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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
13/09/2021
Intermediate level solid waste storage facility, Lucas Heights, New South Wales

NOONAN, Mr David, Private capacity [by audio link]

Committee met at 11:00

CHAIR ( Mr Rick Wilson ): I declare open this public hearing of the Standing Committee on Public Works inquiry into the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation intermediate-level solid waste storage facility at Lucas Heights in New South Wales. The committee's role is defined in the Public Works Committee Act 1969 as being to consider and report on the purpose and need of the proposed works, the most effective use of public money that can be made in carrying out the works, and the present and prospective public value of the proposed works. For this inquiry, the committee has received a large number of submissions. In light of the high level of public interest, the committee will hear from a range of submitters before hearing from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in regard to these works.

A copy of today's program will be available on the committee's website. In accordance with the committee's resolution, this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the proof and official transcript of proceedings will be published on the parliament's website. I also remind members of the media who may be present or listening on the web that they need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

I now welcome Mr David Noonan to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to open with a brief statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Noonan : I have nearly 25 years experience of following nuclear waste issues in Australia, both in capacity, working for non-government organisations, and more recently as an individual—an independent consultant and campaigner. My first key point is that the primary premise that your committee should consider, evaluate and scrutinise of ANSTO's proposed works is in terms of the safety contingency set by the independent regulator ARPANSA to retain ANSTO's nuclear waste at Lucas Heights until the availability of a final isolation and disposal option. With respect, I think that should be the primary matter that should have been addressed by ANSTO in their submission to you and apparently was not.

My second key point is that, in contrast, ANSTO, as, with respect, a vested-interest proponent, presents a plan of proposed works that relies on proposed transfer of intermediate-level waste into indefinite above-ground storage in South Australia—potentially for up to 100 years. Firstly, I'd say that is arguably untenable, and I'd welcome a question line on that if it suits the committee. Secondly, it appears to pre-empt the proper role of ARPANSA licensing decision-making. ARPANSA have said that they will require separate licence processes to assess potential siting, construction and operation of a proposed store for ANSTO intermediate-level waste in South Australia. ANSTO don't have a right, in the design of their plan and works toward you, to pre-empt a potential grant of outcome to that, and ARPANSA have been clear that they may or may not grant those licences in future. Thirdly, your mandate as a committee goes to both scrutinising and assessing proposed works. But it holds a fundamental provision, in that you have a right to alter the proposed works—and I would ask you to consider doing so—to make them best comply with the suitability of the overarching purpose of meeting the best public value in the proposed works and the best cost-effectiveness in expenditure of public funds. With respect, I would say that that assessment and the scrutiny which you provide to ANSTO's application should be in terms of their capacity and willingness to match the safety contingencies set by the independent regulator to retain intermediate-level waste on site at Lucas Heights until availability of a final isolation and disposal option.

Fourthly: I think the scrutiny that your committee would conduct is best served by the highest level of transparency. In that respect, I would call for you to ask ANSTO to publicly release two fundamentally important reports with regard to their planning and capacities to manage intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights that were due under their licensing conditions. These reports were due to the independent regulator mid last year, in June. Those reports, as far as I'm aware, are not before your committee in the public evidence, and they should be. With respect, I think they should have been available for members of the public to scrutinise in their preparation of submissions to you. Further, in terms of transparency, it would be best if you could bring onto the public record ARPANSA's evaluation of those ANSTO reports on their plans and capacities to manage intermediate-level waste at Lucas Heights. Preferably, you would hear from the regulator, ARPANSA, given their overarching role in these public interest issues. They would give evidence before you as a witness, for instance, or you could at least put questions to them.

In conclusion, I would present that ANSTO's proposed plan fails to meet the proper safety contingency for extended storage of intermediate-level waste on site at Lucas Heights. This is, with respect, the primary purpose and warranted public interest measure by which their work should be scrutinised, assessed and evaluated by your committee. In my view and experience, ANSTO's proposed public works appear premised on an ill-considered, unassured and, arguably, untenable proposed transfer of intermediate-level waste into indefinite above-ground storage in South Australia. That's a plan which may never come to fruition, just as the prior proposal by then Prime Minister Howard's federal government to impose transfer and storage of ANSTO's nuclear waste into South Australia, which was run between 1998 and 2004, had to be abandoned as a flawed proposal.

The then Prime Minister gave assurances that it wouldn't be renewed for South Australia, and yet we have to face this federal government's policy agenda to transfer waste out of Lucas Heights unnecessarily when, arguably, it could be safely and securely managed. As the CEO of ARPANSA has said, nuclear waste can be safely managed at ANSTO at Lucas Heights for decades to come. With respect, that should be the premise on which your committee addresses the works before you. I'd now welcome taking questions from the committee.

CHAIR: Okay. We have 13 minutes left so I'll throw directly to the deputy chair, a South Australian. Tony, do you have any questions of Mr Noonan?

Mr ZAPPIA: I actually have lots of questions, but given we only have 13 minutes I'll keep them to a couple. Mr Noonan, thanks for your presentation. Those two reports that you referred to: have you seen them?

Mr Noonan : No, I haven't seen them. As far as I'm aware they're not on the public record yet. I believe they should be; they were requested to be released publicly in the Senate inquiry that ran through mid last year. That wasn't the outcome at that inquiry.

Mr ZAPPIA: Do you know if ANSTO has seen them?

Mr Noonan : I understand that ANSTO presented those reports to the independent regulator, ARPANSA, on 30 June in mid last year. That was the requirement under their licensing conditions. So I understand that those reports have existed and been finalised by ANSTO since mid last year, and that they've been evaluated by the independent regulator, ARPANSA. I think it's those matters which you should be requesting—both for ANSTO to release the reports and that ARPANSA's evaluation of those reports should be on the public record, and—initially, at least—available for your committee's consideration.

Mr ZAPPIA: Given that the current proposal is indeed to store material at Lucas Heights, albeit for an additional 10 years to what's currently available, would that not be consistent with your own recommendations?

Mr Noonan : I think that's something that isn't apparent from the limited public information provided to you in ANSTO's submission. They talk about extending storage capacity for up to 10 years but they also premise their plan on the proposed transfer of all of their intermediate-level nuclear fuel waste over to South Australia by a time line that they don't explain but nominate as by 2030. In terms of the suitability of the works and the best cost-effectiveness and the public value that would accrue from undertaking the works, I think it's for your committee to scrutinise whether ANSTO accept that safety contingency set by the regulator to retain wastes on site at Lucas Heights until availability of a final disposal option and whether they're proposed works put to you best match that purpose and outcome.

Mr ZAPPIA: I assume you've seen some of the material that was presented to the committee about the works that are proposed. Would they be consistent with what is required?

Mr Noonan : I think the style of the works may be consistent but the duration of the works may not.

Mr ZAPPIA: Yes, it's the duration that you're concerned about.

Mr Noonan : Both the extent of the storage capacity and the duration of the works may not be consistent with meeting the safety contingency set by the regulator. You should also consider that figures set out in what was referred to by the federal government—the Australian Radioactive Waste Management Framework, released by the federal government a couple of years ago—make it clear that ANSTO intend to double Australia's total inventory of intermediate level waste between roughly now and the end of OPAL reactor-licensed operations, which go through to 2057. So you have not only to deal with the currently existing 60 years for cumulated intermediate level waste that ANSTO have produced without any disposal capacity and the next decade's increment of proposed increased production rates but you have further decades of intermediate level waste production and nuclear fuel waste production through to the late 2050s. ANSTO's plan should have to be consistent with that overall capacity to manage all those wastes onsite.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Mr Noonan, you speak in terms of ANSTO intending to increase the amount of intermediate waste, or double the amount of intermediate waste. Do you acknowledge that they're doing that not just because they want to create more nuclear waste but because they are producing 700,000 doses of nuclear medicine for Australians annually?

Mr Noonan : The proposed increase in intermediate-level-waste production is ANSTO's plan to export nuclear waste additional to whatever provision of medical isotopes they provide within Australia. The proposed increase—

CHAIR: So you're referring to it being in addition to the normal course of business for ANSTO.

Mr Noonan : The proposed increase in rate of nuclear waste production which has been put to you by ANSTO is in terms of an export model. It's not in terms of affecting ongoing production of medical isotopes within Australia. I think it would be appropriate for your committee to question their proposed model for increasing production to meet export targets.

CHAIR: Fair enough. We'll take that on board.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr Noonan, you expressed some concerns about the facility in South Australia proceeding. What are those concerns? That is, why do you believe that it is still not a foregone conclusion that that facility will be built?

Mr Noonan : In a number of respects it's absolutely not a foregone conclusion. You should first consider prior evidence that with all of the power and influence of the Howard federal government, which tried between 1988 and 2004 to do, analogously, the same imposition of ANSTO nuclear waste on South Australia, and they failed. They had to abandon their plan and proposal. They recognised it was flawed and electorally unacceptable in the lead up to the 2004 federal election. Secondly, it's illegal in South Australia. The plan as proposed by ANSTO—the import, transport and storage of nuclear waste—was made illegal by the previous South Australian Liberal Premier, John Olsen AO. He passed legislation that prohibits the import, transport and storage of those wastes. So it's against the law. It's against the will of the parliament and the people in South Australia. It's highly publicly contentious. The South Australian opposition ALP oppose the plan. They say that the process is flawed. Federal Labor have raised some concerns about the double-handling and the failure of the government to further any proposal to reach a waste-disposal isolation capacity. There are significant concerns at the public level that it's untenable and unacceptable, in terms of safety and security for SA, to simply bring ANSTO's nuclear waste complement over to SA and store it above ground, potentially indefinitely—for up to 100 years, according to the regulator—in what is effectively a fancy shed in regional SA, on agricultural land, against the will of traditional owners, compared to the safety and security that is already provided for at Lucas Heights.

ARPANSA hold the deciding factor, essentially, on whether licences are ever granted in future to site, construct and operate the proposed store that ANSTO's plans—the works before you—rely on. In terms of democracy within South Australia, and in terms of the consideration that your committee and ANSTO should have to give to not pre-empt ARPANSA's future licensing decisions, I think there are multiple time lines and tests that would have to be passed by ANSTO's plan to transfer waste to South Australia before that could ever be relied upon, and one of those tests is the South Australian election early next year.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you very much.

Mr PASIN: Chair, if there's a moment, I've just got one question.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr PASIN: Thank you for your evidence. I just wonder if you could answer the following question for me. This proposal presumably increases ANSTO's capacity to store the relevant nuclear waste at Lucas Heights. That's the case, isn't it?

Mr Noonan : It appears to be the case. Whether it is suitable and is the best use of public value, in terms of whether it meets the independent regulator's safety contingency, is the matter that you should be addressing, with respect.

Mr PASIN: That's perfectly acceptable and something I think the committee will put to ANSTO. In your submission the likelihood of this waste getting to South Australia is, at best, speculative. That's your view?

Mr Noonan : Yes.

Mr PASIN: In those circumstances, I would have thought that, subject to regulatory concerns, you would be supportive of this facility being built. ANSTO's view is for it to operate for a short period, but it has the capacity—again, subject to regulatory approvals—to operate in the long term.

Mr Noonan : I think it's yet to be known whether it has the capacity to operate in the longer term, and that's the matter that I think the committee should have to address, with respect.

Mr PASIN: You're obviously concerned about an engineering matter that would prevent it operating in the long term. I would have thought that, whether you're storing waste for a short period or a long period, a facility like this would have to be engineered to similar standards, wouldn't it?

Mr Noonan : For instance, ANSTO have made decisions on the location of this new facility relative to the existing facility, and they've made that decision in terms of how much waste there will be and for how long they consider it to be their responsibility to retain those wastes on site. I think that those evaluations should have been made with the primary safety contingency in mind to retain not just existing waste and the next decade's waste, but—if their intention is to operate the OPAL reactor through to 2057 under this existing licence—the full complement of waste that they intend to produce. They should have to show a plan and a capacity to retain those wastes at Lucas Heights for the period required, and I don't know if the existing works as proposed match that public purpose.

Mr PASIN: That may or may not be a consideration for ANSTO going forward. Are you suggesting that there should be a plan today to develop a facility that can store waste that will be produced in the 2050s?

Mr Noonan : I'm saying that today they should have to acknowledge whether their existing proposed works have suitability and public value to be extended to meet the full primary purpose and safety contingencies set by the independent regulator—to retain on site all current or proposed waste throughout the period of OPAL reactor operations, through till the availability of a final disposal option. It's not apparent from the limited information in the proponent's submission to you whether the existing proposed works and the location and the scale of those works allow for that broader public purpose.

Mr PASIN: But effectively your submission is that they ought to build a facility today that has the capacity to retain all the waste from the OPAL reactor through until 2057 and have those plans on foot to do that.

Mr Noonan : They should have to show that what they do today is consistent with that broader obligation.

Mr PASIN: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Noonan, for your attendance here today. If the committee has any further questions, they will be put to you in writing. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you for appearing today.

Mr Noonan : Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate it.