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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 3087

Senator SHERRY (TasmaniaMinister Assisting on Deregulation and Public Sector Superannuation, Minister for Small Business and Minister Assisting the Minister for Tourism) (13:02): I thank all those senators who contributed to this debate. We are dealing with the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, which provides for the national radioactive waste management framework.

Most Australians benefit, directly or indirectly, from the medical, industrial and scientific use of radioactive materials. A small amount of radioactive waste is an inevitable by-product of these applications. For far too long, Australia has failed in its efforts to establish a national framework to safely store and dispose of our radioactive waste. This bill puts in place a voluntary process to select a site for a national radioactive waste management facility for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste and for the secure storage of intermediate-level waste.

In terms of international best practice, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, has stated:

Almost every country can, in principle, establish a near-surface repository … for disposing of short-lived waste generated in the country.

…   …   …

Establishment and operation of these repositories is technically mature and there is no major disagreement among experts on the acceptability of the concept …

Senator Siewert made much of the nomination of a remote facility site, observing that 'a facility would never be proposed in a leafy suburb'. It should not be, according to well-established international and national site selection criteria for low-level waste disposal. These state:

… site should be in an area of low population density and in which the projected population growth or the prospects for future development are also very low; …

This principle has been applied in Senator Ludlam's own state of Western Australia where there is the Mount Walton East intractable waste disposal facility in the goldfields region for disposal of low-level radioactive waste. This has operated in a very remote location since 1992. In his contribution, I think he has—deliberately or otherwise—not acknowledged this occurr­ence in his own state.

International practice demands that Australia implement a national framework to responsibly manage our radioactive waste. This is what this bill is all about. It is not about anything else. It is about making sure we implement a national framework to manage responsibly our radioactive waste.

In 2007, a Lauder branch of the Ngapa clan volunteered a site as a potential location for a facility. This community has a right to be heard. In their speeches in this debate, the Greens suggested that evidence on the owners of land at Muckaty Station from the 2008 Senate inquiry were being ignored. Let me clarify what the Senate inquiry actually concluded. It said:

The Committee is not competent to deal with the anthropology that goes to the question of who has decision-making responsibility for particular areas of country within the area held by the Muckaty Land Trust.

It does not seem reasonable to … suggest that Ngapa clan members might not be responsible for the area under present discussion.

The Greens have also, I would argue, selectively heard the evidence presented to the 2010 Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry. For example, Dianne Stokes, a Yapa Yapa woman, told the Senate Legal and Con­stitutional Affairs Legislation Committee in Darwin that her country ends at the railway, which is 50 kilometres to the west of the nominated site, and this means that the nominated site cannot be in their country. On the assertion that Aboriginal groups from Muckaty Station are jointly the traditional owners of all land, Ms Stokes told the committee that each group had its own country. She said, 'We have all got different areas in the Warlmanpa land trust.'

One person has brought a matter before the Federal Court—one person—which touches on the nomination process for the site on Muckaty Station. It is contrary to proper process with respect to the independence of the judiciary for senators to state unambiguously who the traditional owners are and to claim that the traditional owners have not been consulted when these are precisely the matters of fact to be determined by the courts. I suggest that senators realise this but are making a political decision. That is their right, but let us understand this: they are making a political decision over judicial independence.

I am not going to comment on the merits of the case, but I note the following. The operation of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, once it became law, would not depend on any particular outcome from the litigation. Rather, the legislation would accommodate any decision the court might make. For example, should the court find wholly for the applicant, the existing nomination would fall away, and the minister, having already given undertakings that he would abide by its decision, would be able to invite fresh nominations of potential sites from the Central and Northern land councils. Such nominations would have to be made in accordance with the decision of the court and the processes and protections set out in this bill. Alternatively, if the court found that the NLC has acted as the law requires, the Commonwealth would continue to honour its agreement with the Ngapa, since the court had determined that it was properly entered into.

The current bill offers a framework for radioactive waste management that is much broader than the single nomination of Muckaty Station. For this reason, it is important that it proceed rather than the government act under the previous govern­ment's—the former Howard government's—legislation. The Minister for Resources and Energy stated in the House on 21 February 2011:

As soon as this bill is passed and litigation concludes, I will consult widely with the parties that have rights, interests or legitimate expectations with respect to any nomination.

The objective of the bill is to ensure that Australia has a framework in place to safely and responsibly manage our radioactive waste at a purpose-built facility. The process to identify a site will be based entirely on voluntarism. Comprehensive and indepen­dent environmental and nuclear regulatory approvals will apply to the siting, the construction and the operational phases of this project. In this way, the bill will ensure that we take responsibility for managing the wastes that arise from the range of uses of radioactive material that benefit all Australians. With those remarks, I conclude the debate.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.