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Tuesday, 30 November 1999
Page: 11114


Senator LIGHTFOOT (7:47 PM) —On 16 July 1945 a group of scientists from both Europe, including Britain, and the United States detonated the first nuclear device in the world. That was called the `Manhattan Project'. A direct result of that was that an American aircraft called the Enola Gay dropped nuclear devices on both Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. These were exploded somewhat above the cities and devastated them from that height. When the war in the Pacific ended, the benefits of the nuclear age, or the atomic age as it was then termed, were turned to peaceful uses. Today there are 445 nuclear power stations around the world. One of those nuclear power stations malfunctioned in Russia, at Chernobyl, some 10 years ago and put the other nuclear power stations in the rest of the world on notice. Since then there has been a second generation of nuclear power plants, some of which are under construction now. Notwithstanding that, nuclear power is still the safest, most efficient and least damaging environmentally to this world that we live in. That is indisputable. But we have to ask the question: what are we going to do with the waste that is accumulating around the world and should Australia participate in that? Sweden, for instance, generates 50 per cent of its power from nuclear energy; France generates 79 per cent of its power from nuclear energy; in the United States, 19 per cent of the power is nuclear; and 17 per cent of power throughout the world is generated by nuclear power. Seventy kilos of uranium feeding a 1,000-megawatt power plant needs the equivalent on the same basis per day of 8,800 tonnes of coal—that is, it takes 8,800 tonnes of coal to power a 1,000-megawatt power station, or 70 kilos of uranium.

Australia has about 30 per cent of the world's known low cost recoverable uranium and about 12 per cent of the world's exports. Canada has about 12 per cent of the world's reserves and 28 per cent of the world's exports. Canada is opening up two new uranium mines this year that will produce in aggregate 8,000 tonnes of uranium or U-308—yellowcake. By comparison, both Jabiluka and Ranger together will be producing only 6,000 tonnes. During the Whitlam period, from 1972-75, no figures were kept on the export of uranium, but Australia produced 6,415 tonnes in 1997-98, which was valued at $288 million. With 12 per cent of the world's exports of uranium, one has to ask: what sort of responsibility do we have with respect to that waste? Australia has invented a method of safe, long-term and cheap storage. It is called synroc. It is a method that has already been tested and one that is operating in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and, we hope, Russia.

Russia is a continuous worry to the rest of the world. It is sometimes thought—not without some evidence—that Russia will become the repository of the world's uranium power stations or nuclear power station waste. I wonder whether that is not going to be a mistake. On the other hand, Australia is an area the same size landmass as the mainland of the United States but with 19 million people instead of 260 million—an area where we have undoubted geological stability, an area where we have political stability, and an area that is inviting to countries such as the United Kingdom, which has deep storage; France, where, as I said, nearly 80 per cent of its power comes from nuclear sources, and other areas such as Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan—all small countries by our standards—that do not have the advantages we have here.

We could say, `Not in my back yard thank you,' and that is something I understand. But in a global environment—we have the Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, at this moment attending the Seattle round of the World Trade Organisation—we have to ask ourselves: is it truly a global village? If it is, then we have a responsibility at least to return the waste that is derived from the uranium that we export. It may be that we have a larger responsibility than that, given the isolation as well as the geological stability and the political stability of this continent of Australia. We have the oldest of all rocks in the world, apart from Greenland—3.8 billion years old, and some of those rocks are in Western Australia. We have areas like the Great Sandy Desert and the Great Victoria Desert just north of the Nullarbor Plains that fit in that category of political and geological stability.

The uranium atom is highly mobile in water; that is, when it is mixed with H2O it moves along just slighter slower than water moves. Therefore, if there is waste storage in Australia, that needs to be taken cognisance of. If it does not go there, are we happy to say that it should go to Russia—not geologically stable, with permafrost and with more water than any other country on earth? And I understand Russia has suggested that it lease enriched uranium to consumers in these second generation nuclear power stations.

Or will it go to some developing country near Australia? Will it, for instance, go to cash strapped Indonesia? That is on our doorstep. Will it go to the emerging nation of East Timor? That is on our doorstep. Will it go to Papua New Guinea? That is on our doorstep. Will it go to Vanuatu or to any other geologically unstable and politically unstable countries that surround the northern periphery of Australia that are much closer to those of us in the northern part of Western Australia, the northern part of Queensland and the Northern Territory than Lucas Heights is to Perth, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Melbourne or the cherub state, as I call it, of Tasmania?

Do we have a responsibility to ensure that the reserves of 629,000 tonnes of recoverable uranium are returned to this nation? Can we say that an export of $288 million, as another argument, should not be exported and we should close down all of the uranium mines in Australia, like the silly Mr Tony O'Grady, the Minister for Mines in Queensland, has done.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Please do not reflect upon a member of another chamber.


Senator LIGHTFOOT —He has closed down mines up there and prevented one mine at least from going ahead, which could have returned to Queenslanders $3.6 billion over its life. If we did stop producing uranium in Australia, would it stop the production of uranium throughout the world? Of course it would not.

Under the three-mine policy of the Hawke government—effectively a two-mine policy—the biggest uranium mine in the world became the Rossing mine in Namibia owned by Rio Tinto Zinc. It will not stop the production of uranium. We can make a stand, but at what cost? It is a vexing issue. It does genuinely cause people problems. But I know in my own heart, with my own experience in exploration—looking for uranium and working with uranium ores—that we do have an answer to it. It is about time we exploited that; it is about time that it was explained in a rational manner to people so that this global village we live in can be a safer place for us all. (Time expired)

Senate adjourned at 7.57 p.m.