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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 559


Mr SNOW(9.57) —The honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar) dealt rather lightly with the problems of nuclear power and somewhat more dramatically with the problems of fossil fuels. One would not know from what he said that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Bill results from a three-way bargain among 120 countries which are party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear Non-Proliferation is concerned with the vitally important control of fissile nuclear material, sensitive nuclear technology, such as enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, and certain materials of use in the nuclear fuel cycle such as heavy water and reactor grade graphite. Australia's commitment to non-proliferation has been enshrined in a number of international agreements. These are the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, our agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Australia's bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements.

The honourable member for Warringah and the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher)-the previous two speakers- quite rightly spoke about the need to consider nuclear energy as an option. One must concede that most energy producing resources in the world are fairly finite, as was stated by the honourable member for Lowe. It is true that if we could use nuclear power we would be harnessing almost infinite resources. One of the big problems is that we have not yet come up with safe ways of using nuclear power, through either fission or fusion. However, I point out that through the fusion process, where atoms are forced together, not cracked apart, there is somewhat more safety. Unfortunately, in the cases of both fission and fusion, the operating plants can be adapted to the production of weapons materials.

Only three or four years ago-in 1984-the Queen opened the Joint European-Torus JET-laboratory at Culham, which cost the equivalent of about $300m at the time and was designed to test the viability of harnessing nuclear fusion. The project brought together scientists and funding from about 10 European Community countries and two of their partner nations at the time, Sweden and Switzerland. They expressed the hope that by the mid twenty-first century, when oil and coal reserves would be running low, the world would be able to turn to fusion for virtually unlimited supplies of safe energy. Multi-million dollar projects are also under way in the Soviet Union, the United States and Japan testing that theory and developing the fusion technology. Unlike fission-the atom cracking process which fires nuclear power stations-fusion taps the energy generated when atoms of a particular kind are forced together. Certainly the fusion process is safer. One of the problems is that the neutron emission which occurs penetrates the whole of the machine or container of the process. So leaktightness is extremely important because virtually all the materials used in the construction of the reactor become radioactive.

There is a similar problem with fission reactors, but with fusion there is more choice in the materials used, thus there is more control over what radioactive species are produced as a result of the reaction. Most of the radioactive products in a fusion reactor have shorter half lives than in a fission reactor. This is also a benefit. A visiting lecturer, G. W. K. Ford, who visited the University of New South Wales during 1985, stated:

A pure fusion reactor would have no possibility of a nuclear criticality accident, and a fissile-breeding hybrid would be of such a geometrical arrangement that such an accident would be almost inconceivable. However, even in pure fusion reactors, induced radioactivity will impose a need for shutdown-heat removal and emergency core cooling to prevent melting; hybrids would have at least some of the shutdown cooling problems of fission reactors. There is good evidence that the Earth contains virtually infinite resources of fusion fuel materials for reactions based on the isotopes of hydrogen. They are very large even if the ocean resources are excluded. If, as seems most probable, it eventually proves economic--

(Quorum formed) I was just comparing fusion with fission in the nuclear process. I said:

If . . . it eventually proves economic to extract lithium from seawater, where it exists at a concentration of something over a part per million, the energy resource is sufficient for the needs of mankind-

for humankind, I should say-

for many millions of years.

Consequently world interest has concentrated on the-

deuterium tritium-

system but there are small groups studying fusion reactor systems that might avoid either or both of the inherent problems of tritium fuelling and neutron activation.

A critic of nuclear fusion, Lawrence M. Lidsky, in Technology Review of October 1983 asks:

Given all of fusion's liabilities, why are we working so hard on it? The universal availability of fuel has provided a strong motive to develop fusion, and it does promise some other substantial advantages over fission. To begin with, fusion generates much less radioactivity than fission, and there is no long-term storage problem for radioactive wastes. A fusion reactor would create a lot of tritium, which is radioactive and hard to contain. However, tritium's biological effects are relatively benign-it does not tend either to concentrate or to linger in living organisms-and it emits relatively weak radiation. After a short period of operation, the radioactivity from neutrons bombarding the structure of a fusion reactor itself would greatly exceed the feeble radioactivity of the tritium.

He goes on to admit, though, that it could well be worth while persevering. He examines neutron free fusion. He admits:

. . . the boron-11 reaction is nearly ideal. Neither the fuel nor the end products are radioactive. Furthermore, no neutrons capable of inducing radioactivity are produced.

Because all the products of the boron-11 reaction are charged, they could theoretically be harnessed to generate electricity directly, without the inherent waste of generating steam to run a turbine. However, the high electric charge of boron (it has 5 protons) makes the task of designing an energy-producing system very difficult.

My belief is that this ought not to stop us from continuing to investigate the possibilities of nuclear fusion. It has been found that tritium produces a very low, permissible concentration and incorporates itself into water. So we need to study systems which avoid the problem of tritium fuelling. Work is also proceeding on avoiding the problem I mentioned before of neutron activation.

It seems to me that the work that is being done in many countries throughout the world may allow us to achieve fusion within a few years, at fairly high research costs. But because we have very finite alternative resources we ought to persevere. If we can tape the energy which is available for fusion we will be able to move into new fields of engineering and technological research. Scientists are saying that fusion power is not likely until the year 2020 or 2030. Certainly, on the basis of the all too early entry into nuclear power with fission processes we ought to proceed very carefully. I welcome the inspections under the Bill before us, but I suggest that we ought to pursue the fusion alternative. I am pleased to support the Bill.