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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works
13/09/2021
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Intermediate Level Solid Waste Storage Facility Lucas Heights, NSW

WAKELIN, Barry, Private capacity [by audio link]

[12:37]

CHAIR: I now welcome Barry Wakelin to give evidence. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear today?

Barry Wakelin : I am from Kimba in South Australia.

CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I 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 here today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. Mr Wakelin, as you are a former member of the parliament and a former member of the Public Works Committee, I give you a special welcome here today. I now invite you to proceed with your opening statement.

Barry Wakelin : Thank you, Mr Chairman. I suppose that, for many of us, nuclear waste is almost a long drawn-out subject, and I feel a bit the same, having been involved with the Woomera attempt some decades ago. Simply put, I support the parliament's suggestion and allocation of the $59.8 million for the ILW facility at Lucas Heights. We trust that that can go ahead and assist with the concerns that have been there about available room at Lucas Heights.

I'm part of a group, which has about 400 members, for no nuclear waste on agricultural land. As its name suggests, we have a particular watching brief on what all this means and we've been working away at it for six years now. When you look at the evidence, over its 40 or 50 year life of the nuclear era, I suppose, there is a list of issues we might learn from, if I can put it like that, and my own experience with the Woomera issue, which is still sitting up there in that defence shed.

Whilst supporting what this committee endeavours to do with its deliberations over this time, and it's quite remarkable when I think about, there doesn't appear to have been a focus on the specific ILW site issue. I've looked for the evidence and I just can't find it. I know, and many of us know, that it has been promised for some time—even going, I understand, back to the OPAL reactor commissioning. They had been promised that there would be an ILW permanent disposal site.

It's very difficult to find the evidence that when I was there as a member of parliament we did anything about it, and in the subsequent period. I suppose the only thing that I'm looking for in the issue of the leading into 2037—when we hope that it goes, as the plan has been put forward by ANSTO and the government—is that we might be able to look at whether we can go to the international standard, particularly for intermediate level waste. People here at Kimba are worried about the nuclides and things like that—that we can go for permanent disposal in that intervening period as the parliament gives us the opportunity to find that permanent disposal solution.

Perhaps that's where I should conclude, Mr Chairman. We might be able to talk a little bit about where the future is, because we still have that waste at Lucas Heights and the temporary site at Kimba—Napandee as it's known now. That sort of seems to be on hold. We have a little bit of ILW up at Woomera in the shed. I'm focused on post 2037 when we, to serve the nation, to get this waste off the table and not have—as I said, I'm part of the no group. The trauma for this community—whilst it's denied by many, and denied by many within the government—has been a pretty serious issue. I was at their committee meeting again this morning. They have emphasised with me that they support the Lucas Heights proposal. But they are very concerned that they still would prefer not to have, particularly, the ILW at Kimba—or that the ILW at least be disposed of under a permanent disposal regime. Thanks, Mr Chairman.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Wakelin. I know as a former member of the committee you would understand that we're really here today to consider the proposal in front of us, which is the $58.9 million expansion of the waste facility on site at Lucas Heights. But, as you would be well aware—and I'm sure you would've listened to other evidence—the debate has been around the storage longer term, and particularly the site proposed in South Australia. So as a former member, I'm going to indulge you a little here and allow some discussion around that, particularly as you are from Kimba. As someone who's been a member of the government you've watched this debate around storage of waste unfold. Where would be a suitable site? Where in Australia would you find somewhere where there isn't somebody who is going to object to a waste facility being put 'in their backyard'?

Barry Wakelin : It's a very fair question and that's my main point this afternoon. How do we do that? For example, when I first listened to the Kimba discussion—say, some six years ago—I thought, 'Well, maybe this is the place.' I think that the current member and myself were as one, that we were looking for the best site. But what really amazed me was the latter part of the discussion. We ended up thinking that we might have had a solution, briefly, but when we looked at the whole proposal we learned that it was simply nothing other than a temporary site. We knew that there was the possibility of a permanent site—which was not looked at by the department or the government at the time—and that it could be done for a significantly lower price than at the Kimba community. We were told it was a $300 million proposal and as high as almost half a billion dollars, according to some of our local leaders. That other site—the permanent disposal site—was for a deal of around $60 million.

So if we look at what has been done, there are questions there which don't appear to address that issue which you asked me to address—

CHAIR: Sorry, Mr Wakelin, what permanent site is being proposed for $60 million? I'm not aware of that, and—

Barry Wakelin : The proposal by Azark Project at Leonora. It has been well publicised over a long period. Remember, that's only for the domestic waste—the ILW. With the mining expertise in that area these proponents were quite confident that they had a proposal which should at least be examined. But—

CHAIR: I'm aware of the Azark proposal: that's a proposal by Azark, not one, as far as I'm aware, that any government agency might be looking at at this point in time. That may well happen in the fullness of time, but I think it's fair to say that at the moment that's a commercial proposal which has been put up by Azark as opposed to something that the government is considering currently.

Barry Wakelin : You've touched on a really good point in that the whole thing is so wrapped up in government. We have a government owned reactor, we have government owned waste and we have government driving the wheels of a new nuclear waste site—that is at Napandee or the 27 other sites proposed in the original legislation. I'll come back to this again: why didn't I think of it, for a start? We focused on ANSTO, on the department and on the minister, but maybe it needed someone to step away and say, 'Look, there are better seismological and geological sites in Australia which have not even been researched.' That's the point.

Someone has said that it was a bit like buying a ticket in Tatts: we just plunged it out there into the wider community and we got 28 applicants. But I wonder how many of them were actually assessed as suitable sites for ILW? So Kimba went through all this process, builds up a whole lot of expectation and then they say, 'Oh, no, sorry, it can only be temporary.' That's the problem that I'm trying to avoid here today.

CHAIR: Thank you. I'll throw now to the deputy chair, the member for Makin, Mr Zappia. Do you have any questions?

Mr ZAPPIA: Yes, thanks, Chair. Mr Wakelin, thanks for your submission and your input thus far. The proposal for Lucas Heights has been described to us, as the committee, as a proposal to bridge the gap between current storage and the finding of permanent, long-term storage for radioactive waste somewhere else. Given that the Muckaty Station proposal some years ago was blocked by the traditional owners, what's your understanding of the Barngarla people in the vicinity of Kimba with respect to their support or otherwise for what is proposed there?

Barry Wakelin : Thank you, Mr Zappia. My understanding is that it's relatively straightforward. You would all well know that the judicial review issue was what had to be overcome and why it was held up in the Senate for 12 months. They are suggesting that they will be looking very seriously at a judicial review, and that's about where it stands at the moment.

Mr ZAPPIA: With respect to the proposed site at Kimba—and, really, this whole proposal that we're looking at is almost contingent on the basis that that will be up and running in in the next decade or so—do you envisage any other blockages to that proposal proceeding?

Barry Wakelin : Of course, our own group will continue to argue against it, and they're the only people I could speak with any authority for. You mentioned Muckaty and all of that. I knew many of your people quite personally, and I can imagine the disappointment of Mr Ferguson or Senator Minchin in these things. But I understand why Muckaty, but I also understand that, in relation to Leonora, I'm advised that that part of the discussion—and I met with the traditional owners back in February, and they were as amenable as I have known. And remembering the other part—and we all know this—the international debate on this is not dissimilar, wherever you go in the world, so we won't be surprised at what might pop up at any other point in the future. But we will continue to oppose it on the basis that no serious effort has been made to find the ILW, rather than a 'ticket in Tatts' approach in terms of the 28 sites that just came in willy-nilly from all over Australia—and I don't know that anyone was asked to talk about seismological, geological and the particular issues of nuclear waste. I don't think that was what was in mind. This was a very specific, detailed analysis of where ILW needs to go safely.

Mr ZAPPIA: Finally, why do you think that that has not been done, given that this is a matter that has now been debated within parliament for three or four decades?

Barry Wakelin : I think it's for the same reason that we—I as an ex-politician and you people, as politicians today—it is that difficult. It is that seriously problematic. If you took a vote in the lower house or right across the Senate and the lower house, I wonder how many members would put up their hands. I remember clearly when it was my turn, if you like, in Grey, and it was uncomfortable. It was difficult and it's not a pleasant thing to do. And, if you can go and talk about how the government can spend more money on your school or your hospital or something like that, it is a much easier thing to do. I think it's just that tough. But that's what we must learn from what's happened. We have had a volunteer, and the amazing thing to me was that the department would not embrace it. And the gentleman—the public servant who was involved—left very soon afterwards and went to another job, but let's leave that alone. But I think it's important to know that we need to give the thing a chance, based on these specific needs for, particularly, ILW.

Mr ZAPPIA: Thank you for that, Mr Wakelin.

CHAIR: Senator Hughes, do you have any questions? Nothing heard. Senator Small?

Senator SMALL: No, nothing from me, Chair. Thanks.

CHAIR: Mr Pasin, do you have any questions for Mr Wakelin?

Mr PASIN: No. Given that Mr Wakelin is in screaming agreement with ANSTO that this facility should be built—none.

CHAIR: Mr Wakelin, thank you very much for appearing before the committee today, and, as I say, welcome back to the Public Works Committee after some break. If the committee has any further questions, we will put them to you in writing. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Barry Wakelin : No problem, and thank you very much for that opportunity.

CHAIR: No problems at all. Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 12:55 to 13:34