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
Monday, 1 December 1986
Page: 3101

Senator McINTOSH(9.15) —Let us move from the Northern Hemisphere down to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty Bill 1986 and the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment Bill 1986. Before I start speaking to those Bills, I would like to say that I think it was most unkind of Senator Durack to characterise all the supporters of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty Bill as left wingers. The issue is a cross factional issue and many people who are not members of the Australian Labor Party would support this legislation. We will debate Senator Sanders's foreshadowed amendment when it comes before the chamber.

The purpose of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty Bill is to give effect to obligations Australia has as a party to what is known as the Treaty of Rarotonga. Implementation of this legislation is a necessary requirement before Australia can ratify this Treaty. However, the Bill goes beyond this basic requirement. It also incorporates sections of Labor Party policy which oppose the manufacture, testing and stationing of nuclear weapons in or by Australia. The Treaty of Rarotonga is an important regional step towards the ideal of nuclear non-proliferation. While it cannot prevent this region being tied into the strategies of the nuclear powers, it encouraged a climate of concern not only in the region but internationally as well. It is a signal to the rest of the world, and in particular to nuclear weapon powers, that countries in this region remain uneasy about their strategies. If we can advance further down a genuine anti-nuclear path as a result of this Treaty, it will be a significant step.

The Treaty bans acquisition of nuclear weapons by member states; it bans nuclear weapons testing; and it bans the permanent stationing of nuclear weapons on the territories of member states. These bans are very important in assuring neighbouring countries in Asia that we have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. However, it must be acknowledged that there is a whole range of nuclear related activities which are not ruled out by the Treaty of Rarotonga. These include nuclear weapons transit on ships and submarines within territorial waters; nuclear weapons transit on aircraft through territorial air space, nuclear weapons related command, control, communication, intelligence, navigation and scientific bases and installations; military exercises involving nuclear armed vessels and aircraft; nuclear powered vessel transit and port calls; nuclear waste disposal on land; and military alliances involving the potential use of nuclear weapons by an alliance partner. Two other highly important nuclear weapons related activities which the Treaty does not, and could not, prevent are high seas transit by nuclear armed ships and submarines and international air space transit by nuclear armed aircraft. We would have no effect on international laws by trying to pass such legislation in this country. These are indisputable facts.

The Government does not disagree with this analysis. These points are listed by the peace movement as the key omissions from the Treaty. At least the Government and the peace movement agree on one thing. The Treaty is limited in its effects. Australia's relationship with the United States of America is especially important to the limitation on the Treaty. That is an undeniable fact. Because of this, I simply cannot understand why the Opposition is against the Treaty and why it will vote against this Bill. Neither the Treaty nor the Bill affects in any way the existing defence relationships between the United States of America and Australia. Perhaps Washington is uneasy about it. It plays a role in creating a climate of concern about the whole principle of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. It challenges the view that the threat of use or deterrence is fundamentally acceptable. However, if the Liberal Party is not prepared to go even that small step it will have no chance at all of convincing the electorate that it is really serious about its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.

There are acknowledged limits to the Treaty of Rarotonga. Many members of the Australian Labor Party as well as members of the peace movement look forward to the day when this and similar treaties will encompass more anti-nuclear weapons activities. But it is a step forward, just as the Bill before the Senate is an important step forward. This Bill will make Australia, I am told, the first country anywhere to pass a law which will have the effect of banning the testing, acquisition and storage of nuclear weapons. This is in the interests of all Australians.

I turn to the Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Amendment Bill. This Bill gives effect to obligations that Australia has as an active party in international treaties, such as the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. This Bill is testimony to the seriousness with which the Government has taken its responsibilities to ensure that internationally declared commitments cannot simply be wiped away at the whim of executive decision-making. With the passage of this legislation, any changes by executive administration will require an Act of Parliament, so allowing proper scrutiny of the proposed changes. The Bill also indicates the seriousness with which the Government views increasing international government and non-government concern about the dangers associated with the whole nuclear cycle. I think it is interesting to observe that the nuclear industry is still far from gaining widespread acceptance, or even indifference, to its progress. If anything, while governments in a number of countries may indicate plans to resort to nuclear power generation, there remains a widespread unease about safety. Of course, dramatic events such as those at Chernobyl are likely to increase this unease. The possibility of nuclear reactor accidents is a fact of life of the nuclear cycle. Such accidents lead to the fundamental problem with the whole industry; that is, the dispersal of radioactive material.

But, in addition to unplanned and dramatic reactor accidents, the dispersal of radioactive material is a natural result of the nuclear power industry. I am referring to the growing headache over what to do with radioactive wastes. For this reason, I am particularly pleased to support the Bill to amend the 1981 Environment Protection (Sea Dumping) Act. This Bill implements our obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty which prohibits the dumping of radioactive wastes at sea. The Australian Government strongly opposes the dumping at sea of any radioactive wastes or other radioactive material. This Bill lends weight to the Australian Government's active work at meetings of the London Dumping Convention to press for the maintenance of a moratorium on all sea dumping of radioactive waste. The London Dumping Convention, ratified by the Australian Labor Government in August last year, bans the disposal at sea of high level radioactive material. While there is currently an agreed international moratorium on the dumping of all radioactive wastes, this ban is not enshrined in the London Dumping Convention.The fact that countries with a nuclear waste problem have so far abided by the moratorium is an acknowledgment by those states that international concern about dumping at sea is increasing; it is not decreasing. The fact that the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia are supporting the Bill is testimony to increasing, not decreasing, concern in Australia about the potential problems arising from radioactive waste dumping. When the original 1981 Bill was introduced into the Parliament by the present Opposition, the Labor Party amendments proposing complete prohibition on sea dumping were rejected. The coalition now supports these proposals, and that support is very welcome.

This legislation will prohibit the dumping at sea of material having a radioactivity level in excess of 35 bequerels per gram of material. A bequerel represents one disintegration of a nucleus per second. This choice of 35 bequerels per gram was apparently arbitrary. I understand that International Atomic Energy Agency standards for the purpose of transport, define material in excess of 74 bequerels per gram as being radioactive. As I understand it, the IAEA does not have a definition for a minimum level of radioactivity for the purpose of dumping at sea. We are told that the standard of 35 bequerels per gram compares roughly with the natural radioactivity of Australian beach sands which are mined for their mineral content.

I note in passing that the level of radioactivity of mineral sands has created concerns in my State of Western Australia, in the Capel and Bunbury areas. I recall a State Minister declaring that it was in the interests of people south of Bunbury for sand-mining to proceed, so as to reduce the potential radiation hazard. A radioactivity level of 35 bequerels per gram is higher than average background radiation. I understand that the average background radiation of sea water is about 15 bequerels per litre. This means material up to 35 bequerels per gram is over two thousand times more radioactive than sea water. Despite that, I am not aware of any challenge to the Government's choice of definition of what is radioactive for the purposes of this Act. The dumping at sea of any radioactive waste is the ultimate example of the expression `out of sight, out of mind'. I believe Australia as a nation should do as much as it possibly can to continue to oppose such activity. This Bill is testimony to the Government's commitment to the issue. The fact that it is supported by all parties will lend weight to present and future efforts by Australia to promote this important principle internationally.