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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 679

Mr ADAMS (6:11 PM) —The purpose of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 is to establish a facility for managing, at a single site, radioactive waste currently stored at a host of locations across the country. As has been said, in many capital cities, around hospitals and many other sites, we have a lot of radioactive waste. This bill will ensure the safe and responsible management of this waste arising from medical and industrial areas and the research of radioactive material in Australia. The bill ensures the Commonwealth’s power to make arrangements for the safe and secure management of radioactive waste generated, processed or controlled by the Commonwealth. This has to be done on a voluntary basis. No site can be considered a potential location as a radioactive waste management facility without the voluntary nomination of the site and the agreement of persons with relevant rights and interests.

The sites mentioned that have been considered before include the Harts Ranges, Mount Everard, Alice Springs and Fishers Ridge near Katherine. The bill no longer singles out the Northern Territory as the only location to be considered. The minister must first consider whether a facility can be built on land nominated by a land council in the Northern Territory, including the current nomination. For example, the land councils of the Northern Territory have been given the first opportunity to nominate land to see if it is suitable for a waste facility. If the minister believes that it is suitable, the minister can obtain more information about land rights and interests in the site and also look at the physical site itself. It includes the collection of water and soil samples to help make a decision. Once a site has been selected, it will be put forward for regulatory approval. However, this does not guarantee the establishment of a facility. When all of this has been done and the site fails in some way and it is not feasible, the minister may open the nationwide nomination process. This allows the Ngapa peoples to have procedural fairness in any decision to select a site, including the current nomination at Muckaty Station.

The bill repeals the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 and applies a decision-making process based on natural justice. Natural justice puts in place a code of fair procedure. At its core is the hearing rule: a right to be heard by the minister before a decision is reached. The bill also reinstates the Administrative Decision (Judicial Review) Act 1977. This will allow persons aggrieved by a decision to apply for judicial review and ensure a higher level of accountability for decisions. A facility will not be established unless it meets environmental and regulatory requirements under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Australian Radioactive Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987. A regional consultation committee will also be established to communicate with local communities during the environmental and regulatory approval process and the construction and operational stages of the project. This open and informed process will help raise awareness through dialogue, address local concerns and ensure government transparency when establishing a national radioactive waste management facility.

I think we have to be realistic that nuclear waste needs to be stored. The safest way to store it is in our own backyard, as we will then be certain that all the standards for safety and security are met. Any facility built here will store radioactive waste generated, processed or controlled by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth entity. This is crucial to a long-term strategy for managing radioactive waste in Australia. Of course, that waste is generated in saving lives in hospitals, and it is generated in Australia. We have to take care of our own waste. This government’s intention is that the facility will manage Australia’s waste rather than just the waste from Commonwealth authorities. State waste will be accepted after detailed negotiations with the states have occurred. It is an improvement on our predecessors, who left the states and territories to make their own arrangements for managing these wastes, despite international best practice favouring centralised, purpose-built facilities.

I know there are many storage facilities in Tasmania. They are often the topic of conversation in the press when there is a scare, and there must be many others around this country. When the public becomes aware that they are just down the road, around the corner, underneath where they are working or whatever, people start to get a bit of an idea that there is something that this country must come to grips with, and that is the storage of its nuclear waste. This bill would allow it all to be put into one spot and will minimise the risk of any loss of control. It will help keep control of the radioactive material, therefore making it safer and more secure.

Two important facts provide compelling arguments as to why Australia should be at the forefront of nuclear spent fuel and waste storage research. Australia is a major exporter of uranium and nuclear power. It is the world’s largest and most promising source of low-carbon energy for most countries. In past public debates, proliferation has been the most important issue for objectors to nuclear power, while arguments about waste storage have centred on the technical questions of long-term stability and security of the storage systems. There are good reasons Australia should accept nuclear waste and store spent fuel prior to recycling. One reason is that Australia has a huge area suitable for long-term, relatively dry and geographically stable storage sites that meet that criterion. Most of them are remote from significant human habitation.

Another reason is that Australia is more politically stable than other countries that will inevitably attempt to enter the large-scale business opportunities of storage and handling systems. There is a very good reason why we should exploit our unique capacities in this activity. If we allow nuclear waste to come to Australia, not only do we make the world a safer place and protect our country from the major threat that nuclear waste poses to us but we could earn large sums of foreign exchange. As part of any plan, taking others’ waste could be an industry in itself for us into the future.

The argument about making the world a safer place by taking waste is also considerable. Nuclear waste stored below a desert in Australia is much less likely to become a dirty bomb than waste stored alongside a nuclear reactor in France or America. Making use of fuel rods or, in the future, fuel pellets would greatly reduce the chance of a dirty bomb exploding in a large city—and that is the major risk that waste poses for us. The natural causes of release of waste into the environment are easy to manage in Australia. We run a lower risk of radioactivity reaching our shores from a desert location inland from the Indian Ocean than from temporary storage facilities in California or Japan.

For our own good, we should offer a little patch of Australia to store nuclear waste. It is not a huge amount. Over 50 years Australia has accumulated a total of 4,020 cubic metres of low-level and short-lived intermediate and low-level radioactive waste. About 50 cubic metres is annually accumulated here. We do not produce any high-level waste. Other countries have a lot more, and maybe, in the long term, we might look at storing other people’s waste—of course, at a cost.

I do think that we have to get over the fear of nuclear materials and start understanding what risks there may or may not be by using it. There are fears about all sorts of things, and the best way to deal with that fear is to understand it. We need to understand what we are dealing with. We are beginning to understand a bit more about nuclear energy. New generations are coming to understand that, as we look at the need for a low-carbon future, we certainly have to have a debate on nuclear energy.

The only reason we have not had to do this in Australia is that nuclear is still very expensive compared to other power sources, such as coal. But there may be a day when we will have to consider it—and that day is getting closer all the time. Therefore, we need how best to use it and how to store and secure the waste safely. We need to work towards investigating ways to make the waste less potent and ways to more quickly break down that waste. It is important to have an understanding of the science and to have people with the necessary skill base.

This bill allows many options to be considered. There needs to be full consultation with the people and organisations that may have an interest in the location of such a waste site, and we need the proper checks and balances. This facility should be of great benefit to Australia in many ways. We need to have a debate about nuclear energy in Australia. We need to think about what will happen if we do not clean the coal that we have in the ground. We have 400 years of coal reserves based on present usage. Coal is a major, major fuel for us, but, if we do not find a way to clean it, we will need to look at another source. The Greens, who have spoken in this chamber, are opposed to nuclear energy and to coal. So we could be in trouble if they win the day. I support this bill. I believe it is a good bill and that it will take us forward as a nation.