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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3558


Senator PUPLICK(8.25) —When the debate on the Australian Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1985, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology (Transitional Provisions) Bill 1985 and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill 1985 was interrupted on 8 May 1986 I had sought to make a number of points about the reorganisation of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission into the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. I had made the point about the attacks which Senator Sanders had made on the continuation of the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights and how ill-founded these were and about the positive contribution which the Atomic Energy Commission has made in assisting Australia's overseas aid program. I had just concluded making some remarks in which I said I hoped that the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) was going to be successful in his deliberations in Cabinet to provide funding for a new cyclotron facility to be located at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission headquarters in Sydney. I am very pleased that, since the debate was interrupted, the Budget has been brought down and Senator Evans has been successful in having funds allocated for the establishment of the cyclotron facility. I believe that he is to be congratulated for that and that the Government is to be congratulated for having made a very positive and significant decision in relation to the development of the nuclear industry in Australia and the continuing valuable role which will be undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission, now to be known as ANSTO, in its facility at Lucas Heights. Those who are concerned about the viability of that organisation and about the strength of scientific endeavour in Australia will share with me our appreciation of Senator Evans's ability to get that decision endorsed by Cabinet.

The next point which I had intended to make was that clearly one of the significant problems of the Atomic Energy Commission or ANSTO has been the age profile of the scientists that it is able to employ. It has had a number of staff ceiling arrangements imposed upon it, and one of the things that have happened, of course, is that there has been a tendency for the staff in the Atomic Energy Commission to bunch up, as it were, in terms of their age and there has not been sufficient opportunity for younger scientists to get employment in the organisation. In October 1986 the report of the Committee of Review of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, an excellent report from a committee headed by Professor Richard Collins, Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Sydney, drew attention to this matter. In his report Professor Collins said:

The appointing of a substantial number of young scientists to ANSTO is a matter of high priority.

Again I believe that the Minister and his officers would be very much aware of the need for the Commission to have the capacity to bring a number of newer, younger scientists into the organisation. When I had the pleasure of going to the facility at Lucas Heights a couple of months ago and spending a day there with members of my staff, very much appreciating the courtesy extended to us on this occasion, this was one of the matters that were particularly brought to our attention by the people at Lucas Heights with whom we had the opportunity of very lengthy discussions.

Another point I would make from the Collins report-I certainly do not intend to dwell on the recommendations of the Collins report in any detail-is that it makes the point that the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation needs to be given a very clear sense of purpose. It needs to be given a very defined and a very clear sense of purpose which undoubtedly will be a significant responsibility for the Minister to assume.

When I was discussing this matter in May there were a number of other points I wanted to make about the organisation of ANSTO. However, the passage of events since that date has persuaded me that I should, in fact, talk about an entirely different subject from that on which I had intended to talk but one which is very closely related to the work of ANSTO, and that is the question of the irradiation of food. This is a matter of high political as well as scientific significance. The Atomic Energy Commission, as it was-ANSTO, as it is soon to be-is playing and will play a vital role in coming to grips with this matter. On 5 June 1986 the National Health and Medical Research Council published a statement under the heading `NHMRC approves food irradiation'. The release reads:

The National Health and Medical Research Council today approved its Food Standard for irradiation of foods and recommended this be adopted by states and territories.

The Council, meeting in Brisbane for its 101st Session, recommended as well that only foods approved by its Food Committee be irradiated and adopted a formal application for approval to irradiate food to be included in its model legislation.

Members agreed that there was a need for public education about food irradiation and set up a working party to conduct an education program.

As far back as July 1983 the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, in its journal the AAEC Nuclear News, issue No. 15, had this to say:

Responding mainly to the pressing need to feed growing populations in developing countries, a United Nations committee took responsibility in 1961 for co-ordinating research into preservation of food by irradiation with gamma rays (and other ionising rays). After considering almost 30 years of research findings, the committee made a statement in 1980 that `No toxicological hazard is caused by irradiating any food up to a dose of ten kilograys, and hence foods treated in this way no longer need to be tested for toxicity'. (A kilogray is a measure of radiation absorbed by an object.)

The report went on to indicate that some 22 countries in places as diverse as Canada, France, the Netherlands, Hungary and the Soviet Union, had already established levels for food irradiation and had approved the use of this particular technique. In a report which was produced in the last couple of months by the United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Security entitled `Report on the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated food', a report by the Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods, the United Kingdom Department said this:

We are satisfied, from our review of data and having regard to the likely uses of the process, that ionising irradiation up to an overall average dose of 10 kGy, correctly applied, provides an efficacious food preservation treatment which will not lead to a significant change in the natural radioactivity of the food or prejudice the safety and wholesomeness of the food.

* * * *

We therefore agree with the conclusions of the 1980 JECFI-

a previous report-

namely that the irradiation of food up to an overall average dose of 10 kGy presents no toxicological hazard and introduces no special nutritional or microbiological problems.

Instead of acting upon these recommendations and instead of allowing significant firms such as Steritech Pty Ltd, a firm which has facilities in both Sydney and Melbourne and whose premises in Sydney I have visited and inspected, to get on with the significant process of irradiating food and providing for food preservation within guidelines laid down by the NHMRC and with the co-operation and assistance of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Government has now sidetracked this project. This decision will affect people such as beekeepers, who have been bringing their hives to Steritech for irradiation purposes, and food processors-for instance, the mushroom growers in New South Wales, who lose something like $1.25m a year in spoilage because they cannot properly extend the shelf life of the food. For the most extraordinary of reasons this Government has decided to take the evidence of the NHMRC, the United States Department of Food and Drug Administration and the United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Security and throw it all up in the air, forget all about it and say to the Australian Consumers Organisation-of all the ratbag, silly groups one could possibly imagine-`Here is $90,000 to go out and do a study on this subject'. That group is advertising in the newspapers for someone to come along and help it with this study. It has the money to commission studies and to send people overseas. This absolute ratbag organisation has been commissioned by the Government to second-guess the work of the NHMRC, consisting of some of the most eminent scientists and medical people in the country; to second-guess the work of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States; and to second-guess the work of the Department of Health and Social Security in the United Kingdom in order to bring about some sort of peace in the Caucus so that left wing members associated with the Food Preservers Union of Australia and goodness knows what else can be satisfied. Instead of allowing firms such as Steritech Pty Ltd and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, soon to become ANSTO, to get on with the process of developing standards which will positively assist our export trade, the Government brings forward this absolute nonsense.

Members of the Government, such as Senator Georges, who are monumentally concerned with issues such as the exportation of live sheep, should understand that one of the most significant opportunities that arise under the irradiation of food is the provision of the irradiation of carcasses in order to allow meat to be shipped to countries where there are no cold storage or refrigeration facilities. All those who wish to bleat about the export of live sheep should be very much in favour of the irradiation of food because this is a technique which will allow food to be exported to those countries which do not have the storage and refrigeration facilities, without the inconvenience and unpleasantness of the live sheep trade as identified by the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare.

As both Senator Jessop and Senator Sheil have said, irradiation is a perfectly safe process. Why, for heavens sake, the Government must derail this part of the development of the nuclear industry in Australia in order to satisfy these lunatic left wing demands and pay good public money to an organisation such as the Australian Consumers Association in order to re-do all these prestigious scientific studies is absolutely beyond me. If one looks at the overwhelming weight of evidence which is available on this subject, one sees that quite clearly here is a significant, safe process, one in which there can be benefit for Australia in terms of our export capacity, benefit for local producers in terms of mushroom growing, strawberry producing and fruit producing as people will be able to extend the shelf life of otherwise perishable goods, and considerable benefits for consumers because there will be a reduction in costs by an extension of the shelf life of these products.


Senator Jessop —What is the shelf life extension?


Senator PUPLICK —In some areas, such as strawberries, raspberries and mushrooms, one is talking about an extension of several weeks. In the case of foods such as potatoes, one is talking about several months. I regret that my time has almost expired because this is an interrupted contribution from the debate on 8 May, but nevertheless I wish to conclude by making one point. I am sure that the Minister for Resources and Energy is grievously embarrassed at having to go through the process of this particularly silly investigation. He knows, from this close association with nuclear scientists and the scientific community in Australia, that this is a very valuable process. I am sure that he, with his personal commitment to the success of ANSTO in the future, would very much like that organisation to be able to get on with its work and to develop this process for the sake of Australian industry and for the nuclear scientists and technologists involved. I hope that the Minister can replicate the great success that he has had in persuading the Government to make rational decisions about the cyclotron facility which was originally recommended by the Australian Science and Technology Council report on nuclear science and technology in Australia, by getting rid of this stupid inquiry and by allowing the scientific community to get on with its very valuable work.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Coleman) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.