Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2261


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs) —I table a report on Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle. I seek leave to make a statement on the report. A similar statement was made by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) earlier this afternoon.

Leave granted.


Senator RYAN —I seek leave to have the text of the statement incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

Following the Government's examination of policy in relation to the export of Australian uranium last year, I wrote to the Chairman of ASTEC, Professor Ralph Slatyer, on 9 November 1983, requesting that ASTEC undertake an inquiry, under his personal direction, into Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The inquiry was asked to examine in particular:

Australia's nuclear safeguards arrangements, giving particular attention to the effectiveness of the bilateral and multilateral agreements, and to the scope for strengthening these agreements;

the opportunities for Australia through the conditions of its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle to further advance the cause of nuclear non-proliferation , having regard to the policies and practices of recipient countries; and

the adequacy of existing technology for the handling and disposal of waste products by consuming countries, and the ways in which Australia can further contribute to the development of safe disposal methods.

The Council was subsequently requested to include some consideration of the issues raised by the possible extraction of thorium for nuclear use from Australian mineral sands containing the mineral monazite.

The Slatyer Inquiry was an integral part of the Government's uranium policy decisions announced last November.

At that time the Government decided that:

(a) the Roxby Downs Joint Venturers be advised that if a commercial decision to proceed with the development of Roxby Downs were to be made by them, the Government would permit the export of uranium produced from that mine; and the export of the uranium would be subject to whatever safeguards arrangement applied generally to uranium exports at the time of export;

(b) with the exception of Roxby Downs if commercially feasible, the Government not permit the development of any new uranium mines;

(c) all future exports of Australia's uranium-under both existing and any future contracts-be made subject to the most stringent supply conditions, such conditions to be determined by the Government following an inquiry into Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle.

In setting up the inquiry, the Government considered it to be important that there should be an independent and objective audit of policies and practices in regard to Australia's uranium exports to ensure that they contributed to and strengthened Australia's pursuit of its disarmament and non-proliferation objectives.

The Government also sought a scientific assessment of the adequacy of ways in which countries managed and disposed of radioactive waste.

ASTEC, as the pre-eminent Council providing independent advice to the Government on science and technology questions, was judged best-qualified to perform this role under the personal direction of Professor Slatyer.

The terms of reference for the inquiry focused primarily on the issues of non- proliferation, safeguards and waste management, both because of their intrinsic importance, and because they are of particular concern in the community in relation to Australia's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

The final report reflects a broad interpretation of the terms of reference, and provides a comprehensive identification of the elements of the fuel cycle and the issues which they raise for the export of Australian uranium.

The report indicates that while the percentage of world electricity requirements which will be generated by nuclear means cannot be forecast precisely, no new energy source is likely to have a significant impact for the next quarter century. Accordingly the report notes that the world can be expected to rely largely on coal and nuclear energy, supplemented by oil, to provide the major part of its electricity requirements for this period.

This would be the case even if Australia were not to export its uranium.

The report notes that there is no shortage of uranium in the world to supply fuel to the nuclear power industry, and points out that the future development of the nuclear power industry will not be dependent on Australian uranium, and will proceed irrespective of whether or not Australia is a supplier.

The report suggests that if international tensions are to be reduced and the prospects of a peaceful global environment enhanced, the importance of national and international energy security cannot be overemphasised. It notes that disruptions in the supply of resources of any sort have been a cause of international tension and, through human history, have led to war.

The report points out that countries which do not have indigenous energy resources are most concerned to ensure reliability of supplies, and to this end place great emphasis on diversity of supplies and the political stability of supplier countries. For this reason many countries have turned to nuclear energy for electricity generation out of concern about reliability of oil supplies both in the short and long-term.

The inquiry has concluded that Australia, through being a reliable, long-term supplier of uranium, is in a position to contribute significantly to international energy security.

Further, the report brings out that assurance of reliable long term supplies of uranium at reasonable prices will also reduce the motivation for individual countries to seek greater energy security by carrying out more steps of the fuel cycle, particularly reprocessing, within national boundaries.

Against this background the report concludes that Australia will best be able to make a significant contribution to non-proliferation and world peace if it is actively involved in the nuclear fuel cycle.

By involvement of this kind, the report argues, Australia will be able to make a direct contribution to the development of the civil nuclear fuel cycle in ways that will increase global energy security, strengthen the elements of the non- proliferation regime and reduce the risks of misuse of civil facilities and the diversion of nuclear materials from civil to military uses.

Without such involvement, global energy security would be less assured, and Australia's ability to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and to influence future developments in the fuel cycle would be reduced.

The report expresses the concern that we must all share that the prevention of nuclear war is of the greatest importance to all humanity.

A major component of global efforts to prevent such a war is prevention of further proliferation of nuclear weapons, either by an increase in the size of the arsenals of those countries which already have such weapons, referred to as vertical proliferation, or by an increase in the number of countries with such weapons or which have exploded nuclear devices, referred to as horizontal proliferation.

The report recognises that since nuclear fission not only provides power for electricity generation but also constitutes the explosive source of weapons, it is understandable that there should be widespread public concern about the degree to which civil nuclear activities could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons.

In this regard the inquiry makes a number of points.

The great majority of the countries of the world have found compelling reasons for not building nuclear weapons and have given a commitment not to do so by becoming members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They have also accepted safeguards on all their nuclear facilities so that their commitment to non- proliferation can be verified.

The report points out that if a decision is taken by a country to develop nuclear weapons this can be achieved, provided that the country has sufficient determination and a reasonable scientific and technological infrastructure. The absence of a civil nuclear industry would not prevent such a development, although the procedure would be more difficult and slower.

But the report suggests that, should a country decide to embark on a weapons program, it is unlikely to use a civil power reactor to do so, as this would be inefficient both in terms of producing weapons usable material and in terms of electricity generation.

The report concludes that the task for all countries is to create an international political climate in which actions leading to the growth of the arsenals of nuclear weapons states, and the extension of a nuclear capability to so-called 'threshold' countries, are not taken.

In this regard the report focuses on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as the most important multilateral non-proliferation and arms control agreement in existence -a view which this Government strongly supports and will continue to in multilateral fora, and in our discussions with other nations on non- proliferation and arms control matters.

The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening adherence to the treaty.

In particular it notes that continued support by many countries will depend upon the fulfilment of the three-way bargain contained in the treaty.

These involve a pledge by non-nuclear weapon states neither to manufacture nor acquire nuclear weapons and to accept verification of this, a commitment by all parties to pursue nuclear disarmament, and an undertaking to provide access by members to nuclear items for peaceful purposes. In this latter regard, the report refers to the importance of Article IV of the treaty, which affirms the right of all countries to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It also requires those countries in a position to do so to contribute to the further development of nuclear energy in member countries.

At a more fundamental level the report highlights the necessity not just of maintaining the non-proliferation regime, but of demonstrating that the obligations contained in the Treaty are being met.

In this regard, the significance of the forthcoming 1985 NPT Review Conference is emphasised as is the need to register some positive achievements in the field of disarmament before the future of the treaty is decided in 1995.

The Government has stresssed on a number of occasions and reaffirms the fundamental importance it attaches to the role of the Review Conference to the future of the NPT.

Among the Government's more important initiatives in support of an effective non-proliferation regime has been our backing for a nuclear free zone in the South Pacific. The report sees this as contributing to the international non- proliferation regime in a substantial region, as well as responding to the fears of small island states in the region about the future conservation and use of their major resource, the ocean.

There can be no doubt that the issues of disarmament and non-proliferation are among the most important of our time. It is the international community's ability to deal with them effectively which will determine our future.

It is particularly important that we be clear-sighted in our thinking on the issues involved.

The report notes that two key arguments have been put forward opposing Australia's involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

It has, for example, been suggested that the solution to the problems of nuclear proliferation is for the world to forgo the use of nuclear energy, and for countries such as Australia to take a lead by withholding supply of uranium.

The report rejects this suggestion, observing that the use of nuclear energy is an established fact of life, and that Australia's withdrawal would not affect the decisions that countries have made and will make to use nuclear energy.

A second line of argument is that, by supplying uranium to nuclear weapon states, Australia might be freeing up uranium for use in weapons. The report also rejects this argument, drawing attention to the fact that those states already have adequate supplies of uranium and are not assisted in any way by the supply of Australian uranium. Put more bluntly, the report concludes that denial of supply to nuclear weapon states would not affect in any way their weapons programs.

On the basis of these and other related considerations, the report concludes that there are more practical measures that Australia can take to assist the cause of non-proliferation than by withholding the supply of uranium. Principally these go to the strengthening of the existing non-proliferation regime; proposals made by the report in this regard will be addressed by the Government in the near future.

The report also thoroughly considers the issues involved in waste management and disposal.

It judges it to be absolutely necessary for countries to adopt high standards and to ensure that the best practicable waste disposal technology is employed.

The report advocates an approach which involves containing and isolating the source of radioactivity as far as possible.

The most effective way to put such an approach into practice is seen to be the confinement of the radioactive wastes in a stable waste form, and to isolate the waste form from the environment by additional barriers.

Proven methods are identified for handling waste with low and intermediate levels of radioactivity. The report, however, expresses reservations about the dumping of radioactive waste in the oceans, noting that, while this may be a safe procedure, much further work remains to be done before any final judgment can be made. In the meantime, the report urges Australian support for a continuation of the present moratorium on ocean dumping.

For high level waste, the report notes that investigations in progress, the level of technical knowledge attained, and the progress of programs of site investigation provide confidence that safe disposal of high level waste can be undertaken.

The results of theoretical assessments of geological repositories provide additional confidence that safe disposal of appropriately packaged waste is possible using existing technology, provided that the best practicable technology is used at each stage and that an optimum geological repository is used.

Under these circumstances, the report considers that any return of radioactivity to the biosphere can be held to safe and acceptable levels over long periods (up to one million years) so that maximum doses to the most exposed individuals would be a small fraction of natural background levels.

It considers, moreover, that the technology required to achieve these objectives is available.

The report notes the contribution which Australia can make to research and development in the area of waste disposal and recommends continued involvement in this important work. Attention is drawn particularly to the potential significance of the Australian-developed waste form synroc and it is recommended that work on synroc be continued. If the promise which synroc appears to hold is demonstrated by further research, the report concludes that its adoption by other countries should be pursued.

At this stage I should like to thank Professor Slatyer, the members of the Inquiry and ASTEC staff for the production of a comprehensive, thoroughly professional report. It should become the standard technical reference for those seeking an understanding of the issues involved in this complex and critically important subject, on which a range of views are held within the Australian community and indeed within the Labor Party.

My judgment and indeed my hope would be that it will further enhance the more rational and reasoned discussion of nuclear issues which has emerged in recent months.

The Government will give careful consideration to the ASTEC Recommendations, and as decisions are made, Ministers will advise the Parliament.

I commend the report to the House.


Senator RYAN —I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.