind other commercial rivals; so, under the previous Government, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission became an adviser to industry rather than a serious technology competitor. At the time when the present Government withdrew the AAEC services, UEGA was still engaged in the market study, and it was by no means certain that a commercial industry would have eventuated. Particularly with the world oversupply of enrichment services and the advent of laser technology, it is perhaps fortuitous that the UEGA study did not proceed. This legislation does not proscribe enrichment but the requirement to comply with the Government's energy and science policy should ensure, in a bout of--


Mr Braithwaite —Can't you read your own writing?


Mr BARRY JONES —In this case it is not my writing. Anyway, we need a rush of realism to the head. There has been much exaggeration about the economic benefits that would flow automatically from enrichment. A question was raised earlier by the honourable member for Hindmarsh (Mr Scott) about food irradiation. He asked to what extent there was competence on that issue inside the AAEC. The Atomic Energy Commission has been involved in research for over 20 years, in recent years with particular reference to participation in international projects.


Mr Scott —But what does it know about food irradiation? That was the question.


Mr BARRY JONES —It has a considerable record of expertise in this matter. I draw the honourable member's attention to something which is one of those weird coincidences in which life abounds. This very day I tabled the Atomic Energy Commission's report. I draw the honourable member's attention to pages 45 and 70, which describe some of its work in food irradiation. The AAEC is involved in the International Atomic Energy Agency's Regional Co-operative Agreement research into aspects of food irradiation in Asia. As the honourable member knows, in Australia the regulatory authority essentially rests with the States, and the National Health and Medical Research Council has recommended model regulations. The subject is currently under review by the Australian Consumers Association, it having been directed to do this by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett). It can be said that the AAEC has scientists in the area who have international recognition and credentials.


Mr Scott —That does not go to the quality of the food after it has been irradiated. It does not have any expertise there.


Mr BARRY JONES —I hope that when the ACA carries out its research it takes advantage of some of the considerable expertise inside the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in that area. That information is freely available. As with the question of uranium enrichment, it may be that market forces-and we have heard a lot about market driven responses-will mean that food irradiation may have a seriously detrimental effect on the quality of the food. I can understand that some products like mangoes that come down from Queensland could have a more extended shelf life for a few days. That might be quite a serious factor for the Queensland suppliers. Whether it will mean that strawberries, raspberries or other succulent fruit will be in demand if they are seen into the winter months when people know they do not normally have a long shelf life remains to be seen. It may be that there is a considerable buyer resistance, unless they compare favourably with fruits in season.


Mr Scott —But the Atomic Energy Commission does not have the expertise.


Mr BARRY JONES —The AAEC has people with exquisite taste buds. That is one of the reasons they are chosen. Finally, a number of honourable members have referred to synroc. Synroc is a great scientific achievement by one of Australia's most eminent scientists, Professor Ted Ringwood, FRS, of the Australian National University. The question, of course, is whether the potential consumers of synroc, the customers who are looking for a safe disposal of nuclear waste, are prepared to pay a higher price for a higher degree of security. The answer is, of course, not yet known. I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate and commend the Bill to the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.