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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 85


Senator SANDERS(5.48) —I move:

(1) Page 4, after sub-clause 5 (2), insert the following sub-clauses:

``(2A) The Organisation shall not undertake research or development into any aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle, except radioactive waste management and matters of safety and safeguards.

``(2B) The Organisation shall not undertake research or development into any process involving the use or production of plutonium or uranium containing in excess of 20% of the isotopes uranium 233 and uranium 235, except for the purpose of radioisotope production or purposes related to health, scientific instrumentation, safety and safeguards.

``(2C) The Organisation shall undertake research into the substitution of radioisotopes produced by a cyclotron for radioisotopes produced by a nuclear reactor, for the purpose of minimising and removing dependence on the use of nuclear reactors.''.

This amendment would explicitly hold the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to the commitment made in the second reading speech of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans)-and, indeed, in his media releases-that nuclear fuel cycle research by ANSTO will be precluded. While we believe in the honourable senator's pronouncements-we believe in his honesty and sincerity-we feel that he perhaps will not occupy this position forever. He may go on to bigger and better things. So we would like to enshrine the commitment in legislation.

The only exceptions relate to the minimisation of the adverse consequences of the nuclear fuel cycle-safety and safeguards-and to dealing with the urgent, and perhaps insoluble, problem of waste management. It may well be that we will never work out a safe system of disposing of nuclear wastes. The Organisation's work in radioactive waste management should focus on areas of immediate domestic concern. This constitutes the decommissioning, dismantling and disposing of the Lucas Heights reactor and the environmental, health and financial aspects of that operation. This is an old reactor, as we have heard over and over in this place. It was one of the first reactors. It was designed and built some 30 years ago by people who were enthusiastically behind the tests at Maralinga and other atomic testing at that time. It is an old reactor and should be dismantled. It is not only old but is in a densely populated area. It is imperative that the reactor be closed down and the people in the surrounding community would applaud that action.

The maximum life of the reactor is 30 years, which is only three years away, despite the fuzziness of existing projections of life. Updated research on the risks and consequences of an uncontained meltdown at Lucas Heights should be examined, given two factors. The first is the presence of graphite leading to the risk of a Chernobyl-type disaster, and we have covered that matter in this chamber. The Lucas Heights reactor does contain graphite, and at the time of the Chernobyl disaster there were statements by experts in the nuclear industry that any reactor containing graphite was subject to the type of fire that occurred in the Chernobyl reactor. There is also the presence of highly enriched weapons grade uranium which could lead to the possibility of a fuel explosion. There should be research into high level waste disposal in Australia. To quote Sweden's Energy Minister, Mrs Brigitte Dahl:

It remains the inescapable duty of every nation utilising nuclear energy to take full responsibility for all areas of radioactive waste management.

We are furnishing the fuel in the form of uranium and we have the responsibility to determine how we can safely dispose of that fuel when it has gone through its nuclear cycle. We have no right to foist our nuclear wastes on to the citizens of another country, and by passing the uranium back to the United States there is no guarantee the Government can give that we will not assist the United States nuclear weapons program. Our uranium and plutonium may be used to meet a previous non-military commitment, while other material previously earmarked for that civilian job may be put to military use instead. There is no way that we can stop this substitution. They can account for it; we can account for it. They can say that our particular uranium is not being used for military purposes, but in fact it adds to the total pool of fissionable material and as such it means that more material is available for military uses. By contributing to the total United States stockpile of weapons grade fuel, the distinction between our stuff and someone else's is entirely artificial. The Minister has said that final disposal in Australia would be `prohibitively expensive'. He did not state that the cost would be political as well as financial. If it turns out that we cannot meet that cost, then this is a further reason to close down Lucas Heights immediately.

On the subject of uranium mill wastes disposal, our existing mines have generated well over one million tonnes of mill wastes. These tailings contain thorium-230, which has a half life of 80,000 years. It decays to produce radium-226 and radon-222, a gas which can produce cancer by ingestion and inhalation respectively. How, for the coming hundreds of thousands of years, will these wastes be isolated from the ground water and the air we breathe? With all the good will in the world, this Government cannot promise that this waste will not enter our environment. How will we prevent the incorporation of the mill tailings into building materials? By 1983 this had happened in 800 individual structures in the United States-schools, churches and others-with an estimated clean-up cost of $25m. In fact, it happens here. We cannot guarantee this. While ANSTO has been precluded from uranium mining research in general, this is an area of radioactive waste management which it should be required to tackle forthwith.

The amendment set out in proposed sub-clause 2B limits the use or production of fissile material which could be used for bomb production-plutonium or uranium enriched to greater than 20 per cent U235. The allowed uses are radio- isotope production, or for purposes related to health, scientific instrumentation, safety and safeguards. Plutonium which is not pure PU-239-that is, contains significant proportions of PU240 and 241-can still be used to make bombs, albeit less reliable ones. For many in this world the mere possession of a bomb, whether reliable or not, would be a great incentive to build one. While uranium enriched to 20 per cent U233 and U235 is not weapons grade, it is relatively easy to enrich to weapons grade. International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards treat plutonium and uranium enriched to greater than 20 per cent U233 and U235 as special cases. In limiting the quantities of these materials used in Australia, the amendment reduces the risk that some could be stolen with the aim of producing a terrorist bomb, an ever present danger in our world and one that every senator in this chamber would find abhorrent.

In regard to sub-clause (2C), the 1986-87 Budget includes $200,000 for preliminary work towards the establishment of a national medical cyclotron facility at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. These investigations should include consideration of phasing out our dependence on reactor-based isotopes, through the substitution of cyclotron-based isotopes. Reactors produce beta-emitting radioisotopes, while cyclotrons produce positron-emitting radioisotopes. The two types have functions which are complementary, at least in part. However, cyclotrons can produce beta-emitting radioisotopes, with the cyclotron being used as a source of neutrons. This is described in IAEA Technical Report Series No. 128, entitled `Radioisotope Production and Quality Control', issued in 1971. Only small quantities of beta-emitting radioisotopes may be produced in this way, so a reduction in the use of radioisotopes in general would be required. This could have a beneficial outcome, if funds were diverted to preventative medicine, rather than being used for high-tech cures with a low chance of success. These amendments are proposed in a positive way to help Australia get on with the job of reducing the possibility of nuclear disaster around the world. We recommend them to the Senate.