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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 108


Senator DURACK(9.25) —Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity of speaking to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill during the second reading debate. Although I do not propose on behalf of the Opposition to take a different attitude from the one which the Opposition has so eloquently stated, particularly during the Committee stages by Senator Puplick, I want to address some remarks to the Senate in relation to this package of legislation, which is of very great importance, particularly to the future economic welfare of this nation.

The purpose of the Bills, as we now all know, is to repeal outmoded provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and to replace the Australian Atomic Energy Commission with a new organisation which is to be known as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. While the coalition has no objection to the provisions which repeal outdated provisions of the Atomic Energy Act and the attempt to update the legislation which provides for the AAEC, the coalition is concerned about the direction of Government policy on restricted involvement by Australia in the nuclear fuel cycle which, of course, effectively limits the functions of the proposed organisation, this being effectively Government policy rather than based upon any provisions of the proposed legislation.

We in the Opposition are aware of the considerable concern within the Australian community about the further development of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. This has no doubt been exacerbated by the accident at Chernobyl in April last year. The Senate will be well aware of the debate in this chamber on Chernobyl in which the coalition supported reasoned and informed debate on the issue and called upon the Government to establish a task force of suitably qualified independent experts to report to Parliament. The Government appointed a task force comprising staff of the AAEC which reported in September last year. Despite the call by the Opposition for a wider task force, we acknowledged at the time and repeat that we believe the report of the staff of the AAEC on Chernobyl was a most valuable one. I would like to quote a passage from it. It said:

Understandably, the immediate response to the accident has been adverse and there is no doubt that the performance of the industry will be under closer scrutiny than ever before. Nevertheless it would be wrong to draw conclusions from Chernobyl which are subsequently invalidated as a more thorough understanding emerges.

Since Chernobyl there has been a great deal more thorough and greater understanding of the circumstances of that accident and its implications for the future. It would be a disaster for Australia if, as a result of this current legislation and current government policy, Australia in future lost the expertise in any area of the nuclear fuel cycle, as exemplified by the report of the AAEC task force, which might again be required in the future.

Since Chernobyl there has been major progress towards greater international co-operation through the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the report of the Government of the Soviet Union to a meeting of that Agency has now clearly revealed the nature of and reasons for that disaster. Of course, one of the most interesting and impressive events of the last year and certainly in the whole history of nuclear power development in the world was the fact that the Soviet Union attended this major conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency and gave very great detail about that whole incident. That in itself augurs well for future international co-operation in this area. It has done a great deal to allay the fears that were so irrationally expressed by many people about the likelihood of similar disasters occurring in quite different, far more modern and far safer nuclear reactors.

Indeed, my attention was recently drawn to a scientific report commissioned by the Governor of the State of New Hampshire in the United States of America in the wake of Chernobyl concerning the operation of a new nuclear power plant that had been built but not commissioned in New Hampshire. The scientific experts reported that the chance of a Chernobyl disaster happening in the New Hampshire plant was in the order of one in a million. I think that rather confirms some of the remarks that were made earlier in the debate by the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans), who is at the table. Indeed, the Governor of New Hampshire, who commissioned that report, was re-elected last year. In the wake of Chernobyl I made the following statement on behalf of the Opposition:

The implications of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster require rational and informed consideration and debate. The massive problem it presents for the whole world is not going to be resolved by hysterical and emotional statements but by calm and reasoned judgments.

Above all it requires the clear understanding of the facts and the best advice that can be obtained.

. . . .

Although Australia has about a quarter of the Western world's resources of uranium these nuclear power stations can be supplied and are supplied from other sources. Closing our mines or preventing the development of new ones will not make any difference to the nuclear power industry.

These simplistic, irrational solutions only divert attention from the real problem. We must work in conjunction with the rest of the world to enhance our control over nuclear power. We cannot just wish it away.

I think the facts speak for themselves, because whether we like it or not the nuclear industry is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world depend on nuclear power for their electricity needs and, indeed, their standard of living. This demand is more likely to grow than to diminish. The latest information from the International Atomic Energy Agency reveals that nuclear power now accounts for over 15 per cent of world electricity production. At the end of 1986 394 nuclear powered reactors were already connected to electricity grids around the world in 26 countries. During 1986, 21 new reactors were connected. I think that in itself supports the stance that the Opposition took as I expressed in the quotations which I read.

The coalition clearly supports the further development for peaceful purposes of the uranium and nuclear industries in Australia. It is concerned that the functions of this new organisation known as ANSTO should be broad enough to provide adequate government support for this development.

The functions of the new organisation are described in very broad terms in the legislation. However, under clause 5 of the Bill the organisation is required to have regard in its activities to the national science and energy policy objectives of the Commonwealth government, that is the government of the day. Really, the policies of the Hawke Government are preventing research and development into uranium enrichment and power generation and, indeed, the further development of the nuclear fuel cycle other than the strait-jacket that the Government has laid down which I do not need to repeat. This policy is directly opposed to the Opposition's policy which supports further development of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia for, of course, peaceful purposes. The coalition urges that the Government should immediately implement all of the recommendations of the Australian Science and Technology Council report under the chairmanship of Professor Slatyer on the nuclear fuel cycle. The Government should remove the ban on the development of further peaceful stages of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia.

The ASTEC report is an independent and objective audit of policies and practices in regard to the Australian uranium and nuclear industries. In fact, this comprehensive and highly professional report was commissioned by the Hawke Government itself. It was a reasoned reference point in the wide and, unfortunately, the often uninformed and illogical public debate on nuclear issues in Australia which, of course, we frequently hear in this Senate. As recently as the Committee stage of the debate on this legislation we heard such remarks from certain senators.

The Government response to the ASTEC report was predictably doctrinaire. The Government has a far more rational approach, I must concede, than some of the senators who have spoken in this debate. Nevertheless, its own policy on this whole subject is pretty irrational. Of course, the Government rejected recommendations relating to the mining and export of uranium beyond its present policies, which are totally irrational, and the recommendations regarding the further development of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. The Government's policy perpetuates a general lack of knowledge about the uranium industry, Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle and international safeguards. The Government's policy does not recognise the distinction between the development of the peaceful uses of the uranium industry, from which Australia stands to greatly benefit, and the link between our uranium industry and the international involvement in global energy security and nuclear non-proliferation, all of which are clearly explained by Professor Slatyer and the ASTEC report. The Government's policy is inequitable and results in a net cost to government and lost opportunities in terms of employment, exports and income. Australia has few industries which offer such scope for growth and development and we should not delay the opportunity for further development of the uranium industry in Australia-certainly not by this irrational ban on mines other than the three that have already been approved.

On return to government the coalition will implement the recommendations of the ASTEC report. We support the mining and milling of uranium, subject to stringent Australian health and safety safeguards. The export of uranium should also be permitted, subject to stringent conditions of supply designed to strengthen the non-proliferation regime under our already existing bilateral safeguard agreements and the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We would remove the veto on development of proven uranium deposits such as those of Jabiluka, Koongarra, Yeelirrie, Beverley and Honeymoon. We would support exploration development of further commercial uranium deposits subject, of course, again to environmental laws and so on. We would co-operate with the industry in assessing the feasibility of establishing a commercial uranium enrichment industry in Australia for peaceful purposes and, of course, under IAEA supervision.

We would encourage continuing research and development in Australia of the technology of safe disposal of nuclear wastes. That is a bipartisan view because it is one of the restricted developments of the nuclear fuel cycle which the Government is already agreeing to. We give some credit to the Government in that respect. We would promote improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of the IAEA's safeguard operations. We would maintain an active role in higher international standards of safety and surveillance which, of course, is already under way through the International Atomic Energy Agency, and accelerated, as I have already explained, post-Chernobyl. We would advocate an extended safeguard system incorporating the most stringent safeguards which are part of the existing bilateral agreements.

The coalition considers that the proposed organisation to replace the Australian Atomic Energy Commission should be able to participate fully in any future research and development of these aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. Further, it should be very active in educating the public and, I might say, some honourable senators in particular on the cross benches in this place about the nature of the development of a nuclear fuel cycle, which is supported, as I have said, by scientific reports such as that of ASTEC and the one I mentioned earlier which was commissioned by the Governor of New Hampshire. It certainly needs to be far better understood in Australia-it can be understood only by better education of Australians-that uranium and nuclear energy are a fact of life, can be controlled, and can and will be a major component of the world energy scene, whether or not Australia likes it. It is no use hiding from the fact and turning our own efforts away from any further involvement in the peaceful development of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The oil energy crisis of the 1970s caused an upsurge in the placing of orders for nuclear reactors. However, the onslaught of recession, the severely rising costs of reactors, and the emergence of several safety incidents, such as Windscale, Three Mile Island and most recently Chernobyl, have caused a number of cancellations and delays. That is understandable enough, provided that those matters are given to proper scientific study and not, as I have said, irrational reactions. However, on the contrary, acid rain from coal and oil burning power stations, particularly in Europe, constitutes a serious and growing threat of atmospheric pollution, a widespread destruction of flora and fauna, and a menace to human health. I interpose to say that last year I had the privilege of calling on, and discussing this whole question with, the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr Hans Blix, a distinguished Swedish public servant, who now heads up that agency. To me, indeed worldwide, the burden of his case is that, even though there may be problems for the world with nuclear energy and nuclear power generation, the uninhibited use of coal for energy generation is even more serious. In addition to the acid rain problem, the greenhouse effect, which was also emphasised to me by Mr Blix, is caused by increasing carbon discharge from fossil fuel burning power stations which is raising the earth's atmospheric temperature and threatening to so heat the upper atmospheric that it will adversely affect the world's ecology.

While not discounting the important role of alternative energy sources in the world-and I know that this will be the answer for the likes of Senator Sanders and others-they contribute only the most limited solution to the world's demand for energy. The world will become increasingly reliant upon nuclear energy if we want-as all people want-to maintain and improve our standards of living. I do not think Senator Sanders will find too many people prepared to go down the economic gurgler with him in his way-out notions about alternative energy.

If all reactors now under construction were commissioned, output from these plants would more than double by the end of the century. I have already mentioned some interesting developments, post-Chernobyl, in relation to the New Hampshire report. The recent report of the British Government on its proposed Sizewell power station on the Suffolk coast was also favourable. That inquiry, which sat for 350 days, was probably the most exhaustive inquiry ever conducted into the question of a nuclear power station, and its report has been favourable. It has been forecast that the United Kingdom Government will bite the bullet and will decide to go on with the power station; even though an election may be looming. In addition, I think the results of the recent West German elections probably indicate that public concern in Europe about nuclear matters, particularly post-Chernobyl, has not had the effect that many people thought it would.

In several countries nuclear power now accounts for 50 per cent of total installed generating capacity. In France, of course, it accounts for 65 per cent. So it is abundantly clear that nuclear power generation will persist and increase, whether or not Australia exports uranium. It is equally clear that Australia is missing substantial opportunities to secure uranium markets and to influence the peaceful uses of uranium.

The ASTEC report concludes that the present free world consumption of uranium will at least double into the 1990s, and certainly by the year 2000. There are up to date estimates of this and the Australian production of uranium from the Bureau of Mineral Resources at the end of 1986, because the ASTEC report is perhaps a couple of years out of date now. I seek leave to incorporate a table in Hansard. I have shown it to Senator Gareth Evans and he said that he would agree to its incorporation.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

URANIUM PRODUCTION

Ranger

Nabarlek

Total

1984 ...

3,775

1,401

5,176

1985 ...

2,519

1,315

3,834

1986 ...

3,496

1,402

4,899

Production fell in 1985 as production was larger than expected in 1984 due to increased production at Ranger to test the capacity of the mill. Ranger production management stated that production was being held at levels necessary to meet contract obligations.

Ranger production capacity is being expanded. Now stands around 3800t. 4500t later in the decade. 6000t early in the 1990s.

VALUE OF MINE PRODUCTION

1982

1983

1984

1985

Value of Production ...

392

317

428

308

Value of Exports ...

415

296

312

315

COMPUTED URANIUM REQUIREMENTS BEST PROJECTION IN WESTERN WORLD

1985

1990

2000

2005

Annual 000t (u) ...

35

42.5

55.4

72.0

World production in 1985 was estimated to be 34,756t(u)

SOURCE: Bureau of Mineral Resources statistics (1985)

Australian Mineral Industry Review


Senator DURACK —I thank the Senate. As I said, the ASTEC report also adds that world requirement for uranium will be very considerably increased through to the end of this century and that Australia has great potential. In estimating the market potential for uranium, the report concludes:

The market provides opportunities for Australian uranium producers to gain additional contracts and to increase exports beyond present levels. If Australia were to secure one third of the uncommitted share of the market, a reasonable assumption on the evidence available, that would lead to a doubling of the amount contracted for delivery between 1984 and 1996. Most of the new exports would occur in the 1990s.

In terms of low cost, high grade and readily accessible and marketable uranium ore, Australia's potential is massive. As I have said, it now has in the order of 30 per cent of the world's known and reasonably assured resources. Of course, in addition to the production of uranium at Ranger and Nabarlek and the proposed production at Roxby Downs, which are the approved productions by the Government, there are four major projects for which development approval has already been given: Yeelirrie in Western Australia, Honeymoon in South Australia, Lake Way in Western Australia and Jabiluka in the Northern Territory. Three more deposits have also had vast sums spent on them and are ready for development: Koongarra in the Northern Territory, Ben Lomond in Queensland, and Beverley in South Australia, all of which, under the policy of the Opposition, would be able to be brought into production in time to benefit from that increasing world demand. Despite the money spent, totally hundreds of millions of dollars, all seven of these projects have come to a dead stop. Capital costs to get these under way would be well over $1,000m, so there would be direct employment for 3,000 people or more; and permanent employment for about 1,400 people would be available from such full scale development, apart from the export earnings that would be achieved.

The ancillary economic benefits to Australia generated by further mining and export of uranium are enormous. They include, of course, those sorts of economic activities, the multiplier effects of employment creation, government revenue, and new facilities and infrastructure. The combined contribution to national income by the end of the century by all four uranium deposits in the Northern Territory alone has been estimated at over $10 billion by the Australian Mining Industry Council. In addition to these prospects, the Fraser Government set up the Uranium Enrichment Group of Australia, comprising representatives of four Australian enterprises, to study and report upon the feasibility of uranium enrichment in Australia. UEGA reported that there would be a market for an Australian enrichment plant from the beginning of the 1990s; that Australia has the industrial capacity and technology to build and operate such a plant; that the preferred technology would be the centrifuge; that Australia should investigate the real prospect of a partnership with a European group-Urenco-Centec-using that consortium's technology; and that additional markets should be explored, particularly the Japanese market, together with the possibility of some Japanese shares in the co-partnership. However, following the election of the Hawke Government UEGA sought government credentials to enable high level discussions with those countries to continue but this was not forthcoming and the Hawke Government has phased out funding for the centrifuge enrichment research at Lucas Heights. That has been one of the real blows by this Government to morale and, indeed, the future strength of the team at Lucas Heights. Also a valuable additional market for Australian uranium in the form of enriched uranium has been lost as well as further significant employment opportunities offered by an enrichment industry. In addition, a part of the nuclear fuel cycle particularly sensitive to non-proliferation scrutiny could have come under Australian control and surveillance and this added to the total world security against weapon making.

The IAEA regards enrichment and reprocessing as the two areas vulnerable to weapons diversion. Regular inspection of an enrichment plant can readily detect whether it is being used for electricity generation or weapons purposes. The enrichment process does not present significant health hazards to workers or the community. The material is not highly radioactive. Such hazards as there are are common to chemical plants and ample safeguards are available.

The ASTEC report has stressed that world security and nuclear non-proliferation are best enhanced when the supply and processing of fissile material for peaceful purposes is in the hands of a limited number of nations all of which are pledged to observe and enforce the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, as is Australia. Australia is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and other international treaties. These matters will be debated when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Bill is before us. It is clearly in Australia's interest to encourage other nations to join the NPT and for us to set a good example by observing these standards. I think this is a further way in which Australia can contribute to the success of the non-proliferation regime. So by this shortsighted policy the Government is passing up not only economic benefits to Australia but also the opportunities Australia has to contribute significantly in a practical way to the success of the non-proliferation regime. We believe that ANSTO should be in a position to fully co-operate in such international efforts in the future.

On our return to government we will resume negotiations for the enrichment process in Australia. In discussions I had last year in the United Kingdom with the Urenco people, they expressed very great continuing interest in resuming negotiations with Australia. Unfortunately, the current policy of the Government in relation to ANSTO is in conflict with this objective. In conclusion, although the Opposition is strongly opposed to the Hawke Government's uranium policy it supports this Bill. On return to government we will use the powers that are given under it to the Commonwealth Government-our government-and in accordance with our policy we will implement the policies that I have outlined in my speech and use ANSTO in a positive and economically productive way.