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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2979

Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia) (1:23 PM) —I rise today in support of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. In so doing, I note the contribution of the member for Solomon, whose position is forthright and consistent both within Labor Party forums and in this place. This important bill will repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005. It will pave the way for Australia to fulfil our international obligation to manage our own radioactive waste. The bill will allow the government to nominate a single site as a radioactive waste repository. It will put in place a structured and well thought out process to treat and store affected material. It is an approach which is necessary and responsible.

In 2007, the government committed to repeal the former government’s Waste Management Act. It is time to deliver on that commitment. This bill will develop a long-term answer to the safe storage and management of radioactive material. It will also amend the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 by making site nomination fairer and open to review. Under the current act, introduced by the former government, there was blatant and deliberate disregard for communities living and working around a nominated site. Under this bill, greater community consultation and rights of review are introduced.

At this time, Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory is the only site volunteered as a potential radioactive waste repository. Since Simon Crean began the search for a national radioactive waste repository almost 20 years ago, there have been almost 20 years of reports, studies, tests and, finally, we have Muckaty Station. So it is now ‘make up your mind’ time. The site, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, belongs to the Ngapa people, who were dispossessed of their land, now known as Muckaty Station, at the turn of the 20th century. In 1991, the Ngapa people took control of the pastoral lease for Muckaty Cattle Station. The title deed was returned to the traditional owners in 1999. At that time, there were more than 400 traditional owners of the station and more than 1,000 people with traditional attachments to the land.

The Northern Land Council’s nomination in 2007 of land at Muckaty Station on behalf of the Ngapa people was properly conducted. The Northern Land Council has reported that support from the Ngapa groups was overwhelming. There was also substantial support from members of neighbouring Aboriginal groups. In the words of senior Ngapa elder Amy Lauder, as reported in the Tennant and District Times on 19 September 2008:

… only a few noisy individuals in other groups have opposed our decision about our country.

The Northern Land Council provided a detailed explanation of its consultations and the anthropological basis of the nomination in a Senate committee submission in 2008. The government will act in good faith on Muckaty Station. The bill will give the Ngapa community the right to be heard, consulted and engaged throughout the site assessment of Muckaty Station. This is quite simply the right thing to do.

A structured, science based approach to radioactive waste management is not only necessary but also absolutely essential to the sustainability and productivity of the nuclear sector and our economy. It is crucial that we meet out international obligation to manage our own radioactive waste. A working waste repository will deliver significant economic benefit through job creation, through infrastructure and through an investment in education and housing. This bill takes us in the right direction.

Australia produces both low- and intermediate level radioactive waste. Low-level waste includes contaminated paper, plastic, protective clothing and gloves, glassware, tainted soil, smoke detectors and all manner of minor items, such as luminescent emergency exit signs. Intermediate level waste includes operational wastes from the research reactor and also arises from nuclear medicines, including disused radiotherapy materials. Nuclear medical treatments and diagnostic tools create waste materials.

The bill will put an end to the ineffective way we have managed radioactive waste until now. Currently, waste is stored in more than 100 sites across regional and metropolitan Australia, as well as in every urban hospital, university and Commonwealth research institution. As the member for Solomon has said, it is also stored in shipping containers, filing cabinets and car parks. While safe, this situation is unsustainable and does not comply with world’s best practice or our international obligations. This is an efficient and counterproductive way to do things.

This bill will bring us into line with modern economies such as Britain and France; both of which have purpose-built repositories. These countries produce 25,000 cubic metres of joint waste per annum. In comparison, 4,500 cubic metres of waste has been produced in Australia since I was born. We produce less than 50 cubic metres of waste every year. To put this into context, an Olympic swimming pool holds 2,500 cubic metres of water. The total amount of radioactive waste in our nation is less than two Olympic swimming pools.

Our economy, medicine and lifestyle all rely on radioactive material in some way. We benefit from it in medical diagnosis and treatments, industry, agriculture, veterinary science and veterinary services, communications and our homes. Let us be clear: the benefit of radioactive material is significant. It is a driver of wealth creation in our nation and it saves lives. The benefit of nuclear technology, however, is not restricted to large-scale industry and the health system.

Every person in this chamber should have a life-saving smoke detector fitted in their home. They should encourage their constituents to fit them, too, and they should remember that 1 April is smoke detector test day. Smoke detectors often use low-level radiation. I note also that many people in the chamber wear a watch. Some watches and clocks also emit low-level radiation, and all of us have mobile phones. Other household items that use radioactive materials include ceramics, glass, fertiliser and even food. So, as we can see, the products of nuclear industrial processes are all around us.

The OPAL research reactor at Lucas Heights is a significant creator of wealth in the Australian economy. The main purpose of the Lucas Heights reactor is to provide neutrons for scientific research and industry through neutron scattering and irradiation. This has been described as an essential tool in many modern industrial processes, including the production of everyday items such as ipods, mobile phones, MP3 players, laptops and hybrid cars. They are all manufactured using nuclear technology in some small way. The fact is that we rely on radioactive materials.

In health, approximately 500,000 patients benefit annually from diagnosis and treatments which use radioactive material. Most of these benefits come from improved diagnosis. Our hospital departments of nuclear medicine can now examine any organ with accurate low-dose scans to avoid invasive investigative procedures. The scans are painless and easy, and they improve the capacity to make the right decision about diagnosis, treatment, survival and quality of life. This is the technology which extended the life of my father last year, shrinking his oesophageal cancer and restoring his capacity to swallow, adding quality to his life. These are real people and they are real lives and nuclear medicine provides very real health benefits.

The industry also contributes revenue of approximately $62 million annually to our economy. In accepting the benefit, we must face the challenge of responsibly and sustainably storing our waste. Australia is party to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. This means we have a binding international obligation to safely process and store the waste we produce. This bill will ensure that we are able to meet our obligations.

Schedule 1 of the bill provides review rights while schedule 2 honours the Commonwealth’s existing commitments to the Ngapa traditional owners made by the former government in 2007. It will allow for Muckaty Station to remain an approved site. Part 2 of the bill will repeal the restriction of sites to the Northern Territory and ensure other sites throughout Australia can be nominated. Three sites on defence land in the Northern Territory have been removed, in line with the 2007 Australian Labor Party pre-election commitments. Part 3 of the bill will ensure that comprehensive environmental, meteorological, hydrological and heritage valuations must be considered prior to the final selection of a site. These assessments will be permitted to proceed unhindered by state and territory laws.

Part 4 of the bill will ensure land surrounding a nominated site can be assessed and reserved for supporting infrastructure. This will provide the government with the means to acquire and develop land identified for access roads. It will ensure selected sites are able to be developed as a repository. Part 4, in line with earlier parts of the bill, will also allow a regional consultative committee to be established to ensure ongoing community consultation and engagement.

Part 5 will permit environmental assessments on a selected site without obstruction from state or territory laws. It is essential that environmental evaluations are performed. It should be noted, however, that many of our very high environmental standards in mining started life as part of the regulatory framework created for and by the uranium mining industry in the Northern Territory—for example, the valuable processes of environmental impact statements. It may well be that Australia gets better waste management protocols as a consequence of the initiatives in this bill too. Part 6 of the bill will ensure acquired rights and interests can be granted back to the original owners in the case of land already volunteered by a land council. Part 7 will ensure affected parties are compensated if required.

This bill is absolutely necessary for Australia to meet its international obligation to manage its own radioactive waste. It will allow the government to nominate a single site for a radioactive waste repository. It will put in place a structured, scientific and well-thought-out procedure to treat and store affected material. The bill will provide the government with appropriate powers to develop a research based approach to storing low and intermediate level waste. It will provide greater emphasis on community consultation, environmental assessment and international responsibility. The bill will also provide a foundation on which the Commonwealth can work with the Muckaty Aboriginal Land Trust and the Northern Land Council following the environmental assessment. It will put an end to our overreliance on Britain and France to store the waste which delivers economic and health benefits to Australians.

In conclusion, every Australian is responsible all for creating a small amount of nuclear waste every day and, therefore, every Australian is responsible for finding a sustainable solution to waste storage. I am pleased our country will for the first time take responsibility for the processing and storage of waste material generated here in Australia. We can no longer accept the benefits of radioactive waste without the responsibility. This bill will deliver economic and social investment to the Northern Territory. It is well-thought-out and is quite simply the right thing to do. I commend this bill to the House.