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Wednesday, 18 February 1987
Page: 158


Senator JESSOP(12.20) —In rising to speak to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Bill 1986 I should first make the comment, of course, that the Opposition has quite properly proposed an amendment dealing with the admission of nuclear-powered ships from the United States and other allies in the area. I think it is appropriate that we should remember that, in spite of what Senator Vallentine has said, a vast majority of the Australian population would strongly support the treaty that exists with the United States. Of course, we all, throughout the world, hope that there will never be another major war. Nevertheless, we must be prepared, just in case that should eventuate.

In the second reading speech of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans), I noted that he boasted of Australia's leading role at the 1985 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference and of our active participation in other international meetings dealing with non-proliferation and safeguards. He also stated:

. . . Australia's nuclear industry is quite limited in scope compared to other industrialised countries. We are, of course, a major producer of uranium, but the processing of this uranium is limited to the production of yellowcake for the export market.

I noted that Senator Hill, Senator Teague and Senator Kilgariff have maintained that we should go further than that. If we are to maintain a strong voice with respect to safeguards and international proliferation generally, I believe it would enhance and strengthen our hand if we became more involved in the nuclear fuel cycle industry. I have maintained that, in order to fully utilise our resources, we should be in the business of manufacturing fuel rods. There are probably many engineers and scientists in Australia who would suggest that there would be some advantage in leasing rods to other countries on the condition that ultimately they are returned to us for storage and reprocessing. I note that the Chinese have embarked upon that exercise and have offered to store any radioactive waste in their country, well knowing that they will gain quite a lot financially from it. In the future, of course, that particular storage material will form the basis of energy when the technology dealing with nuclear fission expands to the stage where that fuel can be utilised without causing very much pollution.

I suggest that our strong showing in the international arena has stemmed from the knowledge and prestige that arose from the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, which was established under the policies of the then Liberal-Country Party coalition in the early 1950s. By actively pursuing the nuclear fuel cycle, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, although lacking certain large plant experience, was certainly able to stay abreast of other national atomic energy agencies, which permitted it actively to participate in nuclear fuel cycle discussions.

The coalition has made the point, in dealing with the legislation that we considered last night, that we have no objections to the provisions which attempt to upgrade the legislation dealing with the AAEC, because the functions of the new organisation, as described in the Bill which was considered last night-the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill 1985-are in very broad terms and at first glance seem to envelop every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, power generation and waste disposal, as well as fields such as fusion research and high energy physics. However, the functions of the organisation are also subject to the whim of the Minister. Before he became Minister for Resources and Energy, the present Minister displayed ignorance of nuclear matters which allowed him to be somewhat childish on the subject. I welcome his return to rationality because he seems to be much better informed than he used to be. I have noted this particularly in his answers to routinely crass questions that have been levelled at him by Senators Vallentine and Sanders, including his explanation of the Government's belated decision to continue the export of uranium to France.

While I draw some comfort from the Minister's more recent attitude to nuclear science and technology, I am concerned that nowhere in any of the Bills is there a reference to the nuclear fuel cycle. This is reflected in the October 1986 review of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. In his second reading speech Senator Evans stated:

Australian Government policy prohibits the development of further stages of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia and, as I have stated, in the second reading speech on the ANSTO Bill, future research and development activities by ANSTO will be directed towards the peaceful application of nuclear science and tech- nology other than the development of the nuclear fuel cycle.

In the section entitled `Strategy for the Organisation' the report states:

With the reduction in effort on nuclear fuel cycle programs, the tendency has been for the AAEC to give greater emphasis to programs involving the application of radioisotopes and radiation. The existence of the ANSTO legislation is a reflection of the acceptance of the need to formalise these changes.

I am not critical of a policy that makes maximum use of radioisotopes and radiopharmaceutical research, stable isotope separation, and radiation biology. When the AAEC was first established it was principally concerned with the proposed introduction of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity, and the exploitation of our considerable reserves of uranium ores. The pressures for the use of nuclear energy lessened in the 1960s and 1970s with the discovery in Australia of large amounts of conventional fuel. The Minister's departmental discussion paper No. 10 `Energy 2000' concludes:

Australia's dependence on oil imports could be considerable towards the end of this century. Such a prospect highlights the continuing need for policies to ensure that petroleum conservation and substitution opportunities are realised fully. In addition, the prospect of lower growth in world energy demand coupled with only moderate increases in energy prices to the end of the century could place some strain on Australia's economy, which has a high reliance on the contribution from energy exports. To some degree the circumstances will call for an increasing emphasis on flexibility in both domestic energy policy and economic policy if Australia is to maintain its role as a major energy exporter.

With the unpleasant news of a further deterioration in our unfavourable balance of trade, the prospects forecast in the Minister's paper should alert us to explore all possible sources of energy exports, and yet in that discussion paper the phrase `nuclear fuel' is not used once. It was as though we never had reserves of 463,000 tonnes of uranium ore, which represents some 26 per cent of the Western world's reserves.


Senator Townley —The demand will increase over the next few years.


Senator JESSOP —That is correct, as Senator Townley knows. He is a student of this subject and has travelled extensively through Europe, and he recognises that the demand will increase over the next few years. Much of our uranium is particularly competitive because of the economics associated with the extraction of that ore. Later in the review of the AAEC, on page 23, the following is reported:

The principal part of the waste management program is directed towards Synroc. The Committee notes that the Synroc pilot plant is nearing completion and will probably be operative for only a few years. The only staff involved in the Synroc program (at present in excess of 50) are therefore likely to be available for redeployment in the next five years. This conclusion is based on the assumption that it is not likely that Australia will proceed with the option available to it to develop a nuclear waste disposal industry. The phasing down of the Synroc program therefore provides substantial flexibility in the future management of ANSTO's research effort.

I recall that Senator Townley and I visited Sellarfield in England two or three years ago to look at technology in that area. We had a discussion with the scientists involved in the storage of waste. Although they were then content with the borosilicate method of storing such waste, they made the point that synroc will be the second generation storage facility once it is fully developed. That process is now being conducted with the co-operation of the Atomic Energy Agency, as we understood it, in Lucas Heights. The Japanese and the English are co-operating in the development of that technology. Once that is fully developed it will provide a storage facility that will store four or five times the material that the existing borosilicate method will cope with and, more importantly, will be able to be stored up to three kilometres below the surface without any fear of leaching or any of the other hazards that could arise if borosilicate was stored at that depth. The great heat involved can in such circumstances crack the borosilicate storage material, which presents the possibility of water becoming involved with it. At the moment the borosilicate technique is used to store radioactive waste either on the surface or certainly not more than about 300 metres below the surface in geologically stable conditions. Synroc is an Australian invention. This was mentioned in the magazine Nuclear Spectrum in September 1986 in an article entitled `Synroc: Second Generation Immobilisation of Radwaste' by Mr David Coleby, who concluded:

Synroc, an Australian invention, shows promise as a second-generation nuclear waste form. Given enough research, development, testing and production engineering of an encouraging nature it could supplant the presently favoured borosilicate glass. Already the effort on synroc greatly exceeds that on any other waste form except borosilicate glass. In spite of the apparent complexity of synroc's structure and properties, its use as a waste form would have little effect upon the overall cost of ultimate disposal of high level radioactive waste. If adequate and continuing support is provided for research, development, testing and production engineering of this concept, synroc may become the preferred waste form of the twenty-first century.

I have not heard very much from this Government, particularly from Ministers not known for their own commercial experience, about the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the private sector, but a little risk oriented support from the Government now may well see Australia earning export income as the year 2000 appears. Such increased export income would offset the imbalance that Senator Evans forecast in his discussion paper No. 10. When, at present, we are faced with a national debt in excess of $90 billion-and this undoubtedly will reach $100 billion by the end of this year or soon after-it is appropriate to observe the importance of increasing our export income capacity. Synroc is one way for that to be achieved in the future.

It is also appropriate to observe that in 1974 Australia had an eight-year lead on Canada in developing a uranium industry. Since then, Canadian exploration and mining have surged ahead while Australia has squandered many development opportunities. By 1985 Australia supplied about 10 per cent of the fuel to the world's 350 operating nuclear power stations. Canada supplied 31 per cent. The value of the approximately 3,500 tonnes exported from Australia in 1985 was over $400m. Canada produced over 11,000 tonnes of uranium in 1985-about 1,500 tonnes of this for domestic requirements. Some 1,000 people are employed in the uranium and nuclear industries in Australia. The current total employment in the Canadian industries stands at about 38,000. Although we have done much work in the very important area of waste disposal Canada has researched and developed its own Cando reactors for export and domestic use. Canada has also carried out uranium refining and fuel fabrication-it has refined about 27,000 tonnes of uranium in 1984 and has fabricated 1,850 tonnes of fuel.

It is obvious from these facts that Australia is losing a huge amount of revenue as well as the employment opportunities that high technology and manufacturing present. In addition, our continued capability to contribute practical experience as well as theoretical knowledge on safeguards will also be put in some doubt. Therefore, this legislation must be viewed with the knowledge that the present Government's policy is deliberately restricting the further development of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. Such an alteration in policy inevitably will lead to a decline in our expertise and international standing. These concerns were heightened by the fact that many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are rapidly expanding their resources to be more active in nuclear technology at a time when Australia is restricting not only the development of our uranium resources-the mining industry-but also research and development into the technological side of this expanding industry.

It was also noted that this Government's policy of restricting the uranium mining industry is in contradiction to the fact that nuclear power is the fastest growing sector of the world's base line energy industry. That was made clear a while ago by Senator Townley. Some honourable senators believe that Chernobyl spelt the death knell to nuclear energy but the facts are different. It is quite true that man could turn his back on nuclear energy which constitutes only about 5 per cent of the world's energy at the moment and 15 per cent of its electricity. Of course, the figure is four times higher in France. The issue is not technology because-and this is supported by scientists and engineers-with time and money scientists and engineers can meet the most technical challenges.

The future of energy will depend on costs, safety and environmental acceptability. Any non-nuclear answer will be poor for at least the following three reasons. It would mean dearer energy-that is becoming clearer every day or month-more pollution and slower economic growth. I heard Senator Georges earlier in the debate mention that the earth would become barren and a wasteland like the moon. I would be very concerned about environmental damage caused by conventional power stations. As I have said time and time again, in America about 28 million tonnes of carbon dioxide is belched forth from conventional hydro-carbon power stations causing absolute horror amongst people in that country because of the devastation caused to the Great Lakes by acid rain-fish and vegetation are dying. The same occurs in Germany where efforts are being made to introduce new scrubbing technology to clean the conventional power stations of Europe. English power stations have also been asked to improve their scrubbing techniques. It is pretty difficult for the British because it costs about 150 million pounds to do that per power station. From an economic point of view they are concerned but the European countries feel so strongly about this matter that they have a policy to reduce the carbon dioxide output from conventional power stations by 30 per cent over the next 10 or 15 years.

As an environmentalist I am very concerned about the damage being done to the environment by conventional power stations. The move to nuclear energy was motivated by a desire to reduce dependence on this dirty coal which is dangerous to mine and dependence on oil which is subject to the dictates of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. All nations want a way of generating electricity which is cheap, reliable, smokeless and outside the control of OPEC. By the year 2000 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, on current trends, will rely on nuclear power for a quarter of their electricity. Without nuclear power they will have to use much more oil, coal or gas. Renewable sources of energy-a subject which seems to be dear to the hearts of all of us, particularly the so-called conservationists-will not be making any worthwhile contribution by then. Energy costs from finite sources will have risen sharply-by some estimate they will have doubled-if nuclear power is not available.

During the recent freeze in Europe many conventionally powered generating stations could not operate at times when they were desperately needed because the coal was frozen solid and the oil was too cold to be worked. Hydroelectric power stations could not function because the water was frozen. Energy and prosperity are directly connected. For example, between 1949 and 1973 every extra dollar of real gross national product increased energy consumption by 30 megajoules. The oil shock of 1973 combined with the development of electronics altered the relationship between energy use and gross domestic product, but only for the industrialised nations. The poorer countries are still hungry for energy. As such countries industrialise, the demand for energy will increase at a faster rate than their economic growth. It is only later that the situation stabilises in the way that I described before.

If the rich nations of the world deny the poor countries cheap and reliable energy they will stunt the growth of those nations in a perverse and callous manner. There is no way that such countries could ever service the loans needed for renewable resource energy systems, which seem to be beloved by such people as Senator Sanders and Senator Vallentine.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.