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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1328

Senator SANDERS(5.27) —I address my remarks to the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. Given that many of the world's nations have been foolish enough to tread the nuclear path, this Convention serves an admirable purpose. All signatories to the Convention must give immediate warning of a nuclear accident to any other nation which could be affected by the fallout. The Convention is a result of the Chernobyl disaster which was first brought to the world's notice by Sweden, rather than the Soviet Union, where the accident occurred.

Article one of the Convention lists the facilities and activities which are covered. The first item listed is `any nuclear reactor wherever located'. In the case of Australia, this is the only item which has any relevance. While there is no chance that a land based civilian reactor in another country could contaminate Australia, we regularly allow ship based reactors to enter the harbours of some of our capital cities. I draw the Senate's attention to the fine work of Professor Jackson Davis from my former university, the University of California, Santa Cruz campus. Using the standard methodology of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Professor Davis has calculated that a severe nuclear reactor accident on a warship berthed in an Australian port could cause thousands of cancer deaths in following years. Professor Davis found that the only way to avoid these long term casualties would be to evacuate the city within one or two hours and to decontaminate affected areas at a cost of billions of dollars.

No amount of warning of a nuclear reactor accident on an American or British warship can reduce the decontamination costs. However, early warning is essential for evacuation to take place. But early warning in itself is not enough. It must be possible for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens to leave the city in a couple of hours. I ask honourable senators to consider what would happen in Sydney or Melbourne if notice was given to evacuate within two hours.

Senator Puplick —You would not notice it in Melbourne.

Senator SANDERS —One might not notice it in Melbourne. This would be possible only if mass evacuation procedures involving residents were regularly practised. Of course, they are not. After all, no army would draw up plans for mass manoeuvres in time of war without practising them. The same philosophy should apply to mass manoeuvres involving civilians. Even then, I doubt that evacuation of a major city could take place in one or two hours.

Senator Mason —Certainly not in Sydney.

Senator SANDERS —No, not in Sydney. Nevertheless, as long as Australia continues to ignore its interests and allows these warships into our ports, the public deserves to get the earliest possible warning of any reactor accident.

The same applies to an accident involving a nuclear warhead. The United States defence nuclear agency has drawn up a nuclear weapons accident response procedures manual, which acknowledges that the high explosive component of a warhead could explode, causing a fire. The manual states that there is a `very real possibility of radioactive contamination at the accident scene, and extending many miles downwind'. Professor Davis found that the plutonium liberated by a warhead fire would cause health problems up to 55 kilometres from the accident site. In Sydney, this could lead to 11,000 deaths in the long term from plutonium contamination. Those deaths would be from cancer, which of course is a slow and painful way to die.

A nuclear weapons accident would also require mass evacuation and decontamination. As with nuclear reactor accidents, early warning is essential. This raises the question of whether this convention applies to accidents on warships. Nuclear reactors are specified in article one, but no mention is made of nuclear weapons accidents. Article three provides that parties:


I emphasise the word `may'-

notify in the event of nuclear accidents other than those specified in article one''.

There is no mandatory obligation to report a nuclear weapons accident.

The other question is whether a United States or British warship visiting Australia comes under the terms of the convention, which only applies to radioactive releases which cross national boundaries. It is my understanding that a visiting United States warship remains United States territory. If that is so, then this convention applies to foreign warships in Australian ports. However, there is no certainty as to whether the convention does apply to visiting warships, and it does not extend to nuclear weapons accidents. I call on the Australian Government to conclude whatever agreements are necesssary to ensure that this convention does cover these circumstances.

Question resolved in the affirmative.