Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 1970

Senator TOWNLEY(12.03) —This group of Bills relates to the Kakadu National Park area. The purpose of one of the Bills is to amend the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 to prohibit exploration and mining in the Kakadu National Park. The background of the Kakadu National Park was that the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry recommended in 1977 that a major national park be established in the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory to provide protection for rare species of flora and fauna, rare habitats and important Aboriginal art and archaeological sites of significance. The Commonwealth implemented that recommendation in April 1979 by declaring stage 1 of Kakadu under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. This area covered some 6,144 square kilometres and incorporated the form of the Awonga and Alligator Rivers wildlife sanctuaries. In 1984, stage 2 of the park was added-an additional area of just under 7,000 kilometres. Of course, there is now stage 3. It makes me wonder just where this park will stop unless there is a change of attitude by the Federal Government.

Very large areas are involved in this issue. The area involved in the Kakadu National Park is about a third as big as Tasmania. If it were superimposed on the eastern seaboard of Australia, it would run from below Wollongong to the north of Newcastle and would be about half as wide in area as it is long. Therefore, it is a very large area to lock up permanently, particularly when one takes note of what minerals of significance are there. It is a very valuable area, and it is one of the most highly mineralised areas in the world. I do not say that every area which contains a mineral should be dug up immediately. I do not for a moment suggest that anything but sensible mining and exploration be allowed to be carried out. The Liberal Party of Australia does not suggest wanton destruction of mineral areas. However, I have seen areas that have been rehabilitated following mining which look better than comparable areas that have remained untouched. I know that a senator may interject and say that some areas do not look better, but the modern practice these days is that rehabilitation is part and parcel of any mining that is done.

I do not believe that the area of the Kakadu National Park is as fragile as many environmentalists would have us believe. Having been there and coming from the beautiful State of Tasmania, I agree with the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) that much of the area could be described as clapped out buffalo territory. It could well be that the area could be examined without any adverse effects and that a multiple land use attitude could be adopted. That is what the Government should be doing.

Senator Zakharov —But you saw what happened when the buffalo were excluded.

Senator TOWNLEY —Yes, I did. I agree with Senator Sanders that the term `clapped out buffalo territory' is a political description of the area. I am trying to get the picture across to people who may never have the opportunity of going to the area. I have used the word `boring' to describe it. When one comes from a place such as Tasmania and areas such as Wilsons Promontory in Senator Zakharov's State, which are tremendously attractive, one can see that they leave the Kakadu National Park area for dead. The Government has decided, for several reasons, to restrict activity in the area so that it will get votes from people in Melbourne and Sydney who would not otherwise vote for it.

The Bill that seeks to amend the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act to prohibit exploration and mining will also amend the Act to retroactively ban mineral exploration. That to me is a retrospective action by the Government. People who had leases had a right to expect certain things. For instance, Peko-Wallsend Ltd was told in a judgment by Mr Justice Beaumont of the Federal Court that it could enter into certain areas of land. I believe that it had a letter from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority to the effect that a sacred site had been slapped right on top of some of the company's best leases. That makes me wonder just how accurate some of the sacred site applications and impositions are in the Northern Territory. The whole situation is crazy.

Senator Jessop —Is the Government reimbursing the company for that?

Senator TOWNLEY —No. The Bill expressly stipulates that no compensation will be paid to any company that had leases and which may have spent a considerable amount on that area. I think that the conservationists of this country have forgotten that the area would not have been a national park at all except for the explorers and the miners who went in there and made it possible for people to get to these areas. As I have said, it is a major world mineral source; it is a major area of uranium for the world. It is particularly appropriate that we are considering this matter some 12 months after the incident which occurred at Chernobyl in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Some people believe that nuclear power is very much a better way to go in this world, particularly for base-load electricity, rather than the burning of fossil fuels. For a government to say it is going to lock up one of the major sources of this mineral is really beyond my comprehension. We should be very much involved in the attitude of the Opposition on the uranium fuel cycle in regard to both mining and experimentation for peaceful purposes only. I think we should also be involved in the uranium enrichment area as well and maybe even in the production of fuel rods and things that could be shipped to other parts of the world for use in other areas. I am pleased to see that in England just recently Mr Peter Walker, who is the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Energy, has announced that it is going ahead with a new, quite large pressurised water reactor nuclear power plant called Sizewell B. In the report that Sir Frank Layfield made about this plant, published on 26 January this year, he said, amongst other things:

There is a national interest in maintaining an economical and continuous supply of electricity. The Board-

he is talking about the Central Electricity Generating Board of the United Kingdom-

has shown that building the proposed PWR is likely to save generating costs and to provide a base load station to meet capacity need.

At the moment some 20 per cent of England's power is produced by nuclear means.

Senator Crichton-Browne —The country that has suffered the most devastation from atomic bombs is Japan.

Senator TOWNLEY —That is right. Senator Crichton-Browne says that Japan is also one country that realises that producing power from nuclear sources is a much better way to go than to keep burning fossil fuels. I want to talk about one aspect of burning fossil fuels in a moment. Once this Sizewell B plant gets going in the United Kingdom, I believe that its power generation from nuclear sources will then be nearly one-quarter. Recently overseas it has been shown that one plant in the United States has been producing the highest ever output for a year-it came out at 2c a kilowatt-hour. That plant has been operating for quite a long time. Most probably these days with environmental impact costs and things that have to be done before a plant is installed one would not get that kind of low figure, but if the world adopted one type of nuclear power plant and gradually developed it into something that was very safe, that everybody used and knew how to operate, I believe the cost of producing such plants would come down. That is something I think that this country should be promoting.

Apart from the Chernobyl disaster, I believe that the nuclear industry has been remarkable in its lack of accidents. When we consider the number of people who are killed in this country and in other countries in coal mining accidents, we have to realise that obtaining coal for power plants is a very dangerous thing indeed. I believe that we really have to look at the production of power. The Kakadu National Park area could become the focus of world uranium production if any government so desired. The production of power from nuclear sources is much preferable to fossil fuels which for one thing can lead to what is called acid rain.

I would like to take the opportunity just to say a little about acid rain because it is a major problem, particularly in the northern hemisphere. We are fortunate that it does not occur to a large extent in Australia. We do not want to let acid rain become an environmental problem in this country. So we really should be taking action now to prevent its origin. It is much better to solve this problem now than to attempt to solve it later because it can cause billions of dollars worth of damage. Other countries have delayed the introduction of proper solutions for many years and they have been left with quite dead lakes. Acid rain has endangered animal and plant life and has caused lower crop yields; trees are dying in Europe and there is a lot of metal corrosion. The problems are very large indeed. I believe that is the kind of thing environmentalists should be talking about. They should be saying: `Why are you not stopping production of power with fossil fuels and using nuclear power?'. If they really thought about it, that is exactly what they would do.

Senator Zakharov —They are suggesting other alternatives.

Senator TOWNLEY —The honourable senator is dead right; they are suggesting other alternatives. I have looked at the alternatives that they have suggested, but to get the base power load that is needed for any sizable country and even developing countries is impracticable with any other means but nuclear or fossil fuel.

Senator Jessop —And uneconomic.

Senator TOWNLEY —And uneconomic. I visited the largest solar plant in this world, which is in California. To get just 10 kilowatts of power, which is not very much indeed, takes up a huge area and so that, in itself, is a pollutant with all this area being taken up. If we try to put a solar plant in Kakadu National Park, I suppose the Government would say: `No, you can't do that, you may tread on a frog, or something'. Some of the things that happen in this country at the moment are quite out of line with sensible thinking.

Two-thirds of England's acid emissions are from the Central Electricity Generating Board. This body knows that it has got to go to nuclear plant. As I have said, it uses coal fired power stations to generate 80 per cent of its electricity at the moment. The cost to that Board of decreasing acid emissions will be nearly $2 billion, but that will still leave 10 per cent of sulphur emissions being released into the atmosphere.

Canada, of course, gets a lot of its acid rain from below the border, but the cost there is something like $Can1 billion every year due to loss of jobs and effects on the economy. Ontario Hydro, which is a government run instrumentality, will spend something like $Can5 billion in the 1990s on emission control devices to try to eliminate the source of acid rain. It therefore laughs at the joint Canadian-United States Government program which proposes to clean up the entire United States for a similar amount. It knows just how expensive it will be to clear up the air that is coming to Canada and causing the trouble that I will talk about in a moment from south of the border.

Senator Jessop —It also threatens the ozone layer.

Senator TOWNLEY —Senator Jessop mentions that some of the chemicals that come up interact with the ozone of the atmosphere. I do not think it has been entirely proven because it happens very slowly, but if it does happen and the ultra violet rays are allowed to get through into the atmosphere, the incidence of cancer and the increase of diseases in this world will be horrendous. It may well be that if we continue to pump out all this muck from fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere it will be too late to do anything-the ozone will be gone, the damage will have happened and it will be irreversible.

Senator Crichton-Browne —What do the conservationists say about that?

Senator TOWNLEY —Again, they put their heads in the sand. The conservationists do not say anything about that; they seem to just ignore that altogether. I think it is imperative that we understand the cause of acid rain. Very briefly, acid rain is caused by the release of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere. These compounds react with photochemical oxidants, especially hydrogen peroxide and the ozone, as Senator Jessop mentioned a moment ago. It converts the sulphur dioxide into sulphuric and sulphurous acids and turns the nitrogen dioxide into nitric acid. That is pretty strong stuff when mixed with a bit of water, and it then falls to the earth as acid rain. We have to restrict as much as we can-we should be doing it in this country as well-the dumping of sulphur and nitrogen into the atmosphere from all sources. The answer is to put less chemicals into the air. Some people say: `Why don't you put a higher smoke-stack so that it goes further away?'. It does, of course, send the pollutants further away from their source, but that is not the solution. A lot of the acid rain problem in Europe and North America and in the worst affected countries is caused by emissions from other countries. The countries that are emitting the sulphur and nitrogen are effectively treating the polluted countries as dumping grounds for their waste products, and they do not seem to want to help. So I think we should be taking action in Australia; just sending it further afield in the world is not the answer. We should realise that this world is a limited area, and we must play our part in not polluting it any more than we should.

Acid rain is definitely then a world concern, because not only does the precipitation of acid directly affect plants; it also causes enormous damage to the chemistry of the soil. Somebody described it as a legally produced equivalent of agent orange-it is that bad. The effect on soil is one of the major problems of acid rain and it is believed that one day, if it continues, it will kill all aquatic life in lakes, streams, rivers and lochs and so affect all creatures further up the food chain. That day may not be very far ahead of us.

In Canada, `old' or normal rain used to be slightly acidic-if I can be technical for a moment-with a pH of 5.7. This was in equilibrium with a small amount of carbon dioxide content in the air and it yielded a dilute calcium bicarbonate solution when it encountered bedrock or soils. This was all right because it provided the natural buffer required for the acid. `Modern' acid rain has an acid content some 30 times stronger than the old rain, and it has a pH of 4.0. Without getting too technical, this acid rain when it falls is about as strong as vinegar; it accelerates erosion and releases aluminium particularly and other things such as calcium, magnesium and iron from the soils and into the water. The excess acid itself also goes into the water. We do not get the buffering that was there in days gone by.

What happens then to the aquatic life is that the aluminium goes into, say, a lake and mucus develops on the gills of the fish and they do not last very long. Even if the acidity and the aluminium are not sufficient to kill the fish-and in many cases they are-they are so severe that fish do not spawn. Some Canadian rivers have not contained fish for over 20 years. It is virtually impossible to reverse this situation once it gets going. Once a lake contains acid it will stay that way, particularly while acid rain continues to fall. In Scotland they have had trouble around some of the lakes. They have been putting limestone around some of them to try to counteract the acidity. The limestone reacts with the acid rain, which becomes neutralised. Of course, this is only a stop gap solution and obviously is very expensive.

The causes of acid rain should be stopped at the outset and not after the problem has appeared. In this country we are in a fortunate position, as I said, because we have few people spread over a large area and many of the prevailing winds take away from our country any of the acid rains that we develop. I do not think we can allow this thing to continue. It is just not good enough from a world point of view, and perhaps I am sounding like a conservationist at the moment, to allow-

Senator Crichton-Browne —A conservative.

Senator TOWNLEY —I think that many engineers-and I am one-who are in favour of nuclear power are definitely conservationists. They realise that less damage would be done to this world if we looked at a place like Kakadu and realise that its uranium can be of benefit to the world and were not scared of it because of the lack of understanding, which I think is the main problem facing the nuclear industry. It is my feeling that we really must move as soon as possible towards as much nuclear power and hydro-electric power as this world can generate.

I realise that we will never get to a situation where we can get rid of all coal-powered plants. There are certain political pressures on governments to keep them, particularly in a place like England where the miners have such a big influence on the alternative government-or I think it is the alternative government over there. We will never get rid of coal-powered plants entirely. We need either oil-or coal-fired stations to respond quickly to peak load demands for electricity. It is no good people going around saying that they will use less, because that is just not facing reality. There will be a continuing increase in the demand for power.

As I have said already, solar power is a big polluter in that it takes up a lot of space. It does not produce large quantities of noxious waste, but it does need large tracts of land to take the mirrors. Solar power is not very efficient. As I have said, it is no answer to the base load power requirements of this world. I believe that it must be hammered into the heads of environmentalists and perhaps into the Government that they must stop equivocating and make a stand on nuclear power one way or the other. As Larry Birbeck of Saskatchewan put it:

The environmentalists will argue against acid rain on the one hand and against nuclear energy on the other hand; so the environmentalists will have to get their act together. They will have to make up their minds whether they want to have all this acid rain spewing out or whether they want to run this terrible risk of a nuclear holocaust. That is very crucial.

I do not believe that it is necessary to run the risk of a nuclear problem. As I said earlier, I think that, if we can design and manufacture one sensible nuclear power reactor, use it throughout the world and improve it over the years, the safety of this means of power generation will go from where it is already-which I say is good-to an even better standard.

Nuclear power then is very much tied up with Kakadu. I believe that is the main reason, and the real reason, why environmentalists do not want to see any action at Kakadu. They want to keep uranium in the ground because, some of them say, it might be used for unpeaceful purposes, for weapons of some kind or another. Of course, I am not suggesting that for a minute. I suggest that in this country we should continue to ensure as much as we possibly can that the spread of nuclear weapons does not continue. Nuclear power is the subject of a number of unfounded and untrue rumours. However, it is something that this world is going to have. I have noticed a lot of hysteria about it over the last few days because of the Chernobyl situation. I suppose that is something that could happen again if the USSR does not alter the design of its plants and make for better containment if they again reach a critical stage.

I have been sidetracked somewhat from the actual discussion of these Bills, but I thought it was important at this time to point out that the Bills have been drafted for environmentalists. However, it is the environmentalists who are imposing more damage on this world from Australia by not releasing some of the minerals in the Kakadu area than would be the case if they allowed sensible, multiple land use in the Kakadu National Park area. It would be of much benefit to the people of the Northern Territory, including the Aborigines, and it would be of benefit to this whole country. I am not looking forward to the passage of these Bills in any way whatsoever.