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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 2619


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:45): This debate has been a long time coming. How long, exactly, depends on how you set your clock. Perhaps it began more than a year ago when this bill was introduced into the parliament, last February, or perhaps in late 2005 when the Howard government used its numbers to ram the original version of this bill through the Senate in order to target three sites in the Northern Territory. Perhaps it started in late 2006 when the Howard government came back to the parliament and forced through an amendment bill that explicitly paved the way for a single nomination at a cattle station called Muckaty, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek. Perhaps it really began on 26 January 1958 when the nuclear research facility that generated the waste we are discussing today first went critical, under the prime ministership of Robert Menzies, during the darkest years of the Cold War.

In truth, we need to wind back the clock just a little further to see when this fuse was really lit: 2 December 1942, when a pile of enriched uranium and graphite blocks went critical on a racquet court at the University of Chicago. At that point, with the first criticality of the first nuclear reactor, the template was set for the way in which high-level radioactive waste would be managed in nearly every jurisdiction in which it was produced. This pattern—which Australia followed with precision—runs a dismal road from indifference to and denial of the problem to the establishment of a pseudoscientific process to identify a dumpsite as far as possible from the location of decision makers, followed by attempted forced entry of the identified site and then defeat at the hands of the target community. The final phase, that of amnesia, allows the process to return to the indifference and denial phase, and the cycle starts again.

There is a reason why nearly everywhere in the world the nuclear industry's attempts to deal with its waste products follow this dysfunctional template with such remarkable consistency. I believe it has to do with the nature of the waste itself colliding with human perceptions and appreciation of time. Democratically elected governments work on three- or four-year electoral cycles. Private nuclear corporations look to quarterly reporting cycles and the longer depreciation time lines of their assets. Host communities take a broader view and think at least in terms of a generation or two. But the lethal wastes produced in a nuclear fission reactor defeat these human conceptions of time.

Consider the medical wastes and other contaminated by-products that needed to be shielded from people and the wider environment for three or four centuries. These are the gloves in hospital waste, the spent sources, the contaminated and com­pacted trash arising from all the different ways in which our industrial society uses and discards radioactive materials. These things are not merely contaminated, they are contaminating. Everything they come in contact with becomes itself some form of radioactive waste.

Our bodies are well adapted to deal with the full-time task of cell repair that comes with living in an environment bathed in low levels of background radiation. The nuclear industry likes to point this out, as though it somehow absolves them from direct responsibility for producing whole new categories of this obscenely dangerous material, whether in gigantic piles of finely powdered radioactive waste at uranium mines or in more concentrated and immediately lethal forms requiring the kind of intergenerational storage that we consider today.

For three centuries after the legislators and policymakers who wrote this bill are dead and forgotten that waste will still be ticking, it will still be capable of killing and injuring, and that is the legacy that we contemplate here today. This so-called low-level waste is the material that the Labor, Liberal and National Party MPs think should be put on a semitrailer and railcar and taken to a cattle station that only a handful of them could even point to on a map. Most of the waste has spent the first few decades of its existence in a shed at the Lucas Heights reactor complex in Sutherland Shire in the south of Sydney, watched over by the same technicians who created it, people who at least have qualifications in its charac­terisa­tion and handling.

It is an extraordinary legacy for our great-grandchildren 12 generations hence. By the time our descendants are able to take their eyes off this stockpile our debates in here will be a distant memory, although we might be conceited enough to imagine them reviewing the Hansard record to work out exactly why we thought producing this material was justified in the first place.

Despite the government's stated intentions and MPs filing in here talking about medical wastes and so on, that 300-year stockpile is absolutely not what this waste dump bill is about. It is about something else entirely. Spent fuel from nuclear reactors, whether from small research facilities or large-scale power stations in our customer countries, produces categories of waste that defy easy description. Remember that this waste is not only contaminated but contaminating. The fuel cores within every reactor on earth are slowly but surely turning the containment structures themselves into radioactive waste, such that the entire assemblies at the end of their lives need to be meticulously dismantled, cut up, somehow contained and then isolated in the same manner as the fuel itself.

This material—the spent-fuel elements, the old reactor cores and containment structures—if not properly looked after and stored, will still kill you in 50 or 100,000 years time. I defy anyone in this chamber to confidently make any prediction of any worth at all about the state of human society 100,000 years from now. If you look back in time a span like that takes us back two ice ages. The only people I know of with the kind of grip on deep geological time that matches the time spans we are forced to consider today are the Aboriginal people, whose 60,000-year occupation of this continent is documented in the extra­ordinarily resilient oral and symbolic culture that central Australians speak of as Jukurrpa or 'the law'. The million or so silent petroglyphs, or rock carvings, hammered into the granophyre galleries of Murujuga, the Burrup Peninsula, tell an unbroken and sophisticated story of 30,000 years or more of continuous occupation spanning different geological ages. These are the timescales that the producers and promoters of radioactive waste force us to contemplate.

That waste, the 100,000-year migraine left us by a few short decades of industrial thoughtlessness, is only heading to Muckaty in the interim, we are told. I confirmed that in Senate estimates only a fortnight ago. The government intends to transport the dismantled Lucas Heights reactor core and the reprocessed spent fuel and other long-lived garbage out to Muckaty in the interim. There is still no final disposal site in contemplation. The government asks us to trust it that its policy is only to host waste generated in Australia, and to that I can only say that trust around here, in these issues, is in very short supply. We have people from Bob Hawke on down promoting Australia as a global radioactive dump. What an extraordinary vision for our community that is. People promoting remote dumping of radioactive waste, whether locally, nationally or globally, have to answer two very simple questions. The first question is: why exactly does this material have to be stored remotely; why the obsession with centralising this poisonous garbage at a remote site? We know why, because every now and again the industry lapses into sincerity and tells us. For the really dangerous material, no engineered form of containment has been developed that this waste will not burn its way out of. Because the industry knows that its waste will eventually leak, it seeks what are known as 'high-isolation' sites: places with stable geology and with deep water tables that are unlikely to rise. This was explained in detail by the proponents of the Pangaea Inter­national waste dump, who outlined the strategy with unusual honesty. Checking to verify the company's strategy, I had it confirmed a couple of years ago at one of the Senate committees into this matter by officers of ANSTO, who said, 'Sure, we put it out there because the material will leak—yes.' This explains the obsession that nuclear industry decision makers the world over have with remote sites. Put crudely, they want it as far from themselves as possible because their own engineers have told them that they will need geology itself to be the final barrier when the engineered containment inevitably fails.

That brings us to the second question: when you find such a remote site, what will you tell the people who you find there? You could try the terra nullius approach favoured by Don Randall, the member for Canning, who told the House:

It is geologically stable, from a weather point of view it is dry and lacks in humidity, and no-one, to speak of, lives there. It has a very sparse population. Barely anyone lives in that arid and desolate part of the Northern Territory.

You can be fairly certain that the member for Canning has never bothered to go within 500 kilometres of the place he dismisses with such spectacular ignorance. But he is only repeating the words of former Minister for Education, Science and Training Julie Bishop, who said, 'Why on earth can't people in the middle of nowhere have low-level and intermediate-level waste?' The principle of terra nullius is written into this, the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, as it was written into the bill that we were meant to be replacing—'if the land is empty, there will be no-one to prevent us violating it'.

This is where the story really degenerates into tragedy. First the Howard government and then the Rudd government, and now the Gillard government, in full knowledge of just how dangerous this material is, has proposed to dump it thousands of kilometres from its point of origin, 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, on a cattle station that we know as Muckaty, in exchange for $11 million in a charitable trust and $1 million in educational scholarships for the people who put their hands up to host the dump for the next 300 years. It works out at about $40,000 a year for 12 generations to come before we come to the question of what should happen to that spent fuel over the next few dozen millennia.

Unlike the government, I do not pretend that there are not two sides to this debate. A nomination has come forward through the Northern Land Council of a site at Muckaty station, and the traditional ownership of the site is strongly disputed all the way to the Federal Court. But even if it was not disputed, what a dismal failure of governance it is to abandon all pretence of scientific best practice or due process and dump the nation's radioactive waste on a community in exchange for basic citizenship entitlements. Pangaea tried the same strategy with the Laverton mob in the western Ngaanyatjarra lands in Western Australia, and they failed because of a community campaign. The Howard government tried to dump the nation's radioactive garbage in the lands of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta in central South Australia, and they failed because of community resistance led by the Kungkas of the area. Not to be deterred by the evident failure of this approach, the Howard government at the end of its fourth term targeted the Northern Territory, using the constitutional battering ram that this government in opposition proposed to repeal. It is hard to imagine how it must feel to be targeted by a government which has failed to provide the services that most of us take for granted and whose members arrive by aircraft from over the horizon to explain that jobs and educational services will be provided if only you accept guardianship of the nation's radioactive wastes for all time. We do not have to imagine how it feels, because Dianne Stokes and Mark Chungaloo tell us directly in a letter which I seek leave to have incorporated into the Hansard.

Leave granted

The document read as follows—

21 March 2010

Hello from Mark Japaljari Chungaloo and Dianne Nampin Stokes speaking on behalf of our Warramungu/Warlmanpa people.

The information given to us is that our people still do not want the nuclear waste dump to come to the Muckaty Land Trust.

We will not stop making noise in Tennant Creek/Muckaty or in our community where we live about 40 kilometres south of where the proposed Muckaty nuclear waste dump would be built.

We will not stop making a noise in Canberra either. We need our opposition to the nuclear waste dump to be understood and respected by Gov­ern­ment and especially Minster Martin Ferguson.

All our tribes in Tennant Creek have been talking to each other and we will all get together to protest by doing traditional dance showing the design that represents the land Karakara in Muckaty Land Trust. Our message is always: We don't want the nuclear waste dump anywhere in the Muckaty Land Trust.

These are our concerns:

We told the government that Karakara is sacred land.

Only Men talk about the land. No women talk for Karakara in the Muckaty Land Trust

The site for the proposed nuclear waste dump is in an earthquake tremor zone. What if an earthquake opens the nuclear waste storage and radioactive waste falls into our ground­water basin. We don't get our water from the city, town or from the coast, it comes from right below us.

Warlmanpa Elders always said that Karakara is Milway Country. Milway is a Snake Dreaming travelling through Karakara and Muckaty Land Trust to Helen Springs. Milway is the totem for the ancestors' ground.

Is the government going to regret everything later, whence disaster—happens like what's happening in Japan right now?

Government should rethink about the whole nuclear cycle and leave our traditional cultural spiritual homeland alone.

Mark Japaljari Chungaloo

Dianne Nampin Stokes

Dianne Stokes and Kylie Sambo are, I think, in the gallery today, and I pay my respects as a much more recent arrival to this country to those who have never ceded sovereignty and who provide leadership to their people and to thousands of supporters right around the country. In the letter which I just tabled, Dianne and Mark are speaking for members of all the family groups of the Muckaty Land Trust, including many Ngapa people.

They asked me in Tennant Creek a month or so ago to bring a document into the cham­ber for tabling, and I checked with the clerks to make sure that it qualified as a document under standing orders. It is a banner which is covered in handprints and speaks in three different languages the simple message, 'No waste dump at Muckaty'. It has handprints from all the family groups represented on the land trust. I seek leave to have the document tabled and incorporated into the Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows:

Maybe this means absolutely nothing to Prime Minister Gillard or to the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, but I am here to tell the government and opposi­tion senators, who will in due course file in here and probably vote for this bill, that you should take a moment or two to read the documents I have tabled. They are a sign from a long way from here that this proposal has been fought for six years, that it will be fought into the future and that the government is going to end up backing down as it has before.

How on earth has it come to this? The government cuts and copies a Howard era bill which guts the principles of procedural fairness and judicial review and overrides all relevant state and territory legislation that stands in its way. They base a single nomination on a mysterious piece of anthropological research that no-one has seen—not even the people who are probably named in it. The minister then grants himself total and unfettered discretion in deciding where the dump will be, whether on Muckaty or at some other site that looks sufficiently remote from policymakers in Canberra. Maybe they will be cracking open the champagne in Martin Ferguson's suite over in the ministerial wing later this week, and maybe the government thinks that this is in fact the end of the matter; but I am here to say that it really is not. We will continue to support the community and the people who have taken up this campaign, and we will continue to fight for the entitlement of all Australians to have decent employment prospects and education services without having to sacrifice their land. This bill should not be debated in this place at all while this matter is before the Federal Court. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

and further consideration of the bill be an order of the day for the next sitting day after:

(a) the Government receives the written consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory to the dumping of radioactive waste in the Territory; and

(b) the Minister for Resources and Energy has completed consultations with representatives of the Muckaty Land Trust and all other parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility; and

(c) the Federal Court decision is handed down in the case between the Muckaty traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and the Commonwealth concerning the nomination of the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility.

I will explain directly after question time what this amendment does.

Debate interrupted.