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Wednesday, 24 August 1983
Page: 244

Question No. 39

Dr Everingham asked the Minister representing the Minister for Resources and Energy, upon notice, on 3 May 1983:

(1) Has the Minister's attention been drawn to the Nicholas Rothwell article published on page 14 of the Australian of 21 March 1983.

(2) If so, do private United States of America interests advocate developing nuclear fuel reprocessing for fast breeder and other reactors at Barnwell in competition with United Kingdom and French reprocessors.

(3) If the position is as stated, is the call for government guarantee or subsidy based on claims that this will reduce waste disposal problems and uranium costs and increase effectiveness of safeguards against proliferation of nuclear weapons by suggesting stronger International Atomic Energy Agency controls.

(4) Has the Agency proved ineffective in enforcing its present controls.

(5) What principal claims have been made that would suggest reprocessing adds to nuclear energy risks.

Mr Barry Jones —The Minister for Resources and Energy has provided the following answer to the honourable member's question:

(1) Yes.

(2) Certain private interests have advocated the development of commercial reprocessing facilities at Barnwell. Seen in the context of the cumulative holdings of spent light water reactor fuel in the US, the scale of operations envisaged for Barnwell, with a maximum throughput of 1,500 tonnes per annum, could be expected to have little effect on UK and French reprocessing operations .

(3) Against a background of differing attitudes to nuclear reprocessing by the current and previous American Administrations the Australian article suggests that the Barnwell consortium requires federal guarantees as commercial protection against further government policy changes. Advocates of commercial reprocessing at Barnwell claim public benefits from the proposal in its contribution to the disposal of spent fuel and increased safeguards effectiveness. The safeguards benefits of Barnwell would be in providing an opportunity to demonstrate the techniques applicable to safeguarding future large-scale reprocessing plants, an area identified by the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) exercise, concluded in 1980, as requiring attention.

(4) No. Where IAEA safeguards are applicable, they are regarded by most IAEA member countries as providing an effective deterrence against the illegal use of nuclear materials and facilities. This is not to say, however, that there is no room for improvement in the political and technical processes involved in maintaining effective and efficient nuclear safeguards. Australia is committed to ensuring that all possible influences are brought to bear in furthering the effectiveness of international non-proliferation arrangements.

As regards reprocessing plants, INFCE concluded that while current IAEA safeguards techniques were generally capable of providing effective international safeguards for existing operating plants, new and improved techniques would be required for future industrial-scale plutonium handling facilities. Since INFCE there have been a number of activities in this area, including:

the International Working Group on Reprocessing Plant Safeguards, which concluded its work in October 1981;

the Tokai Advanced Safeguards Technology Exercise (TASTEX) for the testing and demonstration of advanced safeguards techniques for reprocessing plants, which concluded in May 1981;

work under several national programs of support for IAEA safeguards; and

various specialised IAEA meetings of experts.

(5) The claim that reprocessing adds to nuclear energy risks may refer to the fact that in some circumstances recovered plutonium may be a weapons-usable material, or that the development of reprocessing introduces risks through the possible spread of technology. The claim may also reflect the concern some people have that availability of commercial grade plutonium from reprocessing spent fuel will encourage the development of fast breeder reactors, leading to the so-called 'plutonium economy' in which there may be regular trading and transportation of large quantities of commercial grade plutonium.