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Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Repeal and Consequential Amendment) Bill 2008

CHAIR —I welcome Dr Hilary Tyler from the Medical Association for Prevention of War Northern Territory Branch and Mr Clive Rosewarne from the Public Health Association of Australia. Thank you both for coming along to talk to us today. The committee has received the submission from the Medical Association for Prevention of War as submission No. 33. We also have a submission from the Public Health Association of Australia but we do not have the number to hand just at the moment. Do either or both of you wish to make any amendments or alterations to the submissions that you have put in to the committee?

Dr Tyler —No.

Mr Rosewarne —No.

CHAIR —Thank you. Would either or both of you like to make a brief opening statement?

Dr Tyler —I think we both would like to.

CHAIR —Sure. Dr Tyler.

Dr Tyler —Thank you for inviting MAPW to this Senate inquiry. MAPW is the Medical Association for Prevention of War. It is a national body affiliated with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. We lobby on a lot of different issues with respect to war and with respect to nuclear war, and it is in that relationship that we have an interest in uranium mining, the nuclear chain and the problem of nuclear waste. The act clearly needs to be repealed, so I just want to make a few short comments about radioactive waste in general, about best practice for radioactive waste management and some specifics about the CRWMA that we feel particularly problematic.

It is quite clear that radioactive waste is a special sort of waste. It is radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and there is no safe dose. I think it is quite clear from global research that even very small doses of ionising radiation over a long period of time have risks of cancer and birth defects. We clearly need very special measures to look after the waste once it has been produced. We need risk minimisation, and we certainly do not need any unnecessary risks.

Putting nuclear waste in flood-prone areas such as Fishers Ridge or in earthquake zones such as Muckaty is surely problematic, and we are clearly here talking about Australia’s highest level of waste. So, in talking about best practice management, MAPW would say that keeping it near or at the site of production is the best way to go. The experts are already there, systems are already in place, emergency response capability will not be overwhelmed if there is an accident, and the risks of transportation are minimised, because clearly transporting waste thousands of kilometres to Central Australia is an unnecessary risk with potentially huge consequences. However, just as important is community consent, and we have talked a lot about that over the past couple of days. It is internationally recognised that community consent for a radioactive waste dump is essential. In 2002, the IAEA talked about that. In 2006, the UK Committee on Radioactive Waste Management said:

There is a growing recognition that it is not ethically acceptable for a society to impose a radioactive waste facility on an unwilling community.

The process of finding a national radioactive waste facility has been fraught with problems of community consultation and consent. The specific thing with respect to the CRWMA that MAPW and others find particularly problematic is that it overrides native title rights, it overrides the 1999 Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and there is no right to procedural fairness. It is interesting to point out that, amazingly, none of the following situations affects the validity of a nomination: failure to consult with traditional owners; Aboriginal owners not understanding the nature and effect of the nomination; failure of traditional Aboriginal owners as a group to consent to nomination; or failure by the land council to consult with any Aboriginal group that may be affected. The nomination would be still regarded as valid, and I would put it to you that that is unacceptable.

If the Senate inquiry believes that the management of radioactive waste is important, and if people believe that waste should be placed somewhere safe with environmental safety, consideration of land rights, community consultation and due process, then clearly the CRWMA needs to be repealed, because all of these things are protected in Australian law for all Australians, and for it to be overridden is quite problematic. Also, when in opposition, the Labor Party at its national party forum promised to repeal the act.

MAPW recommends that the act be repealed, that there be a full independent inquiry into the management of radioactive waste, that there be no imposition on an unwilling community, and that the problem of waste be included in any discussion on nuclear power. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr Tyler.

Mr Rosewarne —Thank you, Senators, for the chance to give this oral presentation. I would like to endorse the points that Hilary has made and emphasise a couple of them in particular. The issue of transport is one which is of great concern to the Public Health Association. The concept of increasing risk from exposure to radiation is one of the cornerstones of dealing with low-level or high-level radiation. Increased potential exposure increases the risk. Transporting this material across the country increases the risk, and we think it is unacceptable to all members of a community through which that material will be transported, not only those in the Northern Territory but throughout the rest of Australia. It raises issues of risk management, particularly in the Northern Territory. Recently Alice Springs had quite a strong storm that severely pressed its emergency services. If our emergency services cannot deal with a high-level storm lasting 20 minutes to half an hour, I am not sure that they have either the training or the capability to deal with a nuclear spill. It is doubly problematic up here because whilst you might get good staff at one stage and be able to train them up, there is an incredibly high staff turnover in the Northern Territory in all professions. It is difficult to imagine that at all times our emergency services would have the full capability to deal with a nuclear spill that we could look at in this scenario. Professional positions are constantly empty in the Northern Territory. I cannot see us being on top of that situation.

The second issue I would like to follow up relates to the overriding of people’s rights, and I think there are two aspects of that which have a health impact. Firstly, there is the issue of people being put under considerable stress by this process. Yesterday when the NLC was giving its presentation I believe you heard the distress of the public gallery with regard to their submission. People’s rights, people’s beliefs, people’s validity are being questioned, and that is highly stressful to people. That stress has a direct health impact on the immune system, and that causes ill health. That is a microcosm of what we are seeing in a broader picture here. The continual erosion of people’s rights and the continual attack on their validity to exercise their rights and on their feelings as members of the Australian public, as citizens, has health impacts. I have talked about the physiological health impact, but there is also a health impact when you look at the social determinants of health. When people feel disempowered they have worse health. That has been shown in the Whitehall studies of Marmot and Wilkinson in the United Kingdom. It is continually shown around the world in all studies of the social determinants of health. Populations that feel disempowered have worse health. That is a clear fact. The contributing factors are complex, and I now go to those.

A population that cannot feel trust in its government is not going to engage in government programs. Prior to this last election people were told ‘Vote for us and we will repeal this legislation’. Large numbers of Aboriginal people and other Northern Territorian voters put their trust in the government to do that. That trust has being severely tested for 12 months now. If people do not have trust in government, then how do they trust government programs? On the one hand, the current government is talking about closing the life expectancy gap and the gap in other health indicators. You cannot do that at the same time as undermining people’s health. This legislation does that. Whatever take people have on the NT interventions, the previous government aimed basically to address social issues. That claim is completely undermined by this legislation, which is telling people: ‘You have no rights; the rights that you had will be taken away in order for us to impose waste that no-one else in the country apparently wants.’ It goes back to the position that if you are serious about talking to the community, engaging with the community and engaging in the community’s health, a consistent message has to come from all levels of government, and it is quite clearly not in the interests of people’s health to be dealt with in this manner. It is also not in the interests of their health just to have this material dumped in their community.

I would go back and say that the best practice for Australia to deal with the waste that it has is: stop adding to the waste pile and store the waste where you can watch it. We are talking about tens of thousands of years. How long have we been in Australia with a recorded history of the environmental devastation that is going on? What level of confidence can we have in future governments honouring their commitment not to take overseas waste when at the moment we are having trouble with the honouring of a 12-month promise? Putting the waste at Muckaty or anywhere else in the Northern Territory is a bit analogous to saying, ‘I have this really important document that I must keep; I’ll chuck it in the spare room.’ In 20 years time, after the kids have been through the room and everything else has been thrown in the room, I will be looking for that document. Do I really expect to find it in good condition? We have this incredibly important product called radioactive waste and we are going to put it out of sight, out of mind, and we will forget about it. And, once the royalty moneys have been spent on getting the government services which should have been there in the first place, those people will be forgotten about as well. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Dr Tyler and Mr Rosewarne. We will now go to questions. Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Chair. Thank you both very much for your time and your submissions and presentation this morning. Do you support the development of non-weapons-based nuclear science or the use of radioactive medical treatments or those types of things?

Dr Tyler —If you are talking about radioactive medicine, I think it is useful to talk about the quantities that are used. If you are talking about cancer treatment and the radiotherapy that uses radioisotopes, to supply the whole of Australia with cancer treatment you would need less than 100 grams of uranium per year. That is clearly a very small amount, which creates a very small amount of waste which can easily be stored at Lucas Heights. The MAPW national body has issued A new clear direction, a pamphlet dealing with radioisotopes and options for importing them. What one has to think about is having a nuclear research reactor in Sydney and the radioactive waste and problems associated with that for the radioisotopes is worth it when many countries do import their radioisotopes—and that would clearly be feasible for Australia. Does that answer your question? The quantities are very small, and most cancer treatment does not use radioisotopes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —It certainly went to radioactive treatments and so on. But, on nuclear science more generally, do you think Australia should be playing a role in nuclear science?

Dr Tyler —Such as what?

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Well, such as, I guess, much of the work that is undertaken at Lucas Heights.

Dr Tyler —That is uranium enrichment and radioisotopes. I am not sure what else is done there.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —I am not totally sure myself, to be honest, but certainly, in terms of nuclear science R&D, Australia does play a role in some scientific work that is undertaken in that area. Do you think we should be doing any of that or not?

Dr Tyler —The risks and benefits have to be weighed up, don’t they? The problems of long-life radioactive waste, which remains extremely dangerous for thousands and thousands of years, have to be weighed up against the perceived benefits of whatever nuclear science you are talking about, and it seems to me on balance and from all the cases I can think of that the risks are huge.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —In your submission and I think in both your presentations you talk about best-practice storage being at or near site. On what research are you basing those statements?

Mr Rosewarne —International evidence suggests that the best process for storage of nuclear waste is to keep it near its source. In Australia, with such a small reactor producing the majority of the material, it would make sense to keep it near its source for the reasons I gave before of transport risks. It also makes sense because the technology and knowledge required to successfully store that material will be in large industrial centres. It will not be part of the future economy of the Northern Territory to constantly maintain that sort of information base or skills base; it will happen in centralised industrial areas.

But I would like to come back to what you were saying before about whether Australia has a role in nuclear science. Australia is a very tiny player in world terms and historically got involved only because of Cold War politics. I do not think there is any longer a logical reason for Australia to run a nuclear reactor. The possible logic that was there no longer exists, and all we are really doing is maintaining a highly dangerous facility, producing highly dangerous material for no valid reason, that does not add to the Australian economy or to Australian wellbeing. We do not need that reactor.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —You were somewhat critical of the time that has passed since the change of government, 12 months now, with regard to action on the repeal of the act under discussion. Has either of your organisations had any discussions with government in that 12-month period?

Dr Tyler —MAPW at the national level continues to lobby the government. We and the Northern Territory branch wrote to every minister after the new caucus was announced about these and other issues, and that is the main thing. We followed the Senate questions in February of this year, where the response from Minister Ferguson’s office was, ‘These matters are still under consideration.’ That is all that has come out so far.

Mr Rosewarne —PHAA and a number of other organisations co-signed a letter to the Prime Minister asking for clarification and received the same unsatisfactory answer: ‘These are still under consideration.’ What seems to be occurring now is a Howard-Ferguson model of nuclear waste dumps in the Northern Territory. What needs to be done to break this nexus is to repeal the legislation and have a new inquiry that is clear and transparent to look at how to deal with the waste—because this is not coming out of the blue. We had an extensive inquiry through the nineties trying to find sites. It found 22 sites around the country. None of them were in the Northern Territory—none of these four here. This is just defence department expediency to try to find somewhere to get rid of something, and people in the Northern Territory at all levels are quite clearly saying that they do not want it. I think we need to have a new inquiry to look at how to deal with the waste—and, of course, our submission is that it be dealt with on-site. But we are not just annoyed about the 12-month delay by this government; to be fair, or to apportion blame equally, we are also unhappy with the previous government’s behaviour on this matter as well.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Just to be clear, you received responses to the correspondence that both your organisations have sent or co-sent?

Dr Tyler —We have had acknowledgement of letters sent.

Mr Rosewarne —To our national office, yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —But at this stage you have been provided with no indication of timing for action or any clear-cut commitment as to when the government will make decisions?

Dr Tyler —I had assumed that the government would keep its promise and repeal the act, so I am not sure. I am not aware of when that is going to happen.

Mr Rosewarne —No, there was not that sort of indication of detail; that is correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you. Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you, Chair. Dr Tyler, in your opening statement you commented that there was no safe dose of radiation, yet the uranium mining industry is based on the fact that there is a safe dose and that workers who would be dealing with the radioactive waste, whether it be transported or whatever happens to it eventually, can take a certain dosage every year. So how do you reconcile those statements? Is there something wrong with radiation protection in Australia?

Dr Tyler —What has been regarded historically as a safe dose of radiation or the acceptable highest dose has become less and less as more information has become available. The latest world consensus, expert opinion is that there is no safe dose of radiation; there is no threshold beyond which harm will not occur. This is clearly borne out by several studies in which very small doses of ionising radiation have been shown to cause harm. One of the studies—although it was not just to do with a waste dump—looked at a number of nuclear power reactors in England, Germany and other places and clearly showed that if as a child you lived within 10 kilometres of a nuclear power station you have an increased risk of contracting leukaemia. That is clear. The interesting thing when that information was just coming out was that all these nuclear industry experts kept saying, ‘It cannot be due to the radiation, because it is so low,’ but actually it is due to the radiation and it is due to being near a nuclear power station. It is proof yet again that very, very low doses of radiation have huge effects.

The other point to make is that radioactive substances are around for tens and tens of thousands of years and the effects are cumulative. Even if the effect of one small contamination could be regarded as very, very small, the incidence of exposure, accidents and contamination of land have a cumulative effect, and over thousands of years this becomes hugely problematic for the land, the people and everything living around that land.

Mr Rosewarne —Can I just add something to that. Just in terms of the language we are using, we should be drawing a distinction between the concept of a safe dose and an acceptable-risk dose. The dosages that are set are not stated as safe doses; they are an acceptable risk when you have increased exposure to radiation. They only look at issues of increased chances of cancers and increased chances of genetic abnormalities. They have, as Dr Tyler said, consistently been going down over decades, but they are not ever stated as a safe dose. We have to be really careful when we are talking about public health that we do not give a misconception that this is a safe dose. It is a dose set by the nuclear industry at an international level, by both professional users of nuclear materials and the industry itself, saying: ‘This is what we think is an acceptable trade-off. To have the activity which we are having, we think it is all right that we will have a certain risk of cancers, and within that risk we will position the exposure rate as being one level for workers and a lower rate for the general public, because they are not actually on site being monitored.’ So I think that is really important. There is no safe level, and the levels to which people are exposed are not safe. They would probably have to keep going down, as they are in the rest of the world. In Germany and the USA, for example, they are lower than they are in Australia.

Senator LUDLAM —From a medical point of view, what would be the consequences for the medical profession, the provision of radioisotopes and so on, if the Lucas Heights reactor were to be decommissioned and shut down, given that it was actually shut down for the better part of last year?

Dr Tyler —There would be no effect. It is clear that when Lucas Heights has been closed for months on end there has been no effect on people receiving medical treatment. There are nuclear reactors in Canada and South Africa which can easily supply more than enough radioisotopes to supply the whole world with medical treatment. They export and we import. So it is quite clear that we do not need Lucas Heights at all.

Mr Rosewarne —In fact, it probably is worse than that. Having Lucas Heights is probably stopping research and development in Australia in terms of other technologies. It becomes the easy way out to have Lucas Heights. It is a bit like the arguments for renewable energy: if you have lots of coal and you have an industry lobbying for it then it really gets in the way of having a sensible government policy supporting renewable energy. The same thing happens here with diagnostic or treatment medicines. The longer Lucas Heights exists, let alone if it has an expanded program, it gets in the way of us doing the sensible thing, which is looking at other options.

Senator LUDLAM —We should have had you in on the feed-in-tariff inquiry! Just to go back to some of the comments that you made before about world’s best practice being to contain the waste close to the point of production, where it can be monitored and so on, would you be able to provide the committee—not right now but on notice—some references to materials that give some evidence that that is considered a reliable option?

Mr Rosewarne —Yes, I will endeavour to find the references for you.

Senator LUDLAM —That would be great. Just some starting points for the committee, I think, would be really helpful. I gather the traditional owners, particularly up at Muckaty, were told that they were going to see a rubbish dump. We hear a fair bit about gloves and overcoats and contaminated bits and pieces, but we do not hear a great deal about spent fuel and the fact that the reactor building itself would eventually need to be, presumably, cut up and carted away. From your point of view, what are the most dangerous categories of waste that we should be paying attention to and what should become of the 30 or 40 or more small, low-level areas of containment around the country? We hear, for example, about waste stored in hospitals in filing cabinets and so on. What are the categories of waste that we are really concerned about here?

Dr Tyler —We are concerned about all radioactive waste. I suppose, talking about it in a relative sense, the spent fuel rods from Lucas Heights which are in the high-level radioactive waste categorisation in any other country are particularly problematic.

Mr Rosewarne —Lucas Heights is obviously the major concern. It has got the highest level waste. The decommissioning of that site is going to be a major issue. How to do that is beyond my knowledge, which is why I think we need to have a new inquiry looking at how to deal with these matters in a sensible manner—not lumping it all in one place, not putting all the different types together but also doing a thorough inventory of how existing institutions are dealing with what they have and looking on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction level how to manage that. Some of the states obviously have their own systems in place. After the Commonwealth’s original failed attempt to get a site in South Australia, many state governments said that they would have to look at doing their own plans. I think that is the sort of detail an inquiry needs to look at, but the long term of Lucas Heights is the major problem.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you.

CHAIR —Can I just clarify about Lucas Heights. You said in your evidence that Lucas Heights should go. What would you do with the waste that is already stored at Lucas Heights?

Mr Rosewarne —That is why I think there needs to be another inquiry—to look at how best to manage that waste close to its source.

CHAIR —So you are not suggesting decommissioning or getting rid of Lucas Heights until some other alternative method of storing the waste that is already there has been agreed on?

Mr Rosewarne —No. I think you could decommission it as a reactor, and you need to manage the existing waste. You have to do one anyway before you get round to doing the other. There is an existing waste pile there that needs to be dealt with. As I said, the process of decommissioning nuclear reactors is beyond me.

CHAIR —No, that is fine. All right. So we will just deal with the waste that is there. Are you saying that we leave the waste that is there until an alternative facility is developed?

Mr Rosewarne —It has already been sort of stated by the ARPANSA CEO, John Loy, that it is possible to store the waste there.

CHAIR —That is all right. I am just clarifying that it is your position that you want to leave the waste at Lucas Heights.

Dr Tyler —I would just like to make one point. I suppose one of the issues that the UK committee on radioactive waste management made was that it is clear that we have radioactive waste, and that clearly needs to be managed appropriately. But what we do not need is to make more.

CHAIR —Yes, we got that point.

Senator PRATT —Mr Rosewarne, you mentioned some of the latest research from places like the UK in relation to the social determinants of health. I wonder if you might expand a little further on that point in the context of the divisive nature of these debates and what we know to be the already disadvantaged health status of people in remote communities?

Mr Rosewarne —Certainly. For many years there has been research around the world on what is loosely described as the social determinants of health, and people have been concentrating quite often on factors of relative inequalities of income, of access to services—such as access to health services, quality education and so on.  A study of British public servants was undertaken in the United Kingdom by two professors, Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson. How their study was different was that they were looking within a structure, within a first world country, at the relative different positions of power within the public service. The general expectation had been that people at the top of the public service pile would exhibit heart disease and other factors of high stress and high decision making. Their study showed that it actually was not those people, but the further down the chain you went, you got this effect of disempowerment which had a negative health effect. One of the worst gaps in those indicators was between the top rung of the public service and the second rung. The explanation is that people at the top actually had the power to make decisions. The people on the next rung down had to implement those decisions, and they did not have the power to question them or do anything about them, so it was that relative level of disempowerment, or what is being called the ‘control factor’. The level of control that people have in their lives is a very key determinant of their health outcome. That is driven usually by effects to the immune system—by stress actually lowering their immune system or undermining the effectiveness of their immune system, more correctly.

That is the factor that we have operating very strongly in Aboriginal communities around Australia, but particularly in remote communities or in communities which have been traditionally disadvantaged since white settlement, and that have continued to be ignored and had their rights ridden roughshod over. We see that all the time in the community, and the effects are multivariant. They include the ones I talked about in terms of the ability to engage in programs and services that are pre-existing, but they also have effects on mental health, people’s sense of wellbeing and their sense of place. When you have legislation and inquiries going on that are questioning even people’s belief in themselves, if you like, their right to country, the things that they have always been brought up to know and have been passed on for generations, to then in a sterile environment hear someone say, ‘Yes, they have no rights’—I was trying to think last night of how I could draw an analogy of that, and I just could not.

Senator PRATT —How do you think that these issues, in terms of health impacts, weigh up against the purported impacts of the potential nuclear risk that may or may not sit among one of these communities in the future? Clearly the debate itself and respect for those communities is part of the whole health debate that we should be considering in relation to these issues—is that what you are saying?

Mr Rosewarne —Yes. I think it is not only process but also the practicality of what we are asking people to deal with. For example, it would be hard to imagine how you would feel as a community to be told, ‘We are going to give you this nuclear waste that no-one else in the country wants, and we are going to give it to you because we can and you have no rights.’ I do not think that would actually be an empowering position to start negotiating what sort of compensation you are going to get for your lands.

Senator PRATT —So it would not matter how safe the waste was; it would still have those divisive health impacts?

Mr Rosewarne —That factor sort of stands on its own, yes. That is the point.

Senator PRATT —Thank you.

CHAIR —If there are no further questions, thank you very much Dr Tyler and Mr Rosewarne both for your submissions on behalf of your organisations and also for taking the time to appear before the committee this morning. We appreciate it very much.

Dr Tyler —Thank you.

Mr Rosewarne —Thank you.

[9.12 am]