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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4728

Senator CARR (2:54 PM) —My question without notice is to Senator Alston, the Minister representing the Minister for Science. Can the minister explained to the Senate the reason for Mr McGauran's desperate, short-notice dash to Argentina earlier this month? Can the minister confirm that the Australian government has argued to Argentina that Australia's spent nuclear fuel is not `radioactive waste'. Isn't this position in conflict with the statement of the government's own chief regulator, Dr Lloyd, who said:

Radioactive waste includes spent fuel where a country foresees no further use for that fuel ...

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —It is interesting that Senator Carr uses the exact expression that has already been used in the media, so there is not much originality on that side of the chamber. In fact, I seem to recall that being written up a couple of weeks ago, so it is a bit of a slow boat as far as you are concerned, rather than a `desperate dash'. Mr McGauran has made a trip to Argentina to encourage support for approval by the Argentine Congress of Australia's bilateral nuclear cooperation safeguards agreement and to discuss science issues with industry representatives and members of Argentina's science community. I know you do not think any of that is very important. You would obviously stay at home on all occasions and not seek to engage with the international community, but Mr McGauran was able to explain to members of the Argentine Congress and the media the nature of the agreement in the context of the ANSTO-INVAP commercial contract and Australia's management of spent fuel and radioactive waste.

Senator ALSTON —You have been before, haven't you? The visit also provided the opportunity to correct Greenpeace's persistent misrepresentation that the Australia-Argentina Nuclear Cooperation Agreement will lead to dumping of Australia's radioactive waste in Argentina. Clearly, there is a very clear important public interest purpose to Mr McGauran having face-to-face discussions with his counterparts in a country which may well have been misled by some of those quite inaccurate statements.

In the event that the processing provisions of the agreement are ever invoked, processing will be conducted on the basis that all waste and conditioned spent fuel elements will be returned to Australia for long-term storage, and it is important that Mr McGauran underline that commitment. The office of the federal government attorney in Argentina has ruled that the temporary entry of irradiated fuel elements for treatment purposes does not breach the Argentine constitution, as claimed by Greenpeace. The spent fuel treatment provisions are a contingency arrangement that provides a backup for Australia's existing contract with the French company COGEMA. While appreciating that the Argentine Congress has other pressing preoccupations, Mr McGauran was encouraged by his discussions with parliamentary representatives and he expects the House of Deputies to endorse the agreement. It sounds like a very positive outcome and a very worthwhile visit.

Senator CARR —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given his confidence, can the minister now confirm that the Australian government has been advised by the Argentinean government that it is pessimistic about the two-thirds majority being achieved to ratify the nuclear treaty? I ask the minister: what are the potential consequences for Australia if the Argentine Congress fails to ratify the bilateral nuclear treaty between Australia and Argentina?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I would be very surprised if the Argentine government has been in touch with your office to express pessimism on the subject. They are probably more pessimistic about your total inability to understand the national interest dimensions of this particular proposition. Quite clearly, I know that they would be prepared to give you a briefing if you sought one, but beyond that I am not really in a position to advise you—

Senator Faulkner —How do you know that?

Senator ALSTON —It probably would not be worthwhile; you are right. I do not think you would even get to first base.

Senator Faulkner —So you are saying that there are no independent ears?

Senator ALSTON —No, I am not. I think, however, that it is unlikely that I would be in a position to confirm or deny any discussions that might have taken place between the Argentine government and Australian counterparts, and, as to the likely outcome of the parliamentary vote, I suppose you will just have to wait and see.