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Tuesday, 11 September 1984
Page: 773

Senator CHILDS —My question is directed to the Minister for Resources and Energy . I refer him to an article in the Age on 1 September by Ian Davis, headed: ' Sinking raises question over Australian controls'. Following the sinking in the English Channel of the French ship Mont Louis with a cargo of uranium hexafluoride, are not the safeguards against accident and assurances about the certainty of control over the destination of Australian uranium, through the International Atomic Energy Agency checks, being cast into severe doubt?

Senator WALSH —Dealing with the final portion of Senator Childs's question, I cannot see that the sinking of that cargo has any relevance to the degree of control exercised over Australian uranium. I think it is possible under the agreement with France-certainly it is with Finland and maybe one or two other countries-for Australian origin uranium to be taken to the Soviet Union for enrichment. The cargo which was sunk was being taken to the Soviet Union for that purpose. However, that is subject to an accountancy check under which the same amount of original uranium-natural or slightly enriched as in the case of the ship that sunk-that goes into the Soviet Union must be returned in its entirety to its country of origin; that is, as enriched uranium and the depleted tails. I do not think it has any relevance to the effectiveness of checks on Australian uranium or safeguards.

Of course, the fact that the ship has been sunk has caused some concern. According to the most recent reports I have received, the weather conditions in the English Channel or the North Sea, whichever it is, have delayed attempts to salvage that cargo. I believe its value is in the vicinity of $10m. The water is relatively shallow and one would expect that it would be salvageable as a purely commercial operation, although the attempts to salvage the cargo have been delayed.

Just to put that in perspective, and often these matters are not put into perspective, certainly if those containers were to be left on the bottom of the sea for a long period-I am not sure how long but it would be a number of years- the possibility of the uranium hexafluoride escaping would exist. However, that would not be a severe radiation hazard as some reports have suggested; it would be a quite severe chemical pollution hazard. There are hazards associated with all activities. If one cares to think back a few years, perhaps about 20 years ago, one remembers the Torrey Canyon, which broke up off the south coast of England. The beaches of the United Kingdom and a good deal of Europe were very heavily contaminated by the oil spillage from that. There have been instances since then, which I cannot recall specifically, of very heavy beach pollution consequential on the sinking or breaking up of tankers.