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Minister discusses nuclear waste dump sites in Northern Territory.



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Interview with Matt Conlan, Radio 8HA, Alice Springs, Friday, 15 July 2005 E&OE:

MATT CONLAN:

The Minister does join us on the line from Canberra. Minister, a very good afternoon to you.

BRENDAN NELSON:

Good afternoon Matt.

MATT CONLAN:

Thank you for taking the time out to speak to us today. Can I ask you how this came about, how the Northern Territory has been earmarked for a potential site for a radioactive waste dump?

BRENDAN NELSON:

Well basically what happened was in the early 90’s the Keating Government decided that it should be at Woomera, and we’ve spent about eight years developing the Woomera site. We were frustrated at every turn by the South Australian Government and then in July last year the Prime Minister announced that we would not look at the Woomera site, we would look preferably for an offshore site. We very carefully, in the subsequent year, looked at offshore sites. Christmas Island was the most likely, but for geological, security, transport and environmental reasons it was completely unsuitable, so we’ve now focused on the three Commonwealth-owned sites in the Territory. We have told the States & Territories that they’ve got to look after their own waste; we’re talking about

low level waste and intermediate level waste - there’s no high level waste in Australia, and nor will there be. There certainly won’t be any of it in the Territory. So we’re looking at the three Commonwealth sites. I might also point out, Matt, that the Northern Territory Government has got 16 cubic metres of this stuff at the Royal Darwin Hospital, slap bang in the middle of Darwin. And there’s also intermediate waste the Territory Government’s got at the moment in that Katherine region, within a 50 km radius of Katherine, so they can hardly argue against us building a purpose-built safe, secure facility in such a site.

MATT CONLAN:

It doesn’t affect us here in Central Australia. I think that’s why we’re probably a little bit taken aback by it, because now we might finally have one on our very own doorstep. The Territory Government and the Opposition are offering bipartisan support here to try and defend this. This particular decision followed the failure of States and Territories to co-operate with the Federal Government in finding a national solution. So does this mean you can just walk on in and do it anyway?

BRENDAN NELSON:

Well, look, I wouldn’t use that language, but it is essential that we now proceed to do the site assessment and the field investigation at these three sites. We’ll be looking at roads and services, environmental impact, security, the geology and ground water issues, flora and fauna, heritage - all of those things - and by the end of next year we will have chosen, having done those studies, one of the three sites. There’ll be a two year process for a detailed environmental study following that, and then we would certainly be moving to construction in 2010. The reason for doing it, by the way, just so your listeners understand this Matt - this stuff is low level waste, firstly. I’ve just been sitting on drums of it and showing journalists through it at the Lucas Heights Nuclear Reactor facility in Sydney, where we’ve got half of the Commonwealth waste currently being stored in drums. Every single one of us as Australians, every human being, every person listening to your programme today, either has or will, at least once, have a medical procedure to diagnose or treat cancer, bone factures, heart diseases, kidney problems, all sorts of stuff, from a radiopharmaceutical which is sourced from the Lucas Heights facility. In addition to that, there’s the minerals and mining exploration that goes on in the Territory - all of it uses nuclear-sourced materials and that’s where the Northern Territory’s own intermediate level waste has actually come from. Almost every facet of our lives, when you rip the top off a can of VB or you’re opening a Darwin Stubby, the reason why there’s an accurate amount of beer inside it is because a nuclear device, an isotope is used in the accurate measurement of it. So, you know, we can’t have it both ways. We have responsibilities as the Australian Government. We’ve got responsibilities to the future of our country, to make sure we’ve got good industrial and medical access to this stuff. It’s currently stored in unis, in hospitals; a shipping container in the middle of Sydney, that’s where the State Government in New South Wales has got it. And, as I say, your government’s got it in the middle of the Royal Darwin Hospital and another bit of it out at Katherine. What we want to do is design and build a purpose-built facility. We need to have this advanced so we can get licensing for the replacement nuclear reactor in Sydney. And so, if you take the national perspective, then geologically the Northern Territory, leaving aside Woomera, the Northern Territory’s the best place for it.

MATT CONLAN:

The properties earmarked in Central Australia are Mt Everard and Harts Range. What can we expect? What is involved in a facility like this? Is it a building, is it underground, how does it work?

BRENDAN NELSON:

Well this will be above ground. By the way, we’ve got a website and we’ve got a free call number. If you want to log on it’s radioactivewaste.gov.au, and a free call number 1800 682 704, and people can get information. But it’s aboveground. It will cover 25 hectares, that’s the actual storage facility, and there’ll be 200 litre drums. In fact, I sat on one and pulled the lid off one at Lucas Heights, and as Territorians you might see it on TV tonight. In other words, don’t go over the top and get hysterical about this stuff, we’re talking about gloves and exit signs and clock faces and all of that sort of stuff, and the 25 hectares that the actual storage facility will be on will be within a 200 hectare site. So the Harts Range site, as your listeners would know well, it’s about 1,000 hectares and it’s 100 kilometres north east of Alice, and then of course Mt Everard, which is the other site, again a Defence site, that’s about 1150 hectares, 25 kilometres north west of the city.

MATT CONLAN:

So it’s low level, intermediate, so there’s really nothing to worry about? It’s just tricky. ‘Radioactive’ - as soon as you say ‘radioactive waste’, you know, it makes your skin crawl a little.

BRENDAN NELSON:

Yes, I know. Look, you’re probably sitting in the studio, there’s probably a smoke detector in the room or, if not, next door. It’s got nuclear material in it. Your exit signs, your clock faces, soils, the hospital - if you go into a hospital and you’ve got nuclear materials being used and then the waste. Keep in mind too, you’ve got a lot of uranium in the ground up there in the Territory, and that’s actually more radioactive than the waste we’re talking about. So we’ve got to keep it all in perspective. And God forbid, if any of your listeners are suffering with cancer they almost certainly would have benefited from some of this stuff. So, I appreciate and I respect that the Territory Government and the Opposition will say we’re all a pack of so and so’s, and that’s the nature of politics I guess. But we’ve got to get on with this. We are determined to do what’s right for our country, and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to explain a bit of it.

MATT CONLAN:

Look, it’s a pleasure. The flip slide, you’re right though - and I have to agree that a lot of us have benefited from medical radioisotopes - and if we do want the technology, particularly in the treatment of cancer, this is a by-product I guess we have to accept of this technology.

BRENDAN NELSON:

Of course Matt. And I say to your listeners too, who obviously won’t be too impressed to

hear any of this. I just say to your listeners, just remember, because I know they’re sitting there or driving around and hearing me rattling on and they’re thinking, oh these so and so Sydney people, telling us what to do. Just remember that in a built up suburb in Sydney we’ve actually got a nuclear reactor and they’re not complaining about that because they do understand the importance of it. And that’s far more, in terms of the radioactivity, if you want to look at it that way, that’s far more potentially of a problem for them than it might be to Territorians having this stuff stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

MATT CONLAN:

Alright Minister. Well thanks for clearing that up. I think that does paint a brighter picture for it all for us. As I say, it’s one of those areas that a lot of people don’t understand and as soon as you mention the word radioactive waste people start jumping and running for cover.

BRENDAN NELSON:

Of course, and if Claire Martin wants to talk to me about the Northern Territory putting its own waste in where we intend to put ours, I’m more than happy to do it. And, as I say, they’re already got their own waste there and I tell you it’s in the middle of Darwin and it’s in the same sort of vicinity, intermediate waste in fact, where we’re looking at around Katherine.

MATT CONLAN:

So you’d be happy for the Commonwealth to make some room for the NT waste?

BRENDAN NELSON:

Of course. Of course it would be bordering on the absurd if we were to do otherwise.

MATT CONLAN:

Alright Minister. I really appreciate your time this afternoon, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, thanks for joining us on Territory Today.

BRENDAN NELSON:

Thanks Matt.

[Ends]

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