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
Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 89

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(6.05) —Even before that last foray, the contributions of Senator Sanders and Senator Vallentine reminded me of nothing so much as the man who jumped upon his horse and galloped off madly in all directions. A great flurry of propositions have been advanced. Most, I fear, are more than a little misconceived. I will do my best to answer them. Perhaps it is convenient to do so by reference to the three basic paragraphs of the amendment moved by the Australian Democrats. The first paragraph would seek to prohibit the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation undertaking:

. . . research or development into any aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle, except radioactive waste management and matters of safety and safeguards.

Concerning that, I certainly do not resile from anything I said in the second reading speech about the desirability of this Organisation's research moving away, generally speaking, from nuclear fuel cycle research, consistent with this Government's policy that Australia not become involved in any stages of the nuclear fuel cycle other than the mining and milling of uranium and the disposal of waste. The difficulty is that the introduction of an amendment in the robust terms proposed by Senator Sanders, for reasons I will explain, undoubtedly would be an unwarranted limitation on ANSTO's research capacity and would certainly result, I think, in unforseen restrictions as well as in those that the Democrats and Senator Vallentine would like to see on ANSTO's research programs.

Although the exceptions referred to in the proposed amendment would preserve some ANSTO programs-synroc and so on-the wording is so wide as to preclude many other areas. Let me give some examples. The first concerns advice to the Government. Governments need advice, as Senator Sanders would be quick to acknowledge. The Government will rely on ANSTO to provide advice on a wide range of nuclear issues, including matters relating to the nuclear fuel cycle-for example in relation to the assessment of such issues in other countries. As was noted in chapter 3 of the Collins Review of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, which I tabled in the Senate on 11 November, ANSTO will be able to provide expert scientific and technical advice in these areas very effectively only if it maintains an adequate number of scientists, engineers and technologists who are working in appropriate fields. While these people might not perform research and development directly on the fuel cycle they will certainly need to keep themselves up to date on developments in these areas. The Democrats' proposed amendment is so wide as to proscribe even literature research. Again, research in support of the operations of ANSTO's reactors-for example, in such areas as the possible conversion to lower enriched fuel and enhancement of the research capabilities of those reactors-would, as we see it, be precluded by this kind of Democrats' language; as would also certain fundamental nuclear physics research programs, including the area of nuclear fusion to the extent that that is wanted to be pursued by the Organisation. Again, research and support of uranium mining and milling activities clearly would be prescribed by the Democrats' language, in this instance no doubt deliberately rather than inadvertently. We see that as an unacceptable limitation.

We further argue that the Democrats' proposal could lead to inefficient resource allocation. To the extent that research appropriate to ANSTO is proscribed by legislation, the consequence may simply be that the research would be undertaken by other organisations such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation on which no such statutory restrictions apply. The Government believes that any concerns about the extent of possible ANSTO involvement in fuel cycle research are best met not through legislative prohibitions of uncertain consequence or ambit but through the requirements specified in the legislation for ANSTO to take account of government science and energy policy, complemented as appropriate by ministerial power of direction. As to the points made in the second paragraph of the Democrats' amendment-proposed new sub-clause (2B)-I have to say, in a spirit of as much charity as I can muster, that the Democrats' obsession with restricting research and development work involving plutonium reminds me of nothing so much as the medieval passion about witchcraft.

Senator Sanders —To which it is closely related.

Senator Haines —An extremely astute observation, very astute.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Indeed, it should be noted and I am glad that the honourable senator acknowledged it. It is a rather more astute observation than that of the honourable senators about me, which is recorded in the newspapers this morning, but I do not mind. It should be noted that plutonium has a range of uses outside the nuclear area and, indeed, would be used by entities other than the present commission of ANSTO. Such uses for plutonium include a heat source for fuel cells, for example, in heart pacemakers; and in plutonium beryllium neutron sources, for example, in instruments such as neutron moisture meters. Surely Senator Sanders would not want to proscribe the existence of neutron moisture meters, would he? That is just inconceivable. It would be incongruous to exclude ANSTO from any work involving plutonium when plutonium is in use elsewhere in Australia. In addition to these sorts of uses the Commission is involved in the following areas involving the use of plutonium and no doubt could be expected to remain so in the future: In safeguards research, for example, the development of instrumentation to measure the plutonium content in samples from reprocessing plants; in physics experiments studying the physics of the fission process; and in health physics work, including the calibration of whole body monitoring equipment and other instruments. While some of these specific areas might be exempted from the ban on research and development involving plutonium in the way in which this has been framed in the amendment by the Australia Democrats, certainly the prohibition could prohibit unforeseen future activities in areas in which it might be very sensible and desirable for ANSTO to be involved.

I move to the concern about enrichment activities. Let me say at the outset in response to Senator Vallentine that the program on uranium enrichment concluded some 12 months ago. Work has been continued in some respects to provide research in support of IAEA safeguards but this work itself is now complete and has been published at the IAEA meeting in Vienna. No further uranium enrichment will occur at Lucas Heights. To the extent that highly enriched uranium is being used for certain purposes-and I will come to that in a moment-it is not being produced at Lucas Heights; it is being bought in. The 20 per cent level of uranium enrichment is generally accepted as the level below which use of the material for nuclear weapons production is not feasible. If it is the intention of the Democrats in their amendment to prevent research and development which might have implications for nuclear weapons, and that seems to be the point in using this particular threshold, then the proposed amendment would be quite unnecessary because there is already a quite specific provision elsewhere in the ANSTO Bill to prohibit such work.

The proposed restriction on research and development involving uranium enriched to more than 20 per cent of U233 or U235 would have implications in relation to the operation of the HIFAR and MOATA nuclear reactors using fuel enriched above this level as is presently the case. Let me indicate some of the areas of work that would thus be inhibited or precluded by this ban on the use of highly enriched uranium. HIFAR activities would be constrained as far as neutron beam research, the irradiation of silicon for semiconductor uses and neutron activation analysis are concerned. Such activation is used for the analysis of trace materials, including police forensic work. Let me make a reference to the safety of that particular reactor since that preoccupied both Senator Sanders and Senator Vallentine in their contributions. I do not think it is necessary for me to track back over the very detailed answer I gave in the Senate in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster on 30 April 1986 at page 2081 of Hansard. In that answer I explained all the--

Senator Haines —I think I preferred you when you were being rude to when you are being patronising.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am sorry, Senator, if you detect such a note in my voice. It is a function of your own churlish world view which is perfectly understandable in the light of the dramas with which you have had to contend in your own rag-tag and bobtail organisation over the last few months and it does not bear any relationship to my highly constructive and thoughtful attempt to contribute to this debate.

Having said all that, let me refer honourable senators again to the fact that I made a detailed answer on this matter in the Senate on that date and I hope that that answer will be referred to again. We see no problems whatsoever about HIFAR continuing a perfectly safe operation well into the 1990s. Other reactors of the same class and vintage exist and operate perfectly satisfactorily overseas with no closure plans at all at this stage. I do not believe that repetition of these sorts of concerns serves any purpose other than to irresponsibly generate alarm which is quite unjustified by the factual situation.

Having said that by way of parenthesis, let me return to the MOATA, the little reactor. Perhaps I should say the even littler reactor rather than the little one because they are both very small research reactors by any prevailing international standards. The smaller MOATA reactor would be inhibited from contributing to all sorts of useful research programs if 20 per cent plus enriched uranium were to be prohibited. I instance here neutron radiography, such as the examination of jet engine components; various environmental measurements, which should be dear and close to the hearts of Senator Sanders and other Democrats; uranium ore analyses which, I acknowledge, will be less dear to their hearts but will nonetheless be affected by this proposed ban; and, again, various scientific investigations undertaken by researchers under the auspices of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering or AINSE as it is called. The restrictions would also affect various physics experiments into the fundamental properties of U233 and U235 being undertaken by the AAEC or ANSTO as it will shortly become.

Finally, let me say something about the third sub-paragraph of the Democrats' amendment-the stuff about the cyclotron which I was recently delighted to announce was being funded by the Government and proceeding at the Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. To limit the organisation's research in the way that it is proposed by sub-clause 5 (2C) would be far too specific for inclusion as a function of ANSTO. More than anything else it seems simply a description of a particular research project. The AAEC already has an extensive involvement in research in cyclotron generated radioisotopes and it is clear that the range of radioisotopes which can be produced by cyclotron would complement but could not entirely replace those produced in a nuclear reactor. Here I wish directly to negate the points that were made by Senator Vallentine, who suggested that a cyclotron could do what- ever we needed it to do and that we did not need to have a reactor generating isotopes. She suggested that cyclotron could do anything that we might reasonably want medical science to do.

Senator Vallentine —I did not say that.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Well, it certainly sounded as if you were saying that. I point out for a start that there is no substitute for all applications of the radioisotope most widely used in Australia, and that is technetium-99m, the production of which is based on the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights. Technetium-99m cannot be produced directly in a cyclotron with the purity required for medical use. Whilst molybdenum-99, the source material of technetium generators, could be produced using cyclotrons, it is estimated that it would take more than 20 cyclotrons operating continuously to satisfy the current Australian demand. I cannot be much more explicit or much more firm in my response on that issue than I have just been. I hope that those statistics will be accepted for the forceful rebuttal that they are of the nonsense that is regrettably so often talked by uranium opponents on those aspects. For all those reasons, which I hope will be accepted as an attempt to respond fairly carefully and fully to the points that have been raised by the Democrats, I believe that the amendments should be rejected.