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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 114


Senator DURACK(10.00) —The Opposition supports the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Bill 1986. It implements policies which the Opposition stongly supports and which, in fact, have been developed by earlier governments as well as by this Government. The purpose of the Bill is to give effect in Australian domestic law to Australia's international obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation regime. I have already spoken at some length about the international importance of this regime and the way in which it works. Its agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is the watchdog and policeman of that regime throughout all the nations which are parties to it. That regime is designed to prevent the diversion of nuclear material from use for peaceful purposes to the development of nuclear weapons. The activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency throughout the world are designed to ensure that that does not occur. Unfortunately, as we know, a number of nations are not parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As I said in my speech on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Bill, the more nations there are which are signatories to that Treaty and which can keep control over the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes, the more likely it is that that regime will be successful.

The international obligations which are being met by this Bill are those arising under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was ratified by Australia in 1973, and the statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is, as I said, the instrument which enforces the obligations of the NPT throughout the world. The legislation gives effect in domestic law to the bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements in respect of the export of Australian yellowcake. It gives effect to our Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The bilateral safeguards agreements now total 11, in addition to the Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Agency. Those bilateral safeguards agreements were pioneered by the Fraser Government and will, of course, be continued and developed by the coalition parties when we are returned to office at the next election.

Those bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements extend further, in a more developed and even more sophisticated way, the obligations that Australia has under the International Atomic Energy Agency statute and the NPT. That international regime does not commence at the uranium mining stage; in other words, it does not apply to the monitoring and checking of yellowcake production and sale. But our own bilateral safeguards agreements require that control even at that stage. It is a condition of our export of uranium under those agreements that those safeguards arrangements should apply. They give a very much added dimension to the safety and control of the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes. Australia contributes to this cycle by the mining, milling and export of uranium.

The Bill also contains provisions to give effect to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which Australia has signed, but has not yet ratified. Perhaps when the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) replies, he could give some indication of what the Government's plans are in relation to the ratification of that Convention. This Convention is aimed at the unlawful acquisition of nuclear material by theft, fraud, robbery, et cetera. Of course, in this day and age it is not fanciful by any means that this could occur and, therefore, strict international rules should be implemented, as far as possible, by all nations of the world, but certainly by all of those which are parties to this Convention. This is a timely requirement.

The final thing that the Bill does is to upgrade the status of the Australian Safeguards Office to that of a statutory authority, with the Director of the Australian Safeguards Office being appointed by the Governor-General. I do not need to detain the Senate by describing the role of that Office-its function as a nuclear policeman within Australia, as the agent of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its role in policing our safeguards agreements in relation to exported Australian uranium. That Office has a very notable and important role to play. The Opposition supports the added status of that Office which is given by this legislation.

As we have already seen in a previous debate on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1985, unfortunately, as a result of this Government's policy, Australia has only a limited nuclear industry, which is constricted even further as Government policy is maintained. We are mining and exporting uranium from only three mines, one of which has a very limited life. But the Government's policy would not allow that mine to be replaced by another mine. Indeed, there seems to be some doubt about the extent to which the Government would allow Queensland Mines Ltd to continue to pursue reserves elsewhere. The Australian uranium industry is a very small one and, under this Government, is without much growth. This Bill really applies only to the mining companies and, of course, to the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. It also, however, would apply to universities; in particular, to independent research in those universities into the nuclear fuel cycle. It may have implications for academic research. I am told that it does not apply to the production of radioisotopes as a by-product of the Lucas Heights reactor, but it does apply to the use of depleted uranium in several commercial activities.

The application of this Bill in Australia, although it may not be widespread, is of significance to those people who may be affected by it. It does impose very draconian penalties for those who possess or transport nuclear material without the permits that are required under this legislation. The Minister in his second reading speech indicated that the Government has widely advertised the possible application of this legislation so that people who may be caught by it will be alerted and almost certainly will be able to obtain the necessary permit. There is no evidence in Australia, fortunately, of any misuse of nuclear material by way of diversion to weapons production. Nevertheless, it could apply to quite innocent people who are going about their affairs in a lawful manner and who may not know about it. If the Minister would give some attention to the debate, I would like him to tell us when he replies to the debate what the result of those advertisements has been, whether the Government believes that the efforts it has made to alert people to the dangers of the possible application of this Bill to them have been successful, and whether, generally, the Government feels that innocent people will not be affected by the application of this legislation.

The scheme of the Bill requires a permit for the possession and transport of nuclear material and associated items. The definition of associated items is widely defined to refer to equipment designed for use in nuclear activities, such as the enrichment of uranium and nuclear reactor technology. It also covers documents containing information, other than that contained in lawfully available publications, concerning such equipment, material or processes. Heavy penalties are imposed on people or institutions which do not acquire the necessary permits for the possession of this equipment or who may exchange information. Again, there seems to me to be a real concern that academic researchers going about their ordinary endeavours of pure scientific research, unless that has been published, may well be caught by the extended definitions in this Bill relating to associated items. This could be of considerable concern to people in universities. It could affect scientists in independent institutions and the Atomic Energy Commission itself, although I presume that the Commission will be sufficiently alert to the provisions to ensure that it is not caught by them, but this could happen. I again ask the Minister in his reply to give some attention to this aspect of the legislation. I feel that there is a serious problem here in terms of academic freedom and research in that the permission of a Minister will be required for such research to be carried out in relation to associated items connected with nuclear material.

Although Australia has been a prominent supporter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime for many years and is a member of the governing council of the International Atomic Energy Commission, and although we have all the bilateral safeguards Bills which were pioneered by the Fraser Government, so far we have been able to get by under this international regime without legislation of this kind. We have been able to satisfy those international obligations. Indeed, the Minister in his second reading speech said:

This approach has been successful and there has never been the slightest suggestion from the bilateral partners nor from the IAEA that Australia has not complied with its nuclear safeguards obligations.

One must ask why-and I do not think the Minister has said why-it is necessary to have this legislation on the books. The Government may feel that it will be desirable for political reasons. The Opposition does not oppose the legislation because it gives effect to policies supported by the Opposition, but there is a tendency in this place to believe that there is some benefit per se in passing legislation. Certainly the Minister for Resources and Energy, who is in charge of this Bill, is a great proponent of the belief in legislation for its own sake. I do not know whether this legislation is in that category. I would like some further explanation from the Minister as to why we are putting on the statute book a long, complicated and difficult piece of legislation which contains draconian penalties.

I flag my concern that the Bill might be used to restrict scientific research into the nuclear fuel cycle and that research workers could be badly affected. However, on the other hand, I understand that most of the people who are engaged in research in this area are used to the sorts of restrictions in other countries and that hopefully they will be able to live with this legislation. It depends very much on the way in which the Government goes about administering the legislation. I have been pleased at the Government's efforts to inform people of its possible implications. I would like a further explanation from the Minister as to the way in which the Government sees the legislation being administered sensibly, not increasing the paperwork, the red tape, bureaucracy and general irritation that people feel flowing from the extended regulations that this Government seems continually to impose on the Australian electorate.

The Opposition is seriously worried about the extent to which this Bill could be used by a government to prevent the operation of our defence arrangements with nuclear allies. The Bill in general requires a permit for the possession or transport of nuclear material. It is clear that under the ANZUS treaty and within our traditional Western alliance we have in our defence arrangements allies who are nuclear powers and who do not as a matter of policy state whether or not their warships carry nuclear weapons. It would be almost impossible to administer this legislation literally in relation to our existing defence policies-the defence policies of this Government as well as the policies which would be pursued by the Opposition. I am not satisfied that the Bill adequately copes with that situation. As a result of that concern the Opposition will be moving an amendment to raise that matter and to endeavour to overcome it. We are not intransigent on the matter. If the Government has better ways of dealing with the matter or can satisfy the Opposition that it is misguided in those concerns, we will listen to what the Government has to say. With those reservations, the Opposition does not oppose the Bill. We would like to have assurances from the Government on the various matters I have raised, and we will certainly be proposing an amendment to protect our existing defence arrangements with our nuclear allies.