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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2982

Mr RAMSEY (1:37 PM) —I rise to speak on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. The history of the national low- and medium-level waste repository in Australia is the history of a political stampede to the moral low ground—led, it must be said, by various components of the Australian Labor Party. The long-term storage of medium- and low-level nuclear waste in Australia has been a story of sheer hypocrisy. The part of the Labor Party which has been the most hypocritical of the lot has been the Rann Labor government in South Australia, but I will speak more of that later. This bill is about political reality, about decisions which must be made and about the responsibility of government. Now in power, the federal Labor Party must face up to the responsibility for the waste spread all over the country and face up to the fact that the luxury of opposition for opposition’s sake is gone. The bill repeals the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 and replaces it with a new act which largely does the same thing but gives the Commonwealth the extra teeth to override the state powers and effectively make the decision that the repository go in the most suitable location in the country.

It is worth while taking a look at exactly what this waste is. Low-level waste is contaminated laboratory waste such as plastics, glassware, paper, protective clothes, contaminated soil, smoke detectors and emergency exit signs. It is hardly the stuff of nuclear bombs, just the absolutely necessary used product of a modern technological society. Intermediate waste is the by-product of nuclear medicine, of the reprocessed nuclear fuel rods used in Australia to produce the medical isotopes and of disused medical and industrial equipment such as radiotherapy and soil moisture meters.

In the last 50 years, Australia has accumulated about 4,000 cubic metres of this waste in total, and much of it is currently stored in small stores in suburban and regional Australia. The rest of it is in temporary storage at Woomera in my electorate. The fact that the bulk of it is stored in temporary makeshift storage in suburban Australia says much about its nature. As the member for the seat in Australia formerly most preferred as the site for this facility, I have been asked on a number of occasions whether I support the establishment of a facility in my electorate. My answer has been consistent: the facility should go in the most suitable place in Australia, regardless of where that is, whether it be in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, North Queensland, Woomera or Muckaty Station. Local politics should not come into it. It should go at the best site.

Of course, after the rejection of Woomera, following the Federal Court appeal by the South Australian government in July 2004 and the clear message that South Australia would never accept a national repository from Mike Rann, the federal government abandoned the attempt and said it would instead build a repository for just Commonwealth waste and the states would have to look after their own because they had all individually refused to cooperate. Clearly this is nothing like a desirable outcome. If this waste has any harmful effects at all, then having one repository must be safer than having six or seven. Anyway, common sense was not to be one of the criteria for reaching a decision in this case. As a result, the South Australian Premier committed to developing a state repository.

What has the Premier done since that time? It will probably not come as a great surprise to the people of South Australia that the answer is: absolutely nothing. So this terrible waste that we would not store on behalf of the nation is not so terrible at all, because apparently it is quite safe, in the eyes of Mike Rann, to continue to store our share of it in hospital basements around the state. And nothing has changed. Most would be aware we are having a state election on Saturday in South Australia. Over the last few weeks, Mike Rann’s team has waged a public campaign against Isobel Redmond for an old statement, a historical statement, on the proposed repository in Woomera in which she said ‘the solution was probably the right one’. They continue to rush to the political low ground, to a scare campaign, at the same time as they deny the reality of the waste in hospital basements. It is a disgrace. Every country in the world has to store waste like this somewhere. Australia is probably the most suitable continent in the world for this type of project. It cannot be beyond our capability to get the job done.

All of this is an indictment of the level of political debate in this country—we see people as high in the system as a state leader and the federal leader of the Labor Party waging campaigns which they know to be dishonest and leaving issues to be addressed in the future by someone else. So here we are now in 2010, and the federal government is compelled by the circumstances to take its medicine and get on with the job, because in the end the decision can no longer be deferred. But it is worth remembering what the federal Labor Party’s attitude was in 2005. They opposed the moves to give the Commonwealth the power to establish the repository at the best site. They, too, were in the race to the political low ground, voting against the bills, totally committed to short-term opportunity. They know better. We know they know better, because now, we find that they are after all in favour of a national repository. They have been mugged by political reality. This bill is not about the establishment of nuclear electrical generation in Australia. But it does offer some powerful points on where that debate is likely to go while we have at least one side of politics which is prepared to lead this rush to the political low ground with public scare campaigns.

I recently attended a presentation by respected agriculture writer Julian Cribb where he informed the audience that the world will have a population of 11½ billion people by 2060. The demands for energy and resources will be enormous. There has been a billion tonnes of empty rhetoric in the world in the past few years about the need for the whole world to radically reduce our carbon emissions and to try and forestall climate change. In fact Prime Minister Rudd even said it was the ‘most important moral issue facing the world’. So we would assume that, as we grapple with this most important moral issue facing a generation, we would at least be considering all possible non-carbon-emitting technologies available.

In Australia we know we have the one technology that we may not even consider. Of course, that is the nuclear option. I agree with my leader, Tony Abbott, when he says there is no likelihood of a nuclear industry in Australia until we have a measure of bipartisanship. In fact, recent history dictates that if someone from my side of politics were to suggest we should have a national discussion about the possibility of a nuclear industry the shrill cries from the other side of the House would be, ‘Where you going to put it?’ If you speak to individuals on the other side they will tell you we should at least be talking about the possibility of a nuclear industry, but it cannot happen when the lowest form of scaremongering like this takes place. Of the G20 countries just one falls into the category of not having, is not building or is not planning to have nuclear generation capacity. That one country is Australia, the country with the biggest reserves in the world—around 40 per cent of total proven, easily-recoverable uranium. Why on earth would we not be considering the possibility of our own industry?

If climate change is indeed the biggest moral question facing our generation, as the Prime Minister used to say—I do hear too much of that any more—and carbon emissions are the cause then surely the biggest and most popular source of zero-emission generation in the world should be on the agenda? In fact, the biggest possible contribution Australia is ever likely to make to avoid worldwide CO2 emission reductions is to supply the nuclear reactors around the world with our uranium. If this industry is good enough, clean enough and safe enough for the rest of the world and we are prepared to export uranium, why on earth is not good enough for us? Would it be okay for us to poison overseas people, for them to disintegrate in a nuclear holocaust when it is not okay for us? It is an illogical argument. If it is safe enough for them, we should at least be considering it. The only ground we should be considering is the economic viability of nuclear reactors. If they do not stack up in Australia, we will not build them. That makes sense, but we should at least be considering them.

The Labor Party’s history on this subject is pathetic. In South Australia, Premier Mike Rann led the charge against the establishment of Roxby Downs in the early 1980s. Roxby Downs is predominantly a copper project, but it does have significant uranium supplies. Mr Rann even wrote a book called A mirage in the desert—I do not think it is in print anymore, I would be surprised if it was and I do not know if it has sold any more copies than the book by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. The mine, the primary product of which is copper, was totally opposed by the Labor Party. The mine would never have been established if it were not for the personal courage of Norm Foster, who crossed the floor and voted against his party because he knew that the project was essential. The industry was safe, it was desirable and the arguments against its establishment were nought but political opportunism. Norm Foster was rewarded for his courage and his strength of character with expulsion from the Labor Party that he had served all his life. Now we in South Australia have to watch Premier Mike Rann swanning around the state, giving the impression that if he did not discover the resource at Roxby Downs he did at least dig the mine himself single-handedly. You have never heard such hypocrisy. Where are the statesmen on this issue?

Mr Gray —On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker: we have been patient but the title of the bill is the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill and I would draw your attention to the fact the speaker is way off the subject.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—I ask the member for Grey to return to the bill. He has had some latitude from the chair.

Mr RAMSEY —I would be pleased to, Madam Deputy Speaker. The reason I brought the subject into the House is the political debate in the past on the establishment of the low-level repository in South Australia is a clear indicator of why this subject is so dangerous for political parties in Australia to broach unless we have some sign of political bipartisanship or at least a discussion on the subject. To return to the bill, I was pleased with the comments by the member for Brand in his summing up. He does recognise that most of this waste is hospital waste, industrial waste or smoke alarms and is not highly dangerous. The scare campaign run in the past had people from my electorate ringing up and saying, ‘We just heard there’s been a shipment go to temporary storage in Port Augusta. What if it falls off the bridge?’ If it fell off the bridge it would have less of an effect on the upper Spencer Gulf than if a load of industrial chemicals fell off the bridge or even if a load of cement fell off the bridge. It is not that dangerous and yet we have had a continued rush to the political low ground where people seek cheap, short-term political advantage on a subject that should never have raised any contention at all. This establishment should have been completed probably 10 years ago and certainly five years ago. The waste should not be in temporary storage in Woomera and it should not be in hospital basements all over Australia as the member for Brand, the Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia, pointed out. I am pleased that at last this is being addressed in an appropriate manner. It is a shame that it has taken so long to get to this point.