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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2958


Mr IAN MACFARLANE (11:52 AM) —The National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 seeks to repeal and replace the coalition’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 to establish a national radioactive waste management facility for low-level and short-lived intermediate-level waste. While the bill seeks to repeal the coalition’s act, fundamentally this bill still maintains, for the purposes of the establishment of a national facility, many of the clauses contained in the current legislation.

From the outset, I indicate that the coalition does not oppose the passage of the bill, as it is has been a longstanding policy of the coalition to establish a central waste repository for the storage of Australia’s low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. Whilst that is a long-term policy of the coalition, it is new-found wisdom for the Labor Party and current federal government. Such a repository would have been delivered long ago if it were not for the blatant hypocrisy of state and federal Labor governments who, at every opportunity, sought to thwart the establishment of such a facility for their puerile form of populist politics.

The coalition, for the 11½ years of the Howard government, sought to act in the national interest and construct a repository in a suitable location based on the highest level of scientific assessment of suitability. At every single opportunity state and federal Labor attempted to hamper this process despite the fact that they first began the search for a national repository and first trucked federal radioactive waste to Woomera in the time of the Keating government. The Minister for Resources and Energy argues that this bill implements an ALP election commitment to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005. Whilst this bill does repeal the act, it does so merely by replicating many of the clauses of the existing act in this current bill. Labor are seeking to implement a policy that the Howard government advocated strongly but which the current federal government opposed consistently when in opposition. For all of Labor’s bluster about the coalition being obstructionist, we are not as hypocritical in opposition as they were during the Howard government. The coalition support good policy in the national interest. We always have; we always will. In fact, our support of good policy, particularly under the Hawke-Keating government, is on the record, and I suggest that the Labor government look hard at it and that, when their turn comes—and may it be soon—to return to opposition they make a more constructive fist of it than they did last time. The Rudd Labor government have not sought to implement much good policy, and that is why from time to time we find, both in this House and in the other place, that we are forced to amend, not vote for or vote down their proposals.

The coalition is supporting this bill as it is coalition policy to have a sensible and coordinated approach to radioactive waste. When the tables were reversed in 2005, Labor in opposition voted against the coalition’s legislation to allow for a national radioactive repository. They voted against it, and now they have introduced a bill that tinkers at the margins with the existing legislation and, as I say, exposes the sheer hypocrisy of those on the other side who wish to use populist politics of fear and lack of facts in arguments against nuclear energy and nuclear waste.

Unlike Labor in opposition, the coalition have enough concern for the national interest to put petty politics aside and support this bill. But make no mistake: nobody should believe Labor’s bluster about coalition policy; if the government put forward decent policy the coalition will support it. The coalition appreciate that most Australians benefit either directly or indirectly from the medical, scientific and industrial use of radioactive materials—and I am one of those—and that, while safe, the current storage of radioactive waste across this country is not ideal. In fact, that is an optimistic view. When I was Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, I remember the campaigns run by those who now sit on the other side when we tried to progress issues in relation to the storage of nuclear waste and proposals to give consideration to including nuclear energy in our future mix. I remember the rubbish that went on about the dangers of nuclear waste, yet their counterparts in Labor governments around Australia have now been exposed for storing radioactive waste in containers in the middle of car parks, in the basement of hospitals and in the bottom of government buildings in the middle of cities, and it is great to see their hypocrisy completely exposed on this matter. If this sort of stupidity persists in the area of nuclear energy, we will again see the day when they have to capitulate on the basis of common sense.

Nuclear energy has a role to play in Australia just as the use of nuclear medicine has a role. Nuclear energy is used in every other OECD economy in the world. It is not used here because of the politicisation, scare tactics and cheap populism of those who sit opposite. If ever there were a time for leadership on clean energy, if ever there were a time for these people to stop their hypocrisy, if ever there were a time to plan for Australia’s clean energy future, it is now. Yet they continue to run this line that everything nuclear is dangerous.

11:59:26

We have got them a little way on this. We have got them to accept that radioactive waste in Australia is a reality; that there are Australians alive today—and I am one of them—because of radiotherapy, because of nuclear medicine. They accept that, begrudgingly, now that they are in government—now that they actually have to behave responsibly—but they did not accept it when they were in opposition. May the day come when that argument transposes into the reality that with nuclear power there have been fewer deaths per terawatt-hour produced than with any other form of energy. May they come to the realisation that without nuclear power Australia is committing itself to a long-term future of high-emission energy.

I return to the bill. While safe, as I said, the current storage of radioactive waste in Australia needs to be improved. There has been broad consensus on the need for a national repository for almost two decades. Australia’s current radioactive waste totals around 4,020 cubic metres of low-level and short-lived intermediate-level waste, and about 600 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate waste, including 32 cubic metres arising from the return from reprocessing internationally of ANSTO’s spent research reactor fuel, which is due to return to Australia in 2015-16—nearly five years from now. It is lucky that we will not have the international embarrassment of having waste returned to us and having nowhere to put it—lucky the Labor Party finally decided to acknowledge their hypocrisy and see common sense. A Senate committee in 2005 highlighted:

The amount of low-level and short-lived intermediate level waste that Australia produces every year is also low by international standards. Each year, Australia produces approximately 40 cubic metres of such a radioactive waste, less than the volume of one shipping container. By comparison, Britain and France each produce around 25,000 cubic metres of low-level waste annually.

However, as we have said for many years, it is sensible to find an appropriate site for the storage of such waste. As the coalition knows only too well, the search for a suitable site for a national radioactive waste repository has been a long one, frustrated by the Australian Labor Party at every stage. That is why this bill has a strong stench of hypocrisy about it. The search commenced during the term of the last Labor government. In September 1991 the then primary industries minister, now the Minister for Trade, Simon Crean, officially sought the participation of all state and territory governments in a coordinated search for a site for a single national radioactive waste facility. In August 1994, the then Labor government announced that CSIRO radioactive soil waste and other radioactive waste from ANSTO would be moved to the Department of Defence facility at Woomera for interim storage. The South Australian Labor Party turned a blind eye on that occasion to the Keating convoy transporting around 120 semitrailer loads of radioactive waste to Woomera in 1994-95.

This was also when the federal Labor Party listed the central north of South Australia as one of the possible sites for the repository. In 1996 the coalition government gave in-principle support to a national store in response to a Senate committee inquiry, and in 1997 the Commonwealth-State Consultative Committee on Radioactive Waste Management also reached an in-principle agreement on the need for a national radioactive waste repository. A number of further site selection studies subsequently occurred until it was announced in May 2000 that the search for a suitable location for the repository had been narrowed to five sites in central northern South Australia.

After forming government in 2002, the Rann Labor government, in a sign of pure populist politics—I hope the people in South Australia are remembering this—that has become synonymous with that government, announced that they opposed the creation of a waste repository in South Australia. The state that was basing its future economy on mining, and a big piece of that future mining operation was uranium, said they would not take radioactive waste. What absolute hypocrites. It was as if they did not produce any radioactive waste of their own—of course they did. Like all Australians, like all human beings, South Australians were benefiting from the use of nuclear medicine—were benefiting from radiotherapy and were seeing lives saved. Despite the economic wealth that that state was reaping and the obvious benefits to the community of the use of nuclear medicine, the government of that state—a government which is standing for re-election on Saturday—said no, they were just going to play political games, as they have in myriad areas over the term of their government. They said, ‘No, we will not have the repository.’ They used every trick in the book, including legislation and the court system, to frustrate the establishment of a national repository, despite agreeing in principle that one was required—a typical lack of leadership which now so highlights the failings of the Rann government.

Two of the preferred sites in South Australia passed environmental assessment, and a site of 40 acres on a pastoral lease 20 kilometres west of Woomera was named as the preferred site. Premier Rann is the Prime Minister’s biggest supporter—the only state premier not to ask for more details about the hospital plan before offering his wholehearted support and commitment. Again, you would wonder why—it has nothing to do with the election! I wonder whether Premier Rann would have been so obstructionist if he had been dealing with a federal Labor government, given that the South Australian Labor Party did not so much as bat an eyelid when Premier Keating trucked into Woomera 2,000 cubic metres of low-level waste and 35 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste without any public consultation.

In July 2005, the coalition government decided it would proceed to build a site for Commonwealth generated radioactive waste on Commonwealth land. We had conceded that the lack of leadership and the obstructionist attitude of the Labor Party, particularly in South Australia, had meant that we had to make another decision and quickly. In making that decision we stated that each state and territory would be required to build their own facility to house waste generated by their agencies within their respective states. I note with interest but not surprise that no Labor state government has moved to develop such a facility. We have seen them deny the existence of radioactive waste storage in their own cities. We have seen them deny the existence of radioactive waste in government owned buildings. They did nothing. It is typical of Labor governments—talk, talk, talk and nothing happens. Luckily, the parliament passed the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act in late 2005. This legislation—which was opposed at every step by the current government, by the Labor Party, in this House—facilitated the search for a site in the Northern Territory. Labor voted against the coalition’s bill at the second and third readings. The act specified three defence sites in the Northern Territory for further site investigation and facilitated nominations for other sites in the Northern Territory, including from a land council.

In 2007, the Howard government announced that the Northern Land Council’s nomination of Ngapa land as a potential site for the Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility had been accepted. In fact, as they always do, Indigenous communities were prepared to show leadership even when the Labor Party did not. This site was nominated under the existing act and a site nomination deed was entered into in 2007 between the Commonwealth and the traditional owners, which also permits the nomination of other sites by the Northern Land Council on this land. Labor has indicated that they will honour this deed and the current bill permits this.

Federal Labor called the coalition’s decision to locate Commonwealth radioactive waste repository on Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory a ‘fiasco’ and the 2005 legislation as riding ‘roughshod over the rights of all Territorians and Australians’. I wonder what they are saying today. I wonder what the member for Lingiari is saying as he travels around the Northern Territory. I wonder what the Prime Minister is saying. I wonder if they are actually prepared to admit they got it so badly wrong.

The Labor opposition that voted against the coalition’s bill in 2005 is now, in government, proposing a bill that is very similar—in fact, almost identical—in content and will likely result in the same outcome. Unlike Labor, the Northern Land Council took a particularly mature and responsible leadership approach during the debate on the 2005 legislation and the coalition applauds them for their approach. We are pleased that the government have indicated that they will honour the site nomination deed that was entered into between the Commonwealth and the traditional owners in 2007 in relation to a potential site on Ngapa land. If only Labor had had enough foresight in opposition to acknowledge that a national repository was a sensible approach that required strong and decisive action. The coalition highlighted, when we were seeking federal Labor’s support for our approach, that the current approach to storage by state governments meant that in basements in universities, hospitals and car parks across this country low-level radioactive waste was being stored—safe but not ideal.

Overall, the establishment of a national radioactive waste repository is a longstanding coalition policy that was frustrated by Labor for the entirety of the Howard government. It is much more sensible for waste to be stored in a specially designated facility rather than in ad hoc sites across the country. Further, there is a contractual obligation on Australia to accept the return of waste shipped overseas for reprocessing in the mid-1990s. Labor has a longstanding history of playing politics on this issue, refusing to support action in the national interest, but the coalition is putting sensible policy ahead of populist politics in helping to facilitate the passage of this bill. That is in stark contrast to the lack of leadership we have seen not only from those who sit opposite but also from the South Australian Premier and the Labor Party in general. I have to say that I am pleased that something good has come out of this delay and this hypocrisy—that is, this facility will be able to deal with that state owned nuclear waste. That is the only good thing that has come out of a decade and a half of hypocrisy from the Labor government.

Having settled this issue—and assuming that they can actually hold their ground and see this facility built—the next challenge for the Labor Party will be to see if they can have a scientific, fact based debate on the inclusion of nuclear energy in Australia’s future. I am not saying we need a power station in everyone’s backyard, but I am sure the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government will say that. I am not saying that we need to rely heavily, or even to the percentage that we rely on coal, on low-cost, baseload energy, but I am saying it is totally irresponsible for this country to continue to go forward in a climate challenged world striving for reliable, low-emission energy and not to have a sensible discussion about nuclear energy and the role it plays. I know—and I will not embarrass them—there are those who sit on the other side of this chamber who support nuclear energy, who understand fully the importance it plays all over the world, who understand fully the standard of living it secures all over the world, who understand fully the economic development it secures all over the world and, most importantly, who understand that at the moment it is the only clean energy baseload supply other than hydro—which will not be built in Australia in the future—that we can rely on.

So, having made the only sensible decision on the storage of nuclear waste, the question for the government is: can they be big enough, can they show enough leadership and can they set aside their political opportunism and participate in a debate that will secure Australia’s future? I challenge them to that and I support the bill.