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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 670


Mr IAN MACFARLANE (5:28 PM) —Today is Groundhog Day with the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. For me in particular a lot of time has been wasted to get us to where we are today. This bill moves 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 original act of 2005, it still maintains the basic crux of that legislation. I indicate to the House that the coalition will support this bill. This is one of the few good pieces of legislation we have seen come into this House in recent times and, unlike the Labor Party when they were in opposition and we moved a bill on this matter, we will ensure a responsible approach is taken.

This bill is well overdue; this facility is well overdue. We need to ensure that a repository is built as soon as possible, bearing in mind two basic facts. The first is that there is radioactive waste currently being treated overseas that has come from our Lucas Heights reactor, and which has to be accepted back into Australia in 2015. It is simply ridiculous to suggest that we will not take that waste, bearing in mind the commitments and contractual obligations that we have made.

But probably more important is the fact that around Australia, in highly unsuitable—yet so far safe—places, low-level nuclear waste is currently being stored. Where might that be? In shipping containers in car parks of hospitals, in basements of buildings in central CBDs and in hospitals, where state governments, who have abdicated their responsibility in this area, have no option but to maintain the waste in its current position.

For the 11½ years of the Howard government, the coalition sought to act in the national interest and construct this repository in a suitable location based on the highest level of scientific assessment and suitability. At every single opportunity the federal Labor Party and the state Labor governments opposed and hampered this process—every step of the way. They worked against establishing a waste repository. It gives me no pleasure to see the hypocrisy that is on show here today by those who sit opposite, who now realise that they could have saved 10 years of time by supporting the government of the day when we first put this forward.

In fact, the Labor Party attempted to hamper the process despite the fact that they themselves had begun this process. They themselves, under the then Prime Minister Paul Keating—by comparison a leader to what we have now—actually realised that something had to be done and trucked the first federal radioactive waste to Woomera. The Minister for Resources and Energy argues that this bill implements an ALP election commitment to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005. Whilst this bill does repeal that act, it does so merely by replicating the many clauses of the existing act in this current bill. Labor is simply trying to save face. All of this is a waste of time; we need to get on with it.

For all their bluster about the coalition currently being obstructionist, we are not as hypocritical—by any measure—as this current government were when they were in opposition and had to deal with this issue. In fact, we have always supported good policy, both previously when we were in opposition under the Hawke and Keating governments and now on those rare occasions when this government brings forward reasonable, well researched and well thought through legislation.

The coalition is supporting this bill, as it is really coalition policy in the first place, and always has been. But, of course, in supporting this bill we acknowledge that the Labor Party has had a conversion on the road to Damascus. If you look back at what was said in 2005 you realise just how big the hypocrisy is today when they put forward this legislation and ask us to support a bill which we have always supported; to support a principle which we have always supported and to support a principle which we have never politicked on, unlike those who sit opposite.

The coalition appreciates that most Australians benefit either directly or indirectly from the medical, scientific and industrial use of radioactive materials. I am but one of them, and without the benefit of radiation would not be here talking to you today. Some might see that as a blessing, but I am forever grateful.

While safe, the current storage of radioactive waste in this country is not ideal; in fact, to say anything of the kind would be an incredibly optimistic view. When I was the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources I remember the campaigns run by those who sit opposite when we tried to progress the issue in relation to the storage of nuclear waste and the proposals to give consideration to including nuclear energy in our future energy mix. I remember vividly the rubbish that was talked by those opposite, who were only interested in trying to scare people—they were not interested in finding solutions. They tried to twist and turn an argument for their own benefit when they knew, and certainly the health ministers, the resource ministers and premiers of those Labor states knew, that this waste was being stored right in the middle of cities. It is refreshing to see the honesty that those who sit opposite now have. It is refreshing to see they have capitulated and come to their senses.

We are also hearing some refreshing thoughts from the Minister for Resources and Energy, at last emboldened enough to out himself. We always knew he was a supporter of nuclear energy, and I do not in any way deride him for that. I congratulate him for his foresight, for his vision and for his understanding that if Australia wants to have clean baseload energy in the future, nuclear energy is an option we need to consider. Will the Labor Party have the courage to have the same debate on nuclear energy that they are now promoting on the storage of nuclear waste? Will the Labor Party have the courage to admit that if we do not have that debate in a honest, open and factual manner then we may leave Australia exposed in the future to a lack of clean energy, something none of us want?

We have seen an acknowledgement in their rush to impose a flood levy that the Labor Party are doing what the coalition had already decided to do, and lower their commitment to zero-emission coal. I suspect there are a number of reasons for that, and if they are the same reasons as ours then they are that that issue is progressing too slowly to be a viable alternative much before 2030. And the question remains: at what cost? Whilst the coalition still believe it is an area that needs to be pursued, we believe that the coal industry has more than ample capability to do the preliminary research and the building of the pilot stations themselves. I am sure, when we look at some of the record profits being turned in by the resource companies—which I welcome; I like to see companies making profits—that they could devote a little of those profits to the research and development area of clean coal.

With the Labor Party walking away from zero-emission coal, what is their alternative for low-emission electricity in a baseload sense? I suspect they do not have one. Apart from the minister for energy, they are still tied up in the same ideological debate that caused them to oppose this very bill when the coalition brought it forward in 2005. That same hypocrisy is still on show. There are people who sit on those front benches along with the minister for energy who, deep down inside, know that it is irresponsible not to consider nuclear energy, but they hide behind their political games. The day will come when people on that side of the chamber will have the courage of their own convictions and the courage that they should have as leaders of Australia to actually admit that nuclear power has fewer deaths per terawatt hour than any other form of baseload energy. May they come to that realisation as soon as possible. It is amazing that they could be so blinded in the 21st century.

Going back to the issue of the storage of nuclear waste, we have to make sure we have a long-term solution to this issue. Radioactive waste is a reality in Australia, for the reasons that I just outlined. It is because of radiotherapy, because of nuclear medicine and because we want to save the lives of fellow Australians. There is no point in delaying this. There is no point in putting up amendments to try and hold back the tide. The reality is that it is irresponsible not to proceed with this—with due caution but on the basis that it has to be built as soon as possible. The reason we are now jammed up against a deadline is, of course, because of those who sit opposite. They had their chance; they failed. They had a second chance, and the Prime Minister went to an early election. So here we are again, trying to debate legislation that was not needed in the first place and should have been acted upon earlier.

As we look at the requirements, Australia’s current radioactive waste totals around 4,020 cubic metres of low-level and short-lived intermediate waste, and about 600 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate waste, including 32 metres arising from the return of the reprocessing internationally of ANSTO’s spent research reactor fuel, which is due for return to Australia in 2015-16. That is four years from now. It is probably appropriate at this point that I also speak in relation to a foreshadowed amendment that I understand will be moved by the Greens. It is to delay this legislation further. I assure the House that the coalition will be voting with the government on this bill and against that amendment. There is simply no sense in delaying and no time to delay this any further. I say to those in the Greens who want to delay this: what is the alternative? Are you going to stop this research? Are you going to stop this nuclear waste building up? Are you going to tell Australians that they can die from cancer? Is that your solution? Or are you going to join the Labor Party in the end, who will eventually realise the error of their ways and say, ‘This is just nonsense. Let’s get on with it’?

It is sensible to find an appropriate site for the storage of this waste. There has certainly been a process which has been gone through. We did of course find a suitable site in 2002 in South Australia, where nuclear waste was already being stored in a suboptimum facility—an open-sided galvanised iron shed. It is still there, to the best of my knowledge, waiting for a proper site to be built. But guess what, Mr Deputy Speaker: another Labor premier showed that he is about politics and populism before pragmatism and reality. The Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, decided to stop that dump going ahead. He is a South Australian premier who has uranium mining in his own state and whose own people are benefiting from that uranium. His own people are benefiting from the medical research done that created the nuclear waste. It was double hypocrisy by the Premier of South Australia, and that is why the process then moved on.

There were two preferred sites, and a site of 40 acres on a pastoral lease 20 kilometres west of Woomera was named as the preferred site. But, of course, we had to abandon that site and look elsewhere, thanks to the hypocrisy and the obstructionism of the state Labor government. Luckily, parliament passed the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act in late 2005. It was opposed at every step of the way by the Labor Party. That bill then facilitated a search in the Northern Territory. 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, and so the process began again. Between 2007 and now, we have reached a an agreement between the Commonwealth and traditional owners which also permits the nomination of other sites by the Northern Land Council. They have agreed with the Ngapa site. Labor have indicated that they will honour this deed and the current bill permits this.

I conclude by urging everyone to talk sensibly about this issue. Frightening people for political purposes is not something I have ever engaged in in this House and, on a matter as serious and important as this, politics should be put to one side. What is required is strong and decisive action to get this radioactive waste out of the car parks, out of the basements and out of the hospitals and into a site that is purpose built to store it in absolute safety. The coalition will support this bill. As I have said repeatedly, we will ensure that Australia gets what it needs in this regard. But, once this debate is over, I hope the Labor Party looks at the issues that the Minister for Resources and Energy has already outlined with regard to where we go with baseload electricity in Australia: clean energy that we need if we are going to lower our emissions. I hope that we will again, just by chance, see the Labor Party engage in a debate, as they have on this since they have been in government, that has a scientific, factual base to it, and that we consider where nuclear energy fits in Australia’s future. I do not mean to embarrass the Minister for Resources and Energy by raising this matter twice in this speech, but unfortunately there are too few people of his calibre who sit on the other side and Australia needs to have a debate if we are to secure our clean energy future, just as we need to pass this legislation if we are to provide a safe repository for the radioactive waste that has come about simply by saving Australians’ lives. I commend the bill to the House.