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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 233


Senator COULTER (3.34 p.m.) —I move:

That in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Government to maintain the named three mine policy with respect to uranium mining.

I do not want any person listening to this debate to be misled into thinking that the Australian Democrats support uranium mining or any part of the nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons cycles. We do not support any of these things. However, we have in Australia a three-mine policy relating to specific mines. That is government policy as well as being the policy of the governing party. This motion is urgent because pressure is building in some quarters to change that policy to allow more mines or to have a totally open slather on uranium mining. Clearly, if one supports a no mines policy as we do, one would prefer a three mines policy to a six or 10 mines policy.

  The reasons why the Democrats have always opposed all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle are as valid or more valid today as they were when our policy on uranium mining was first adopted in 1977. There remain unresolved problems in the handling of nuclear waste and related problems in decommissioning nuclear power stations. Both Britain and France have shut nuclear power stations, and the general thinking is that these decommissioned stations will remain untouched for between 50 and 100 years before the process of dismantling begins. This is to allow the short half-life and very intense radioactivity to decay to a point at which the dismantling can begin.

  Around the world some 60 nuclear power stations will achieve the end of their 30-year life by or before the year 2000. The costs of this dismantling have been put at between 50 and 100 per cent of the initial construction costs. This was probably one of the reasons why, when the CEGB in Great Britain attempted to sell power stations in that country, there was no interest in the privatisation of nuclear power plants and they remain in government ownership. It may also explain why in the US, the home of free and market driven economics, there is little interest from the electricity utilities in building more nuclear power stations.

  Despite all the claims of nuclear safeguards, it is clear that diversion into weapons and to criminal elements cannot be prevented. We have seen examples in Iraq and North Korea where both countries were able to successfully thumb their noses at the international safeguard mechanisms. Indeed, the Middle East war would almost certainly have been nuclear if Iran had not fallen to Islamic fundamentalism some years earlier and, in doing so, cut itself off from French and German help in building nuclear reactors and reprocessors in that country. We have avoided some nuclear wars as much by good luck as by good safeguard management.

  In recent days we have heard authenticated accounts of attempts to sell highly enriched uranium and plutonium from former USSR countries on the black market. It does not require very much imagination to foresee the consequences to a city like Sydney or any other major city in the world of either an actual and real nuclear threat from a criminal group or even a credible threat from such a group. It is not a matter of whether such a threat will eventuate but simply when.

  Then there is the threat of nuclear accidents. I have referred previously in this chamber to the article by the Deputy Director of Nuclear Safety with the International Atomic Energy Agency in which, several months before the Chernobyl accident, he praised the inherent safety of the RBMK 1000 reactor saying that it was impossible that such an accident as that meltdown could occur. Reputable estimates of the number of extra cancers which will eventuate throughout Europe as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident puts that number at one million.

   For all these reasons of global and individual safety, the Democrats hold a strong position of opposition to the nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons industries. But there are other powerful economic arguments as to why we should not expand the mining of uranium; namely, that it would not be profitable to Australia to expand its uranium mines. The opposition will almost certainly argue that that decision should be left to market forces. But these decisions involve the investment of billions of dollars, dollars which will come by some route or other from ordinary Australian people.

  A failed mine therefore represents a diversion of large amounts of capital that could have been used for other purposes. For example, Western Mining is contemplating the expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia at a cost of $1 billion; 300 extra jobs will be created, it is claimed. These jobs will cost $3 million each. That is no solution to the problem of one million unemployed in Australia. Governments do have a responsibility in these matters but, as I will show in a moment, the sale price of uranium at present and in the foreseeable future is lower than the cost of production in Australia, and uranium mines around the world, almost without exception, are working at partial capacity.

  It is not possible—and this is a very important point—to insist on stringent safeguards in a strong buyers market. The more uranium Australia makes available, the lower the unit price and the more we will help to maintain that buyers market. Therefore, we will be tending to undermine any safeguards assurance. Buyers will go elsewhere where the safeguards are less stringent.

  The coal industry in Australia, in which producers have competed in limited markets, has seen lower and lower effective unit prices. The Ranger inquiry in 1977 set out the reasons for sequential development of mines. Its arguments were at the time accepted by the then government, and those reasons remain valid today.

  The nuclear industry has been consistently over-optimistic in its prediction of nuclear power expansion and the opportunities for the sale of more Australian uranium at a higher price. These predictions have been shown repeatedly to be wrong. At the start of mining in Australia, we set a floor price of $30 per pound. After a number of years that floor price had to be scrapped. The government had to scrap that floor price. In June 1994 the spot price was $9.20 to $9.30 per pound for non-communist uranium and $7 to $7.20 for material from CIS countries. According to Industry Commission report No. 7, production costs from Ranger are $15 per pound; $15 to $20 per pound from Roxby Downs; $20 to $25 from Koongarra; and $25 to $30 from Jabiluka. It is for these reasons that Ranger is working at only part capacity and is filling about 30 per cent of its sales with uranium bought under a five-year contract with Kazakhstan, which is in one of the CIS countries.

  The long-term demand for uranium will be and is already being heavily influenced by the sale of highly enriched uranium from CIS and US stockpiles under disarmament treaties. According to Nuexco, the international uranium marketing body, this material will begin to enter the market this year and continue for the next 20 years. If all the material under the US-Russian arms reduction treaty is released, all reactor consumption up to the year 2010 will be met without any uranium being mined anywhere in the world. This is at current rates of consumption which, it can be shown, are unlikely to rise and may well fall.

  The number of new reactors coming on line has slowed. Much has been made by nuclear enthusiasts of projections which include plans rather than firm orders. For example, while 54 new reactors may reach completion or be completed by the year 2000, 60 reactors will have reached the end of their useful life and will be decommissioned. I think there are compelling reasons why this motion should be accepted by the Senate. (Time expired)