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Economics References Committee
02/08/2018
Selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia

ALLEN, Dr Trevor, Senior Seismologist, Geoscience Australia

BARRETT, Mr Andrew, Branch Head, Energy Systems, Geoscience Australia

GLENN, Dr Kriton, Geologist Geophysicist, Community Engagement Senior Adviser, Geoscience Australia

Committee met at 10:10

CHAIR ( Senator Ketter ): Good morning, everyone. I declare open this hearing of the Senate Economics References Committee for the inquiry into the selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia. The Senate referred this inquiry to the committee on 6 February 2018 for report by 14 August 2018. The committee has received 112 submissions so far, which are available on the committee's website. Five submissions are name withheld and 13 are confidential.

This is a public hearing, and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is made, although the committee may determine or agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera. I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken, and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may also be made at any other time. I ask photographers and cameramen to follow the established media guidelines and the instructions of the committee secretariat. Please ensure that senators' and witnesses' laptops and personal papers are not filmed.

I now welcome representatives from Geoscience Australia. I remind officials that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state or territory shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Thank you for appearing before the committee today. I invite you to make a brief opening statement should you wish to do so. Then we'll open it up for questions.

Mr Barrett : I do wish to. Thank you. Good morning. I want to thank the committee for inviting Geoscience Australia to appear at this inquiry. I'd like to say a few words about Geoscience Australia and who we are and about our involvement in the National Radioactive Waste Management Project. I head up the Energy Systems branch at Geoscience Australia. I had original carriage of our contribution to the National Radioactive Waste Management Project.

Geoscience Australia is Australia's national public sector geoscience organisation. We are the nation's trusted advisor on the geology and geography of Australia. We apply science and technology to describe and understand the earth for the benefit of Australia. We are part of the government's Jobs and Innovation portfolio. We deliver a wide range of products and services that address important national issues to assist government and the community to make informed decisions about the use of natural resources, the management of the environment, and community safety. Our scientists have expertise in areas such as geology, geophysics, hydrogeology, seismic hazard assessment, flood risk assessment, geographical information system analysis, satellite imagery analysis and project management that allow us to provide independent technical advice to government.

We established an agreement in December 2014 with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to provide it with technical support for the identification of a site for the national radioactive waste management facility on a range of activities, including the development of the online nomination and multi-criteria site assessment tools, and provision of technical advice and also technical experts to participate in stakeholder engagements. We continue to support the department by reviewing relevant sections of AECOM's report on the detailed site characterisation, and we continue to accompany the department in ongoing community engagements. We're happy to answer questions that the committee have in relation to the inquiry. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Barrett. You've given us a good overview of the expertise of Geoscience Australia. You've said you are the nation's trusted adviser when it comes to these types of issues. Can you just explain how your decision-making can be considered credible, independent scientific assessment of the merits of the site?

Mr Barrett : Yes. Geoscience Australia provides advice on the geoscience aspects of the site, so there are parts of the assessment of sites that we're not involved with. We don't do flora or fauna. But, regarding our expertise, we've had a long history of providing technical advice to government. In particular, in relation to this project, we answer questions from the department in relation to technical issues. We have, as I've said, a broad range of experts, so we've used a lot of people across Geoscience Australia to help with this assessment. Dr Glenn, is there anything you want to add?

Dr Glenn : Only in relation to the standing that our scientists have both nationally and internationally.

Mr Barrett : Yes, our scientists are well-recognised both nationally and internationally. We are sought for all sorts of technical matters from many countries around the world, so I believe we're highly respected.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator GALLACHER: When was the last time you got it wrong?

Mr Barrett : I think that's an opinion that someone could express. I'd rather someone else comment on whether we got something wrong or not.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there any history of your scientific evaluation and advice to government being incorrect in recent memory?

Mr Barrett : None that I can think of.

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps on notice, was there advice that turned out to be inadequate or incorrect?

Mr Barrett : I will take that on notice, Senator.

CHAIR: I assume that it was always the intention of Geoscience Australia to carry out the seismic assessment of the sites that reach the technical assessment stage.

Mr Barrett : If I understand your question correctly, did we feed in advice on the seismic hazard of the area?

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Barrett : I'd like to pass that question over to Dr Allen.

Dr Allen : Through this process, it was not our role to actually conduct the seismic hazard assessment. Our role during this process was to review the work of the contractor, AECOM, in terms of the work that they had done for the site characterisation for the candidate sites. A lot of the background work that was used by AECOM was actually conducted by Geoscience Australia and our research scientists.

CHAIR: Can you explain the work that you've done that forms the basis of the AECOM report?

Dr Allen : Before I go too much further, I'd just like to declare what might perhaps be a perceived conflict of interest. As you might imagine, seismic hazard assessment is a very small field, and I have known the principal seismologist at AECOM for many years—over a decade or so now. He sits on our science advisory panel for our National Seismic Hazard Assessment project. However, the reviews of AECOM's work were conducted independently of that, and we treated that as an independent peer review. So, in terms of our role in the work that we do, we are the agency that monitors Australia for earthquake activity across Australia. We've recently invested significant funds installing new seismic instrumentation near the town of Hawker, as well, to monitor the seismic activity in the Flinders Ranges region. That information on the number of earthquakes, the size of the earthquakes and the ground motion that they generate feeds into the seismic hazard assessments that we conduct. Part of that information is: 'What is the likely recurrence interval for an earthquake of a given magnitude at a given location?' and, 'What is the likely ground-shaking that an earthquake of that magnitude would generate?' There is also additional work that was certainly used by AECOM in terms of the identification of what we know as neotectonic structures or potentially active faults in the region, and so we have a national database of potentially active faults that are considered in both our national hazard assessment and also in AECOM's assessment.

CHAIR: How many sites are at technical assessment stage at the moment?

Dr Allen : There are three candidate sites: one in Wallerberdina, near Hawker, and two near the town of Kimba.

CHAIR: When is your work due to be complete?

Mr Barrett : My understanding is that we are currently undertaking a peer review of AECOM's report, on the aspects that we can provide technical assessment on, and I believe we're due to complete that within two weeks.

CHAIR: What assurances can you give us that, if a site gets approval from Geoscience Australia, the seismic risks have all been properly considered?

Mr Barrett : It's not for Geoscience Australia to provide approval of the site; our role is just to review the assessment. Sorry—the second part of your question I've forgotten, I'm afraid.

CHAIR: It was, essentially: who's ticking off on the seismic risk—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The appropriateness.

CHAIR: the appropriateness of sites?

Dr Allen : Through the site characterisation process, there are a number of phases. We are in the process of reviewing their characterisations for stage 1 of that assessment. At this point in time, we see that the work that AECOM have conducted meets world's best practice and there is nothing in any of the sites that would necessarily preclude any of them moving forward to a stage 2 assessment. That stage 2 assessment would certainly involve a lot more work, in terms of characterising each of those sites, and all of those sites are different in terms of their seismic characteristics. I hope that answers your question.

CHAIR: That's fine. To what extent will the reviews that you are doing be made public?

Mr Barrett : Our report will go to the department and it is up to the department to determine whether that is made public or not.

CHAIR: During the course of our public hearings in South Australia, there have been some concerns raised about the geotechnical characteristics of the Hawker site. Have you had a chance to look at the testimony from Hawker?

Mr Barrett : I have reviewed some of the submissions—is that what you are asking?

CHAIR: No. During the course of our hearing, we heard from the Flinders Local Action Group, which is headed by Professor Chris von der Borch, who is said to have spent many years at Flinders University. There was some reference to this professor's concerns.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: He is a geologist.

CHAIR: Is there anything you want to place on the record about these concerns?

Mr Barrett : I recognise Professor Chris von der Borch; he is an internationally well-known geologist, and I have a lot of respect for the work he has done. In relation to this particular site, I've seen some of his documents that he has put out; his main concerns, I believe, are more focused on aspects of: if the site fails and it leaks radioactive material, what the effect of that will be. But we provided advice back to the department saying that the concerns about the site leaking were more for ANSTO to answer. Chris von der Borch's work is of quite a regional nature. We're getting in there. The AECOM site characterisation work is a very detailed site analysis, not a regional analysis.

Dr Allen : I can perhaps comment a little bit more on that.

CHAIR: Yes, thank you.

Dr Allen : I think it's been recognised both in the technical site assessment and by the submission that the Hawker site is one of the more seismically active areas in Australia, and that has been recognised in those reports. Some of the evidence that they've used for their submission is somewhat dated. There was a map of seismic hazard that was presented within that submission. That map is based on 1991 science, and for the time it was best practice. We now know that assessment to be very conservative. We are actually in the process of updating our national seismic hazard assessment, and essentially our assessment of that 1991 study indicates that the hazard was overestimated for the region. That said, it still is one of the more seismically active areas in Australia.

CHAIR: So you're saying Professor von der Borch's research is based on dated information?

Dr Allen : Some of the information that they provided to support their submission is based on dated information, yes.

CHAIR: Finally, can you tell us what role your organisation has taken in the consultation with Kimba and Hawker, the visits that you've made to the communities, the nature of the visits and what types of questions were asked.

Mr Barrett : From my own experience, I accompanied the department out on the initial visits to Kimba and Hawker back in November 2015. That was part of the round of engagement with all the nominated sites around the country. We also provided support to the department for their visits to the nominations in the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales. In both Kimba and Hawker, we spoke to groups and did group presentations. We also did one-on-one visits to a number of people. We had drop-in opportunities in Kimba, Quorn and Hawker. There were a couple of visits very closely spaced around that time. Since then, whenever the department's asked us to participate, we have had our technical experts go out. Also, independently of the department, we were requested to do some school visits on the Eyre Peninsula, and we sent one of our scientists out for that.

Going back to the nature of the questions at the first two meetings that I went to, most of the questions were directed at either the department or ANSTO, and I can't recall ever being asked a question at those or at the drop-ins. But, in individual one-on-one meetings, there were some questions about geology. Some of those I had to take on notice because my expertise is in only one part of geology, but we did get some questions.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you to Geoscience Australia for assisting us today and also for the work you're doing on the project. I have just a few follow-up questions. Firstly, Dr Allen, you mentioned that Hawker is one of the most seismically active areas of Australia. How does the seismic profile of Hawker and the other proposed sites, at Kimba, compare with major population centres?

Dr Allen : Based on our most recent National Seismic Hazard Assessment, if you compared all of the national capitals, Canberra would actually be higher than Hawker, and that's because we have Lake George Fault and Murrumbidgee Fault beside us. However, Hawker would probably be ranked second relative to the rest of the national capitals.

Senator BUSHBY: And the other potential sites?

Dr Allen : They are much lower.

Senator BUSHBY: Much lower?

Dr Allen : Yes. Relatively aseismic regions. That said, you can't rule out the possibility of having a large earthquake anywhere in Australia.

Senator BUSHBY: I understand there's a new seismic monitoring station proposed. To what degree would that new station provide additional assurance for the proponents of this project?

Dr Allen : It provides us with the capability to more accurately monitor the seismic activity in the area. We can monitor down to lower-magnitude thresholds. Whilst Geoscience Australia currently have a national network, that network is quite sparse. At present, we operate at a minimum magnitude threshold—we're required to report on earthquakes of magnitude 2½ and greater. Having a more dense network in some of these areas enables us to monitor down to lower magnitudes.

Senator BUSHBY: Senator Ketter's opening question was about Geoscience's reputation and the quality of your work, and I think you answered that very well. You touched on this, but I would like a little bit more information. How can we be sure that your advice remains independent in this context? I think that independence is important.

Mr Barrett : Geoscience Australia prides itself on its independent technical advice. We answer the questions that we're asked. How do we guarantee that? We'd like to think that we follow the scientific principles of answering questions—making sure we consider the evidence and then providing our assessment of it. We're not influenced by outside bodies when we put that advice together.

Senator BUSHBY: Similarly, not influenced by government policy? When you're asked scientific questions, your opinions on a scientific basis, the answers you provide are based on science, not on what you think the government might want to hear or what the public might want to hear?

Mr Barrett : Absolutely. Sometimes it isn't what the government wants to hear. Some of our history has been providing advice that's been provided to regulators. The regulators have to take in a range of advice. Our advice may only form a small part of the final decision, and there is always a possibility that it may be not considered as part of the overall decision if there are other aspects that the government wants to consider.

Senator BUSHBY: But, regardless of what the government's position is on a matter, you'll give your opinion based on science and scientific fact?

Mr Barrett : Absolutely.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I want to go back to this element of avoiding any suggestion that there's a conflict of interest, Dr Allen, because you raised this. You've said that you've dealt with this so that there can be an independent peer review, so it's not you, then, who's conducting the review—is that correct?

Dr Allen : It is myself and several colleagues at Geoscience Australia that are conducting the review.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: How are you making sure that you overcome any—

Dr Allen : I guess this is a question of scientific integrity. In a more academic field, I think most people in our field operate in that. We don't want to be perceived to be—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Right. For the sake of transparency as well?

Dr Allen : Yes. Exactly.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I just wanted to clarify that, because I interpreted it as you saying that you'd removed yourself from that peer review process, but it's just you and a group of people?

Dr Allen : Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Could I ask around the review of this report? You've said you're only reviewing certain parts of it. Are there terms of reference in relation to that? Which parts are you particularly responsible for reviewing versus the rest of it? For example, you've mentioned the issues in relation to the seismic hazards in the area, but one of the sites is right there on a flood plain in Hawker. We know there's been significant flooding in that area in recent times. So is that something that you're looking at in terms of that study as well, or is it just in relation to the seismic activity? There are a few questions in there. We can tease them out.

Dr Allen : I can certainly speak on the hazards side of things. I have had another colleague that has worked on the flood hazard component of the assessment.

Mr Barrett : As I mentioned in my opening statement, there are other aspects of the work that we are reviewing. There was some seismic reflection data taken as well, I believe. We will comment on that. I'm trying to think of what else—groundwater advice.

Dr Glenn : So they're strictly geoscientific.

Mr Barrett : Yes, as Kriton was saying, it's purely geoscientific. There are certain things we won't comment on, because they're not our expertise.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Like what?

Mr Barrett : Like flora and fauna—I understand an assessment was done on that—and cultural heritage assessment. I'm trying to think what else there was. I'm afraid I'd have to check what the list is. I don't have that at hand.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is that something that is part of the contract with the department that you are to review these elements?

Mr Barrett : Yes, that is correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So there's an agreed list of things that you're responsible for. Do you know whether those other issues are being peer reviewed by anybody else?

Mr Barrett : I think that would be a question for the department.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So you're not aware? I will ask the department.

Mr Barrett : No, we're not aware.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Okay. Could we have a list of the things that you're responsible for reviewing. That would be helpful.

Mr Barrett : Yes. Can I take that on notice, please.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, please. You've said that you will hand your peer review to the government, and then it will be up to them to decide whether it's made public.

Mr Barrett : That's my understanding, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: That should be finished in the next two weeks?

Mr Barrett : That's what we're anticipating, yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: So at this stage you don't have an assessment as to whether you think any or all of these locations are suitable?

Mr Barrett : I would rather not pre-empt the outcome of our response back to the department at this stage.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Given that there'll be an expectation of you as scientists, having the robust expertise that Geoscience does, do you think that the public should be made aware of what your assessment is before there's any ballot in the community?

Mr Barrett : Again, I think that's a question for the department.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Well, you've been to Hawker and to Kimba. You've conducted drop-in conversations. You've spoken to people. In terms of helping them to process how they feel about this happening in their community, there's going to be a lot of weight put on what you say and what assessment you give as to the suitability of these locations. It all seems a bit useless if the public isn't made aware of that.

Mr Barrett : What I'd like to say there is: yes, we provide advice to the department, but the advice then becomes theirs. It's not up to us to just release it without the department's knowledge. So I'd prefer that to be addressed by the department.

CHAIR: Senator Hanson-Young, we are running short of time at the moment.

Senator BUSHBY: Just on that, the department is putting all its technical reports up on the website anyway, isn't it? Are you aware of that?

Mr Barrett : I've seen a lot of reports on their website, but I can't recall if all our information has gone up.

CHAIR: I just let witnesses know that responses to questions on notice are due on Wednesday, 8 August.

Senator PATRICK: I might say I have great respect for Geoscience Australia. I've been down there, and it's a good place for anyone who had pet rocks as a kid to go and work. I love the great display you have in the front entrance there. Working backwards slightly, Dr Allen, you said that it's the most seismically active area in Australia, perhaps bar Canberra.

Dr Allen : One of them. I love the great display you've got in the front entrance there. Just working backwards slightly, Dr Allen, you said it's the most seismically active area in Australia perhaps bar Canberra.

Dr Allen : One of.

Senator PATRICK: When in the process was the department made aware of that? Early on, or was it only after the sites were nominated that you were asked to give an opinion?

Dr Allen : I think it has always been well recognised that the Flinders Ranges region is one of the more seismically active regions in Australia.

Senator PATRICK: Perhaps by seismologists, but was the department made aware of it? It seems a bit topsy-turvy that the department might have looked at general areas where there might have been some issues and excluded those at the very start of the process.

Mr Barrett : I'll take that one. As part of the process, an independent advisory panel was set up by the department. They determined a set of criteria to be assessed for the nominated areas. We provided the tool that allowed that analysis. Seismicity was in that set of criteria, but the site passed the criteria that the independent assessment panel set.

Senator PATRICK: So you said that that's taken place after the nominations, but I was just wondering if the department were aware before the nominations whether any information was sought by the department. I'm happy for you to take that on notice.

Mr Barrett : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator PATRICK: Moving back, you said that the review you are doing—I presume from answers to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young's questions—will include a hydrology report and reports on surface water, not just seismic. Is that correct?

Mr Barrett : Yes, that is correct.

Senator PATRICK: Under what circumstances are Geoscience Australia's reports not published? You do a lot of work. What are the normal reasons for not publishing?

Mr Barrett : Normally, technical advice does not get published; however, we do publish a lot of work, but that's a result of our general science studies that we do on behalf of government. But, where we're asked specific technical questions to address to assist the department, that generally does not get published.

Senator PATRICK: But that doesn't mean it couldn't pass an FOI test, for example, where it would be released under FOI?

Mr Barrett : We have received over the years a number of FOI requests in relation to some advice we have given to the department, but we always forward that to the department to decide. We take the view that it's their advice, and it's up to them to determine the release of it.

Senator PATRICK: Just moving backwards again in time, you've got new equipment—and I don't claim in any way to be an expert. Seismology is a long-term game, so in actual fact in order to get the sorts of things you talked about—recurrence, likeliness and some experience about magnitude—you would need to have data over a very long period of time. So, in that context, what does this new equipment bring to this particular process?

Dr Allen : As I mentioned earlier, Geoscience Australia does operate a national grid of seismologists and we have had a national completeness of earthquakes going back for decades now. The extra seismic equipment in the region is replacing an old station that was there—upgrading an old station—but, more importantly, it enables Geoscience Australia to monitor down to smaller magnitudes in the Flinders Ranges region.

Senator PATRICK: What was the motive for doing that, noting the longitudinal value of data in the context of this program—was it driven by this program? Was the funding for that from this program?

Dr Allen : I was not involved in those decisions.

Dr Glenn : Didn't it make it part of the national grid?

Dr Allen : It was always planned to be part of the national grid of seismic networks or seismic sensors, the details of which I am not fully across.

Senator PATRICK: Can I ask you to take that on notice.

Mr Barrett : I will answer that question. Some of the funding from this project did go into that installation.

Senator PATRICK: Noting the short temporal contribution it would make, I'm just wondering why it was thought necessary to do that. Does it make people feel better or does it really make the science better across the short term?

Dr Allen : The old station that was there was an old analogue station. Of course, things have moved on since then: we have upgraded the equipment that was there and the data is now also streaming in real-time to our offices in Canberra as well.

Senator PATRICK: AECom is doing the study. I presume you have used them before and you are very satisfied with them. It is a small community, as you suggested.

Dr Allen : We did not engage AECom.

Mr Barrett : The department engaged AECom.

Senator PATRICK: The chair mentioned a professor who has a different view from yours. You have clearly been funded to go down to Hawker and talk about your views. You of course understand that in a rigorous debate you might see some contrary evidence presented, and I presume that professor has good standing in the field. Have you been asked to fund or get that professor to come to Hawker and discuss his views with the local community?

Mr Barrett : We haven't done any funding along those lines.

Senator PATRICK: And you are not aware of the government funding a dissenting party—with a reputation—to go in and talk to people?

Mr Barrett : That is a question for the department. We don't do the funding; the department does.

Senator PATRICK: I can ask you if you are aware of it. You can just say no.

Mr Barrett : Sorry, I'm not aware of it.

Senator GALLACHER: Notwithstanding the complexity of the evaluation and the work you are doing, ultimately that will feed into the design and construction of the facility if the site was chosen. What capacity would that site need to withstand in terms of an earthquake?

Dr Allen : That really is an engineering decision. I can't comment on that. I am a seismologist.

Senator GALLACHER: So you will give them the historical data and the predictive data, and then the engineers will design it to withstand whatever is coming? Is that how it works?

Dr Allen : We will provide some baseline information that will be used to characterise the site. And whoever gets the contract to do the full site characterisation will be responsible for undertaking the characterisation of—

Senator GALLACHER: So the more seismically active the site, the more expensive the facility? Is that an unfair line to draw?

Dr Allen : That would be a fair assessment.

Senator BUSHBY: We are talking about Hawker and Canberra being some of the more seismically active areas in Australia! In terms of seismic activity, how does Australia compare with the rest of the world. And, by correlation, how do those sites compare with seismic activity in other parts of the world?

Dr Allen : Australia is what is known as a stable continental region. In general, the seismic activity we experience in Australia is probably 100 to 1,000 times less than plate boundary regions such as New Zealand and California. That said, we can have, and have had, large earthquakes in the past. The Tennant Creek earthquakes in 1998 are a good example of that. In terms of where these sorts of facilities have been built elsewhere, I did a bit of research yesterday. There are facilities in Washington State, Utah and Japan as well. Relative to those sites, Hawker is probably a lower seismic hazard site.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing before us today.