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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2244


Senator TATE(3.50) —I intend simply to make some remarks for a few minutes before the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Walsh, enters the debate, as did the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney. The Australian Democrats, in the person of Senator Chipp, brought into the Senate this Bill for an Act to prohibit the importation of nuclear hardware and for purposes connected there with. I think it has to be recognised that this Bill represents a very considerable advance in the attitude of the Australian Democrats to the uses to which a community may put this remarkable element, uranium. The fact is that in October of last year a private member's Bill was introduced into this chamber by the Democrats. As I recall, that Bill dealt with an absolute prohibition on the export of uranium and yellowcake and on the importation of nuclear hardware. It was pointed out in the course of debate that this would have a very detrimental and drastic effect on the operations of the nuclear reactor research establishment at Lucas Heights which plays a very important role, among other things, in the provision of medical isotopes. I think it was conceded by the Democrats that there would have to be some modification of their absolute prohibition of the importation of nuclear hardware if the Australian Atomic Energy Commission were to continue to provide that service to those suffering from various diseases in Australia, principally cancer, who are dependent upon the production of those medical isotopes.

I see that in the Bill the Democrats envisage that permission be granted by the Minister for Resources and Energy to import nuclear hardware if he is satisfied that the hardware is essential for the purpose of enabling the Australian Atomic Energy Commission to maintain its capacity to produce isotopes for medical or industrial use. I think that it is important both philosophically and ideologically and also represents a real breakthrough that there has been an admission by the Australian Democrats that this element can have uses which are beneficial for mankind, if the community is prepared to put the most stringent safeguards on the use of this resource and direct use of that resource to matters which are truly beneficial to mankind. Whilst they are not yet prepared to go so far as to say that the production of electrical energy for peaceful purposes and perhaps commercial profit is such a beneficial use of this material , nevertheless their concession that medical isotopes are such is, I think, a very important breakthrough. I believe we ought to congratulate the Democrats on their openness to that possibility. The Democrats talk not only about medical isotopes but also industrial isotopes. That is another important use of isotopes .

It strikes me that the definition is still a little narrow in that we know that isotopes are also used for agricultural reasons, for hydrology and in various environmental studies. These uses are extremely important. Its use in hydrology is particularly important as it traces the movement of underground water systems in Australia. This is extremely crucial to our understanding of that water resource which is so essential to the development of our agriculture and the production of wealth and employment in this country. What is disappointing about this definition is that it would not allow, if it were implemented, the Atomic Energy Commission to carry out research into the properties of substances such as synroc. It does not seem to envisage-I do not know whether Senator Chipp intended this-the Australian Atomic Energy Commission playing any part in the important role of trying to find out how we can entrap nuclear wastes and ensure that they are held in form over future generations which provides no risk, or as little risk as is scientifically and humanly possible to achieve, in the irradiation of persons or substances coming into contact with leached or escaping nuclear materials. It seems to me that the least one could expect of the Commission would be that it engage in the world-wide search for a surer means of dealing with radioactive wastes. It seems to me that that ought to be part of any scheme which allowed the Commission, under very stringent safeguards , to remain in operation at Lucas Heights in order to carry out certain experiments.

I note that the Democrats' Bill provides for a very elaborate system of laying before each House of the Parliament within 15 sitting days of a declaration by the Minister of a granting of permission to import certain hardware. I believe that would be a useful technique for the community, not merely Ministers or parliamentarians who are members of special committees, to keep an eye on things . The public exposure of permissions granted can be well appreciated in a situation in which the public needs its confidence built up as to the adequacy, stringency and purposes for which the Atomic Energy Commission is able to carry out certain experiments and the production of certain isotopes. Briefly, I believe this Bill is a very considerable advance in the Democrats' thinking. I believe it is to be welcomed for that reason. I think that the Bill is still somewhat narrow. As I say, it does not allow the Atomic Energy Commission, as I read it, to deal with research into the disposal of nuclear wastes. For that reason, I am unable to support the Bill at the moment.


Senator Chaney —I rise to a point of order. The Opposition, in an attempt to be co-operative, has-


Senator Gareth Evans —That is not a point of order.


Senator Chaney —The failure of the Government to have a Minister in this place to deal with the Bill is inexcusable. The discourtesy of the Attorney-General, who is at the table now, is typical. I merely wish to say that the Opposition has tried to co-operate to prevent the Government making a fool of itself. The Government has an obligation to respond to the Bill. We have had the courtesy from Senator Tate of trying to provide some filler while the Minister for Resources and Energy collects his thoughts. It is the normal procedure in this place for the Government to put its views on a private member's Bill and the Opposition awaits that privilege.