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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 192

Ms MACKLIN (3:30 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I congratulate you on your election to the deputy speakership.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Bill 1998 , the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (Consequential Amendments) Bill 1998 and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (Licence Charges) Bill 1998 establish the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, ARPANSA, covering all Commonwealth agencies that undertake activities which raise radiation protection or nuclear safety issues. Given that we are debating them together, I will address all the issues at the one time.

It was the previous Labor government that actually initiated the process to establish a satisfactory system for nuclear regulation in Australia and I am very pleased today to see that this process is finally coming to completion. The legislation also has roots in the Senate Select Committee on the Dangers of Radioactive Waste whose April 1996 report was entitled No time to waste.

These bills are of current importance because of two key decisions that Australia faces about the development of nuclear facilities. The first is the overdue decision on future provision of nuclear materials for medical and industrial purposes. The Lucas Heights reactor is reaching the end of its useful life and should cease operation by 2005. Whether a new reactor is built on the existing site or on a new site, or whether an alternative strategy is followed for production of nuclear materials, is a major issue. It is one on which the public has every reason to be concerned and a right to demand the fullest public debate.

The second is the resolution of a site to store Australia's own radioactive wastes in a secure and acceptable manner. Whilst a framework has been developed, there is a lot of detail to be resolved. Australia has in the past relied on overseas facilities for a permanent solution to the problem of nuclear waste, but increasingly we are likely to find that these will not be available.

It is critical that both these decisions are made within a regulatory framework that is soundly based on international best practice and that commands public respect. It will be no good if the government establishes a new agency but fails to take the necessary steps to ensure that the agency is credible. There is the need to be credible not just to the scientific and medical community, but also to those in the general public who have serious concerns about the spread of nuclear facilities and the widening application of radiation in our daily lives.

I strongly support the establishment of a strong and credible national regulatory framework for the control of applications of radiation and nuclear materials for medical and scientific purposes. I believe the government and the opposition have similar views on most of the major issues and I do welcome the extent to which this bill has been improved since it was last debated.

For example, the inclusion of clause 83 requires that the powers to be given under the bill can be exercised only in accordance with prescribed international obligations. However, I have received representations on a number of issues. One is that the legislation is not sufficiently transparent to public scrutiny. Others are that the standards that will be required could be inadequate and that the make-up of the committees does not include consumer and environmental representatives and could become unbalanced or insular over time.

I am of the view that these concerns can best be addressed by amending the legislation in two areas to ensure that the new authority has credibility and independence. I would suggest that that could be done, firstly, by enshrining a requirement that the CEO have regard to best international practice in deciding whether to issue licences and, secondly, by ensuring that there is representation for a person with a consumer and environmental perspective on the important issues before each of the three new bodies is established.

As far as best practice is concerned, the other major concerns that have been raised with me appear to be based on a worry that the authority will lag behind best practice in other countries and take refuge in less stringent standards adopted as part of international treaties. I have no doubt that the Australian public would wish our regulatory framework to be amongst the world's best and not be based on any `lowest common denominator' standards.

At present the CEO's powers are very open-ended and subject only to regulation which could be changed readily by future governments. These powers are also capable of delegation under section 17. I therefore propose to the government for their consideration that the principle of best practice be built into the legislation, as it affects the issuing of licences by the CEO. In my view this could best be achieved by adding to both section 31(3) and section 32(3) the following words: `and having regard to international best practice'.

I understand at the moment that the Minister for Health and Aged Care is not inclined to agree to these words being inserted into the legislation but that he would consider inserting a similar provision into the regulations which the CEO is obliged to take into account. In my view this is not good enough, as the regulations may easily be changed. The wording of the bill even contemplates that the government may in fact not prescribe any regulations in relation to sections 31 and 32. I do not propose to move these amendments today, in order to assist the expedited consideration of the bill, but when the bill is debated in the Senate it may be appropriate to do so if discussions have not proceeded to a satisfactory outcome on this point.

The bill also gives the CEO very wide discretion to make decisions. It is vital that the appointment be of a person who is widely respected, as the credibility of the agency will depend on the personal authority of its head. The position should therefore be filled by a thorough process to obtain a world-class expert with the authority and judgment that the role requires, and I certainly understand that the government has that in mind.

On the second issue I have raised, which is representation of the interests of the public, I want to go through the processes that the bill sets in train and then some suggested improvements. The Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council, as set out in the bill, will identify emerging issues, examine matters of public concern and advise on the recommendations from the other two committees. It also has the general power to advise the CEO on its own initiative or to look at things referred to it by the CEO.

The second committee, the Radiation Health Committee, is a specialist body for radiation protection, looking at national policies, codes and standards and the promotion of these policies. It can look at things only at the request of the chief executive or the council. The third committee, the Nuclear Safety Committee, has the parallel role in relation to matters of nuclear safety and is similarly restricted in what it can look at.

I note that the outline in the explanatory memorandum states that the Radiation Health and Safety Advisory Council will include, amongst others, consumer groups. However, this is not required in the bill. It also fails to give appropriate weight to the environmental issues, which ARPANSA will be responsible for.

Instead, we see that the minister has said that he will appoint a single person who will `represent the public interest'. I would have thought that it was the purpose of the entire committee and all of its members to be committed to protecting the public interest. This language actually misses the point that the council and the two committees need to include people who represent those with different views. There is a need for debate between experts to ensure that our system for radiation protection and nuclear safety is first rate. We will not get that if the members are carefully selected to accord with the views of, say, the chief executive or of any established orthodoxy amongst the key players in the industry.

We in the Labor Party believe that it is very important that the advisory council has on it, by legislation, people who represent the broadest range of opinion in the community. The minister has indicated that he intends selecting people who do not come from a narrow group. However, there is always the prospect that some will feel excluded or, more likely, that a future minister may not abide by any understanding that is not reflected in the words of the legislation. I believe that the relevant three clauses should be amended so those selected by the minister to `protect the public interest' are specifically people selected from nominations by national consumer and environmental groups. I have made these suggestions to the minister and I understand it may be possible to agree on new words that achieve this objective.

I am pleased that the government has agreed to an amendment proposed by the opposition in May when the bill was previously debated. This will ensure that someone from an area affected by a controlled facility is appointed to the Nuclear Safety Committee to represent local government. I also understand that, in the first instance, this will probably be a representative of the Sutherland Shire, which is the area surrounding the Lucas Heights facility. I have received representations from the Sutherland Shire and they have been very detailed and professional. I think they have lobbied on behalf of the residents of their area very effectively and certainly merit being directly represented on the Nuclear Safety Committee. I would appreciate hearing more from the minister about how he proposes to ensure that other areas with controlled facilities are to be represented.

As it happens, I represent the electorate where there is another facility—the Australian Radiation Laboratory—which has operated successfully for many years and has very good relations with its local community. It does an outstanding job in carrying out its functions. My view—and I put this to the minister—is that each facility should be proactive in engaging with its local community to ensure public confidence.

All that we are talking about today is not something that should be done on the cheap. If Australia is to ensure the application of radiation and nuclear technologies that are safe, well managed and get the public's support, we must ensure that we have the best expertise, a capability to do our own research and access to the latest techniques for measuring risks and monitoring the impact of radiation.

ARPANSA is intended to be self-funding and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (Licence Charges) Bill 1998 provides for charges to be levied on the holders of source licences and facility licences. The bill makes no provision about how these charges are to be set. What I would seek from the minister is an assurance that the new agency will be given a budget which is adequate for it to properly fulfil its statutory role. It is essential that ARPANSA has the resources to enable it to be well informed about the best practice around the world in the management of risks from the use of radiation and nuclear materials.

I understand that the principal holders of licences will mainly be other Commonwealth agencies such as ANSTO. There is a major risk that pressure from these agencies will result in ARPANSA being given an inadequate budget and being left as a toothless tiger. There is also a risk that shortage of resources will result in lengthy delay in the development of the standards and codes that are foreshadowed. I would appreciate the minister's advice about how this is to be avoided.

As I said at the start, the opposition supports the establishment of a strong and credible national regulatory framework for the control of applications of radiation and nuclear materials for medical and scientific purposes. I recognise that the bill is to be given expedited passage, and I support this to make sure that the legislation becomes effective as soon as practicable. I trust that the minister will be able to provide the information that I have sought before the bill is debated in the Senate and that he will give consideration to any minor amendments arising from my comments today.