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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
Prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

BEAVIS, Dr Margaret, Vice-President, Medical Association for Prevention of War

GREEN, Dr Jim, President and National Nuclear Campaigner, Friends of the Earth Australia

RUFF, Dr Tilman, Founding Chair and Australian Committee Member, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

SWEENEY, Mr Dave, Policy Analyst and Nuclear Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation

Evidence from Mr Sweeney was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 09:26

CHAIR ( Mr Ted O'Brien ): I declare open the public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy for the inquiry into prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. The inquiries terms of reference ask the committee to examine circumstances and prerequisites necessary for any future government's consideration of nuclear energy generation.

In accordance with the committee's resolution of 24 July 2019 this hearing will be broadcast on the parliament's website and the proof and official transcripts of proceedings will be published on the website. Those present here today are advised that filming and recording are permitted during the hearing. I remind members of the media who may be present or listening online of the need to fairly and accurately report proceedings of the committee. We're here for the first roundtable of the day, and I now welcome representatives of Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Medical Association for Prevention of War. They're here to give evidence today.

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 House. 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 each of you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to an open discussion. Maybe, Dr Green, we could start with you.

Dr Green : Thanks for the invitation to speak. Mr O'Brien, I would respectfully ask you to revisit and reconsider your expressed view that small modular reactors and other new technologies are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient, energy production. That argument would be compelling if there were fleets or networks of these SMRs operating anywhere in the world and operating successfully, but as you know, and as Dr Switkowski mentioned in his testimony, there are no such networks anywhere in the world, so we have no idea if or how a network of SMRs might operate in Australia. Further, there isn't even one single SMR operating anywhere in the world. There isn't even one prototype SMR operating anywhere in the world. So operating SMRs, of which there are precisely none, clearly provide no basis for arguing that new technologies are leading to, cleaner, safer and more efficient, energy production.

The next level of evidence that we would logically turn to would be SMRs under construction. And if we ignore the icebreakers and the floating nuclear power plant under construction by the Chinese and Russian governments, then we're left with just two SMRs under construction. One is the disaster in Argentina, which has been several decades in gestation. The latest cost estimate for that is a $32.4 billion per gigawatt, so wildly uncompetitive. The second one is China's high-temperature SMR. There's not a great deal that we know about that reactor, but we do know that plans for 18 further high-temperature SMRs at the same site have been dropped—to use the language from the World Nuclear Association. There have clearly been cost overruns. There have clearly been delays. It's not terribly promising.

Given the absence of any operating SMRs and the unpromising nature of the two under construction, or the two relevant ones under construction, the argument that SMRs are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production could only possibly be justified with reference to paper designs and the unproven claims promoted by the nuclear industry. It ought to be obvious, and I'm sure it is obvious, to everyone here that paper designs and corporate claims are no basis for public policy, especially given the history of the past decade.

The current cost estimates for EPR reactors in the UK are seven times greater than the estimates going back to the mid 2000s—not seven per cent greater or even 70 per cent greater but 700 per cent greater. It's even worse in the United States where the current cost estimates for AP1000 reactors are 10 times greater than the numbers being floated by Westinghouse in 2006, a 1,000 per cent increase. So we need to be incredibly sceptical with corporate cost claims. I think a good starting point for those claims is to add a zero onto the end and it's a good chance that your estimate would be better than the company estimates.

NuScale is said to be the next big thing in the SMR world, if only because most of its competitors have collapsed. It's notable that the South Australian royal commission's estimate of NuScale costs is 2.4 times higher than NuScale's own estimate. That's highly significant because if NuScale can deliver power at its projected costs it will certainly be competitive. But if the royal commission's figures are correct, as I believe they will be—and quite possibly understating the real costs—then it's not going to be competitive. The royal commission's figure was A $225 per megawatt hour.

I was reading the Minerals Council's submission yesterday. They assert that the CSIRO and Energy Market Operator GenCost 2018 study was wrong with its SMR cost estimates. That study gave a figure of a construction cost of A $16,000 per kilowatt, and I agree that's wrong. In Argentina the cost is A $32,400 per kilowatt. That's twice the figure from CSIRO and the Energy Market Operator. In Russia it's $14,800 per kilowatt for their floating nuclear power plant. In China the figures are very rubbery, but we have a figure from the World Nuclear Association of just under A $9,000 per kilowatt. So I would say that the CSIRO and Energy Market Operator costs are reasonable, but there's a wide degree of variance and a high degree of uncertainty.

Another way we could arrive at the figure would be to look at the cost of large reactors and add a premium for a first-of-a-kind plant and a premium for smaller reactors, because of the inevitable diseconomies of scale. The only large reactor under construction in the US is in Georgia—it's called Plant Vogtle—and the cost of that is over A$16,000 dollars per kilowatt. So once again I would suggest that the CSIRO and Energy Market Operator figures are reasonable and quite possibly an underestimate, whereas the Minerals Council complains that NuScale's estimates should be taken at face value.

The private sector is not prepared to bet billions of dollars on SMRs, not even to get a prototype up and running. This is what we see in the US, the UK, Canada and elsewhere. It will not build a single prototype in the absence of very large amounts of taxpayer subsidies, amounting at a bare minimum to hundreds of millions of dollars and almost certainly into the billions of dollars. To date governments are resisting. The British government has invested tens of millions of pounds in grants, but that would need to be increased by one to two orders of magnitude if a single prototype is to be built, let alone a fleet of SMRs. In the US, government largesse has amounted to roughly half a billion dollars. Once again, it's not even close to getting a single prototype off the ground. The debate in Canada is at an earlier stage, and they haven't come up with any serious ideas about how they're going to get a single prototype SMR funded, let alone a fleet of SMRs.

The only thing that would actually change in Australia if the ban against nuclear power were repealed would be that nuclear companies would descend on Canberra to try to gouge as much taxpayer money as they could possibly get from the federal government. That would be the one practical change. Dr Switkowski told the committee that, because of Australia's prohibition against nuclear power, the US company TerraPower can't collaborate with an Australian company. But if an Australian company were rich or brave or crazy enough to invest in TerraPower, they'd be most welcome. TerraPower, like all of these other companies, has no intention of building even a single prototype in the absence of huge taxpayer subsidies. So, once again, if Australia's legal prohibition against nuclear power were repealed, the only change would be that TerraPower company representatives would be lined up outside ministerial offices trying to stitch together a package of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies.

There are dozens of start-ups involved in the SMR sector and the advanced reactor sector. There are said to be well over 50 in the United States alone. But if all of those companies pooled all of their money into one single pot it's highly doubtful they would have enough money to build one single prototype—hence the attempts to get billions of dollars of taxpayers' money. The executive summary from our joint NGO submission includes a very long and growing list of failed SMR and advanced reactor projects, and there have been further failures in the short time since this committee was initiated.

Finally, Mr O'Brien, in light of the findings of the South Australian royal commission, I would ask you to reconsider your expressed view that SMRs are leading to cleaner, safer and more efficient energy production. The royal commission investigated these issues in detail. It commissioned expert research, and the royal commission concluded:

… fast reactors or reactors with other innovative designs are unlikely to be feasible or viable in South Australia in the foreseeable future. No licensed and commercially proven design is currently operating. Development to that point would require substantial capital investment. Moreover, the electricity generated has not been demonstrated to be cost-competitive with current light water reactor designs.

I will finish there. If given an opportunity in the discussion period, I would very much like to talk about the issue of social licence and the things that might be done to make nuclear power a more palatable option for Australia. I am also happy to talk about fast-neutron reactors. There have been significant developments in that field in recent months. I will leave it there.

Mr Sweeney : Thanks for the opportunity to participate by teleconference. I work as the national nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. I suppose it's fair to say that I've seen this issue explored in different forums over many years—like during the Howard government, during the South Australia royal commission, in numerous conferences and debates and as an ancillary topic in a range of Senate and House inquiries and state parliamentary inquiries. I suppose from all of that the take-home message for the committee, from my perspective, is that there are strong, continuing and unresolved issues and concerns. Many of these have been identified in detail in the joint environment group submission to the committee, and many have been touched upon and distilled into the joint civil society statement on domestic nuclear power, which was written by a collection of environment, public health and Indigenous trade and faith based organisations representing many millions of Australians across a broad demographic and geographic lens. Some of those issues continue to be unresolved issues and concerns. Of course, these are issues around safety, security, cost as well as the time of nuclear as a response mechanism to the urgent need for energy and climate action and policy. And there are the really profound and unresolved issues of radioactive waste, and I think it's really salutary for the committee to take a look at the Australian domestic nuclear waste situation and how difficult, how divisive and how slow that has been to advance a pathway forward for the management of long-lived low- and intermediate-level waste and to translate that into potential management for the highly problematic high-level radioactive waste that would come from any reactors. That is really a clear point for consideration.

I suppose the other point here—and I'll just keep it brief—is the range of alternatives. I say to the committee that, if the choice was between burning coal and using uranium, our nation would be facing a difficult series of discussions, but it's clearly not, and there really is no social licence for the nuclear sector. As Dr Green just said quite compellingly, existing reactors are costly and underperforming; future reactors are non-existent—one's too dear, one's not there and neither are the basis for a creditable national energy policy. Surely that is what we need to identify and advance. The Australian Conservation Foundation is, along with many, many civil society groups, clearly of the view that nuclear is a dangerous distraction to the real energy choices, challenges and opportunities that we face as a nation. We strongly support the current legal prohibition and strongly support moves to a renewable energy future fund. We also look at the guidance provided by Prime Minister Morrison to this issue. He said that what would be needed would be a power source that would not require massive public subsidies and would deliver cheaper electricity. On those two lenses alone, nuclear simply fails to deliver.

I know our time is short and our issues are many, so I'll leave it there. I welcome the opportunity to further explore any of those issues with the committee today.

Dr Ruff : Thanks very much for the opportunity. I speak on behalf, in this capacity here, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a remarkable civil society coalition founded in Melbourne in 2005 which now includes 541 partner organisations in 103 countries. It was the principal civil-society partner for the large majority of the world's governments in negotiating the historic United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, which is now almost two-thirds of the way, in terms of ratification, to entry into force and was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. ICAN Australia is a campaign coalition of over 80 Australian organisations diverse and large, many of them environment, faith-based, trade-union and professional groups from many different social sectors. I'm very proud to be here on behalf of that broad coalition.

ICAN's mandate is quite focused. It's around a treaty process to prohibit and eliminate the worst of all weapons. But I'm here today because there is an obvious, intrinsic connection between these weapons and the stuff that puts the nuclear in 'nuclear weapons'—the fissile materials, either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Of course, it also bears mention in this context that there's a third fissile material, uranium-233, relevant for thorium reactors—a type of reactor which is hardly used presently but is another one of the new technologies that's being discussed. The way that those reactors operate is via uranium-233, which is actually also an extremely suitable material for nuclear weapons. You need a lower critical mass to build a nuclear weapon with uranium-233 than with highly enriched uranium-235, and it has a lower spontaneous fission rate than plutonium, which is the other fissile material for weapons. So smaller quantities of U-233 can be used to build simpler weapon designs, potentially therefore with greater access for non-state actors. Although there are no uranium-233 weapons deployed in the world—that we know about—they have certainly been built and tested in the past. So that's entirely possible.

Our concern around nuclear power relates to its link with the weapons. That's really our part of this discussion and that's what I'll focus on. The committee will be well aware that any capacity, with materials, expertise and facilities, to enrich uranium to reactor grade—four or five per cent uranium-235, up from the roughly 0.7 per cent that it comes out of the ground with—is inseparable from the capacity to enrich it a bit further to 80 or 90 per cent as weapons grade. In fact, three-quarters of this work is done in getting from natural to reactor grade. There's little further work required to get it from reactor grade to weapons grade. If you can do the first, you've got everything you need to do the second. That's what all of the concern has been about in relation to Iran's nuclear program. And this has been a pathway to nuclear weapons development in a number of states—Pakistan, for example. So that's one route to nuclear weapons, and it's not separable from any capacity to enrich uranium. There are currently 14 countries that have enrichment plants. Obviously that's a wider spread than those that have weapons.

There are also limitations of safeguards on those facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency itself has stated that there's no safeguards regime that can prevent physical diversion of nuclear material or prevent a clandestine weapons program. And we know that clandestine weapons programs have been developed and stopped at various stages in a number of countries and have progressed to weapons in a couple more.

The second pathway to weapons, through plutonium, is an inevitable part of running a nuclear reactor that includes uranium. Reactors are essentially big neutron factories. The atoms inside the fuel absorb neutrons, becoming different elements, so the transformation of uranium to the heavier element plutonium is an inevitable part of the physics of what goes on inside a nuclear reactor. Extracting that plutonium chemically from the spent fuel is, of course, the other pathway to weapons, and that's the principal route that has been used in India, Israel and North Korea for their nuclear weapons development. The reason why the 44 countries that are in annex 1 of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty need to sign and ratify that treaty before it enters into force is that all of those countries have the capacity to generate fissile materials. So that capacity is essentially widespread.

You need between one and a dozen or so kilograms of plutonium, depending on the size and sophistication, to build a nuclear weapon; you need about three times as much highly enriched uranium. It has been declassified that the average United States weapon contains four kilograms of plutonium and 12 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. The world is essentially awash with fissile materials already. There are an estimated 1,340 tonnes of highly enriched uranium in civilian and military stockpiles globally. That amount is, hopefully, diminishing slowly. But regarding the other fissile material, plutonium, the global stockpile has separated plutonium. Don't forget there's a lot more of it in spent fuel that's stored and hasn't been separated but will be separable over very long periods of time. The current global stockpile of plutonium is estimated at 520 tonnes, and it's growing.

If you put together those figures of how many kilograms of either you need for a nuclear weapon and the current stockpiles, then, depending on size and sophistication, you've got somewhere between 70,000 and 200,000 nuclear weapons' worth of fissile material already present in the world. Keeping that material absolutely secure, ending it's production and eliminating it where possible is going to be an absolutely crucial global security need, in parallel with and, really, making feasible and sustaining the elimination of nuclear weapons. The International Panel on Fissile Materials, which I regard as the best independent international authority on fissile material matters, has been very clear that eliminating nuclear weapons is going to be much easier to achieve and sustain in a world that's phasing out nuclear power and that there's currently no economic argument for reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium. Many nations have been working quite hard to remove highly enriched uranium stockpiles from the many nations that have had it.

The history of nuclear weapons and of nuclear power is rather deeply entwined, really since the beginning, and I think it's important to acknowledge that the promotion of nuclear power in the 1950s—principally, initially, to Japan—was very much a response to wanting to present a benign face to nuclear technology, in parallel with the massive development in nuclear arsenals that happened during the Cold War. In Australia's own history, the decision of the Gorton government in 1969 to progress the construction of what was then Australia's first nuclear power plant, at Jervis Bay on Commonwealth land—construction having been commenced—was very clearly, as Gorton himself and other ministers articulated, principally motivated by wanting to have a rapid route and expertise, facilities and materials available should Australia choose to develop its own nuclear weapons. So even in our own history that nexus is clear, and this discussion about potential needs in the future—most recently by Hugh White—is of great concern to members of ICAN. That Australia itself may need to consider nuclear weapons acquisition in future is, I think, a very unfortunate parallel to this current discussion that must have our regional neighbours somewhat concerned. I certainly welcome the government's and, in particular, the foreign minister's rapid response to Professor White's recommendation that the Australia government reiterate its intentions to comply with its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty and have no intention to acquire nuclear weapons.

There's one other aspect of this that isn't the subject of our submission but, as I have the opportunity to have a more detailed discussion with you, I wanted to at least mention. It's slightly beyond the remit of ICAN but I want to raise it with you because I think it does raise another very significant potential in relation to weapons and security about nuclear power. It's essentially the fact that nuclear reactors contain vast amounts of very long lived radioactive material. In particular, the spent fuel ponds, where the highly radioactive and very hot nuclear fuel, when it comes out of a reactor, has to sit and be cooled actively for several years before it can be put into more stable, dry-cask storage. In fact, current nuclear power reactors around the world, if fully operating at large scale with the average size of roughly a gigawatt, contain more radioactivity and, in fact, longer lived isotopes than would be released by all but the largest nuclear explosions.

What happened in Fukushima in 2011 because of bad reactor design and a huge earthquake, with disruption to the power supply and the cooling water that then caused hydrogen explosions and radioactive releases into the atmosphere, could equally have happened at power plants all around the world. With the capacity of military forces, the 417 power reactors that are operating in 31 countries are not just vulnerable to military attack—from airstrikes, for example—but are highly vulnerable to relatively small-scale terrorist or commando attack, particularly with insider assistance. If it could disrupt the power supply and the water supply to the cooling for even more than just a few minutes then that could essentially cause not a nuclear explosion but an extraordinarily severe radiological disaster.

Many of these facilities are located either in or near urban centres. There is a history of nuclear facilities being attacked by military forces on repeated occasions—in the Iran-Iraq War, US attacks on Iraqi facilities, the Israeli destruction of the Osirak reactor in 1981 and Israeli destruction of a Syrian reactor under construction. Even the ANC, in the apartheid era, blew up the Koeberg nuclear power plant, which was under construction, with landmines. So there are plenty of precedents for both state and non-state attacks on nuclear facilities. This poses a very significant security risk that augments the risk related to nuclear weapons. If a nuclear weapon were targeted on a nuclear facility then the consequences would be magnified enormously.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Joseph Rotblat did studies on this some decades ago, and he showed that the fallout contour of one gray—which is a big dose of radiation—from a one-megaton nuclear bomb would be about 2,000 square kilometres. If you put that bomb on an average nuclear power reactor, that contour would be 34,000 square kilometres. If you put that on a spent fuel pond which has essentially no carefully engineered containment, you're up to 61,000 square kilometres. So, in a sense, nuclear facilities provide, either for nuclear weapons or for other kinds of military attack, essentially very large, pre-positioned, dirty radiological weapons. I think that's one other security related aspect of this discussion which I really did want to mention.

My final comment is that the reason why we're discussing this today is that there are essentially two existential threats that we face with growing urgency: nuclear weapons and unchecked global warming. Both need urgent solutions, and it's absolutely crucial that we have win-win solutions. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the custodians of the Doomsday Clock, said, increasing the risk of nuclear war is a very bad trade for addressing climate change, even if nuclear power were an effective way of doing that. So, essentially, we should not be seeking to address climate needs through ways that inevitably increase the risk of nuclear war. In a global climate where there's not much going well on the nuclear front and all of the authoritative assessments are that the risks of nuclear war are greater than they've ever been, and growing, this is really not the time to be seeking solutions to one problem that exacerbate the other crucial threat that we face.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Ruff.

Dr Beavis : I'll keep my opening statement fairly brief. MAPW's primary concern is that civil nuclear power generation is associated with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Given the huge government subsidies that would be needed, any proposal by Australia would fuel suspicion that we wished to acquire nuclear weapons. This could lead to a nuclear arms race both in our region, with Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, and with places such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, so there would be nuclear weapons proliferation. If Australia gains these weapons, this would be a signal to the international community to start a weapons race.

MAPW has other grave concerns. Many of them have been covered already. I'm going to talk about the major health implications of a nuclear power plant. I think it's also worth commenting on Dave Sweeney's comments that radioactive nuclear waste remains a major unsolved problem internationally. There are no high-level waste dumps anywhere in the world operating at the moment. It's a big issue. Australia's relatively small amount of nuclear waste processes to deal with that are deeply flawed and well below international best practice and are dividing communities in South Australia.

I'm really going to focus just on two areas. The first is the health impacts of nuclear power plants. The second is the issue of safety culture and regulatory capture here in Australia, because, if you're going to operate a nuclear power plant, you have to have absolutely scrupulous safety.

There are two major points about health. The more research is done into health and radiation, the more we find that it is getting worse—that the risks are greater. Children are at far greater risk from radiation than anyone else. There is clear evidence from a number of good studies that children living within five kilometres of a nuclear power plant are at more than double the risk of leukaemia, and increased risks of leukaemia extend to beyond 50 kilometres from a nuclear power plant. A recent national Swiss study looked at the risks of cancer for children living in Alpine areas, which have higher radiation than low-lying areas, and found that these kids, if you followed them up between the ages of eight and 18 years, had 64 per cent more cancers and, again, an increase of more than 100 per cent in the risk of leukaemia. Similarly, a groundbreaking study here in Australia looked at CT scans, which we all know about or have had, and it appears that there is a 24 per cent increase in cancers for children who have had CT scans—and that is following them up for only 10 years; heaven knows what's going to happen in the future! New cancers will continue to appear as these children get older. Leukaemia was a major problem, as were brain tumours and other types of cancers.

Nuclear industry workers also have higher rates of leukaemia and solid cancers. A very large study over 15 countries found that not only the cancer rates but also rates of heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease were increased. In fact, these deaths meant that the risk of death from any radiation exposure is likely to be around double what was estimated previously to be the risk of death from cancer alone. I'd say again: the more we learn about radiation effects, the greater these effects appear to be. The health impacts of the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima have been significantly understated due to inadequate population surveillance after the accidents.

The second issue I'd like to touch on is regulatory capture and failure of the safety culture. Here Japan's nuclear industry is a useful example. The official investigation by the Japanese parliament, the Diet, found that the Fukushima meltdowns were in fact a man-made disaster. TEPCO executives who operated the Fukushima plant were warned between 2002 and 2008 that there was a 20 per cent chance that an earthquake of greater than 8.0 magnitude could occur in the next three decades potentially triggering a tsunami significantly higher than the seawall that was protecting the plant. The measures that may have prevented the catastrophe were, in fact, not undertaken, as they were too expensive and they were not enforced by the regulator. The root cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was a politically well-connected nuclear industry which was intertwined with a nuclear regulator that did not fulfil its role in protecting the public.

Here in Australia it is self-evident that there is an enormous problem with the safety culture at ANSTO. For many years, there have been repeated accidents and worker exposures, with repeated reprimands and breaches from the regulator, ARPANSA. There have been repeated allegations of management bullying and blaming individual workers. I'd like to read from ARPANSA's report to parliament in 2017, because in 2017 there was an exposure of a worker, which was the worst in the world for that year:

Human and organisational factors identified as important contributors to the accident include:

the risk was not well understood and underestimated by ANSTO

a high risk task was accepted by management with no record of any mitigating measures implemented

equipment and training of the worker was deficient

learnings from previous 'near misses' were inadequate

procedures for carrying out the quality control were insufficiently detailed.

Since 2017, when that report came out, there have continued to be multiple accidents with exposure of workers each year, including one in June this year. There have also been numerous near misses. An independent inquiry last year made 85 recommendations to improve safety. Clearly, at ANSTO a safety culture is missing. One has to ask if the ANSTO board and senior management understand the critical need for a safety culture. If a small government funded research reactor can't operate safely, what hope is there for the safe operation of a large reactor?

Finally, uranium is a key component of nuclear power generation. BHP's Olympic Dam mine in South Australia is exempt from many legislative and regulatory controls. BHP has a record of mine tailings dam failures—most notably, their mine in Brazil in 2015, which destroyed a village and killed 19 people. Currently BHP has 67 tailing facilities globally. In June this year, after pressure from investor stakeholders after the dam failures, BHP released a global assessment of all its tailings facilities—where all its mining waste is piled up. Of these 67 facilities, five are listed as 'extreme risk'. Extreme risk—and this is an estimate from BHP's own engineers—is a potential loss of life of at least 100 workers. It also means that environmental rehabilitation of the site would be impossible.

Of these five extreme risk sites, one is in the USA, and that mine has been closed. The remaining four extreme risk tailings facilities out of the 67 are all in Australia. Three out of four are at Olympic Dam. These extreme risk tailings facilities represent a complete failure of regulation of worker safety and also of environmental safety. Yet this year BHP applied to build another tailings facility, and it is highly likely that they will be able to build another one.

In closing, I would like to say that this degree of regulatory capture and failure of safety culture does very little to engender confidence that a nuclear power industry would be safe in Australia. Thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Beavis, thank you very much. Thank you everybody for your opening statements. Let me ask a couple of questions before I pass over to my colleagues.

Dr Green, you mentioned two key things to my mind. One was the non-existence of small modular reactors and secondly the lack of economic feasibility for small modular reactors. On the first point, just to get some clarification, in looking at your submission on page 4 you write, similar to how you've presented this morning:

The hype surrounding SMRs also derives from their non-existence. They are just designs on paper …

But then you also report that there are up to 25 small reactors, 16 of which, you say, meet the small modular reactor definition, and then you go on to say:

There are … four SMRs under construction according to the International Atomic Energy Agency …

And then you note that the number is a little higher according to the World Nuclear Association. Just for the sake of clarity for the committee, are you saying that small modular reactors do exist or don't exist?

Dr Green : It depends entirely on definitions, and the definitions vary and are not terribly helpful. It's certainly true that small reactors exist. By conventional definition—and this is the definition that the industry accepts and that the World Nuclear Association and others accept—no small modular reactors exist or operate. So that's why I would use that language—that no SMRs are operating.

CHAIR: According to which definition, sorry?

Dr Green : The conventional definition that basically everyone uses, including the nuclear industry, the World Nuclear Association and companies. The Argentinians say that they're building the world's first SMR. So the definitions are not very helpful. But there's a whole history of small reactors being built and operated. If I'd been invited to give a very long opening statement, I certainly would've covered that ground. I'm not sure how relevant it is, but it's interesting. There's not really anything terribly promising in this history of small reactors—

CHAIR: Sorry to cut you off. I just need clarity, because you base a lot of your presentation on a statement that small modular reactors are non-existent. In your submission, you actually assist by defining small modular reactors:

Small modular reactors … are generally defined as those with a capacity under 300 megawatts …

Then you do go on to say that there are 16, of the 25 you list, currently under operation—these are your words or, at least, your organisation's words: '16 of which meet the SMR definition'. Then later you say there are 'four SMRs under construction'. But then you're also saying they don't exist—they're on paper. So can you just clarify for the committee: which is it?

Dr Green : Well, the distinction is that there are no small reactors operating that have been built in a factory setting—in a modular production mode, factory based—and shipped to site for operation. So that's the critical distinction, and that is why everyone, whether they're environment groups or the World Nuclear Association, would say that small reactors exist—they clearly do—and SMRs don't. But, again, that depends on definition. So if you want to use a different definition, please be my guest. I mean—

CHAIR: I think you've answered the question. So let me just play it back to you so that I'm not getting it wrong. You're saying that small modular reactors do exist, as per your submission—

Dr Green : No. I say small reactors exist.

CHAIR: Right. Is your submission therefore wrong, sir, because you've said: small modular reactors exist.

Dr Green : I would say that the ones that exist meet the criterion of being less than 300 megawatts; they don't meet the criterion of being factory produced.

CHAIR: Okay. So let me play it back again—

Dr Green : I can accept that there might be some scope for greater clarity in our submission to clear up this confusion, but—

CHAIR: No, that's okay. I think you've cleared it up. So, again, let me play it back so that I'm not confused. When you say, in your verbal presentation today, that small modular reactors don't exist, you're talking about small modular reactors that come off a central manufacturing site?

Dr Green : Precisely.

CHAIR: Thank you. That was just for the point of clarity. Also, to your main point about economic feasibility, that small modular reactors are not economically feasible: you provide some detail, for which I'm grateful, in your submission, on page 17. You refer to Lazard's analysis and you point to the estimate of small modular reactors—the lower-end estimate, I believe—from this report, which was $60 to $65 a megawatt hour, and say that even if that could be achieved the electricity they would generate would still be more expensive than wind and power.

Dr Green : Wind and solar, I presume you mean.

CHAIR: Sorry, wind and solar—'wind power and utility-scale solar'. Just a question on that: when you calculate a comparison between different sources of energy, especially when you are looking at wind and solar, do you account for the cost of firming up those renewables? Do you account for the cost to integrate those renewables into the grid?

Dr Green : Those figures we've used in our submission, which you've cited, come from Lazard, as you said. They do not include firming or backup, but it's a crucial question. The most useful estimate is between, say, nuclear or fossil fuels on the one hand and firmed renewables on the other. That's more useful than the Lazard figures. And this is where we get back to CSIRO and the Energy Market Operator. The Energy Market Operator representative Alex Wonhas was clear in his statements to this committee recently—I won't read them out—that firmed renewables are currently comparable to the cost of fossil fuels and cheaper than nuclear, and, with learning rates that are very much in evidence with renewables, firmed renewables—

CHAIR: Dr Green, would you be able to provide that? I'm just conscious of time. I just wanted clarity over that costing, but I think that's really interesting and I think it would be great for the committee to get a copy of any of that additional information.

Dr Green : I'm really just citing evidence to this committee from the Energy Market Operator.

CHAIR: Okay, good. Thank you.

Dr Green : They were talking about the next version of that study, which hopefully will come out before this committee has to report. It will certainly come out before the end of this year.

CHAIR: Thank you. I have one more thing and then I will share with my colleagues. I'm conscious of time. Your submission, for which we're very grateful because it's very large and covers a lot of areas, doesn't seem to cover the environmental pros or cons of nuclear energy, which I find interesting. Would the introduction of nuclear energy in Australia benefit the environment compared to where we are today?

Dr Green : Firstly, this all comes not so long after the South Australian royal commission. I think our submission to the royal commission was several hundred pages. Where we have been able simply to refer to our long submission to the royal commission, we've done so, so I thought that, instead of cutting and pasting 30, 40 or 50 pages of material and weighing you down with that, I would simply refer to our submission to the royal commission.

In terms of the environmental impacts, I think that really ties back to the preceding question. Firmed renewables are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. They're already clearly cheaper than nuclear. So, for a certain amount of money, you can get greater electricity generation and greater emissions reductions with firmed renewables than you would with nuclear. So I think the environmental argument is clearly against the nuclear industry on this point, let alone its other environmental impacts.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Green. I appreciate you've answered my question.

Mr JOSH WILSON: Dr Green, a lot of the information you've provided is about the gap between the ambitions for nuclear technology, and the claims that are made about it, and the realities of nuclear technology. We've had people come and say to us that nuclear power has been around for 60-odd years, by way of saying it's a relatively proven thing and we shouldn't be concerned about it. But that seems to me to cut both ways. The truth is that, because it has been around for a long time, we actually know what the economics of nuclear power are. Can you think of any example where a nuclear power proposition has been put forward and has been achieved in a way that doesn't involve very significant time and cost overruns?

Dr Green : If I had to take that on notice—and I'm not offering to—you might look at China, where I would assume some of their projects have come in on time and on budget. But China is irrelevant to Australia because of the secrecy, which means we simply don't know what's going on there in detail—because they've already got an industrial supply chain, because they imprison whistleblowers and they don't have a free press et cetera. But I think by far the most significant example there would be South Korea's construction of four reactors in the United Arab Emirates, because that is put forward by the nuclear industry as proof positive that the industry can still, even now, deliver reactors on time and on budget. It would be a compelling argument if it were true, but it's not true. The reactors in the UAE are several years behind schedule. The economics are not well known publicly, but we get some insights here and there. The stated cost was US$20 billion for four reactors. I think that's A$30 billion or A$32 billion. But there are other estimates. One, which I've cited in our submission, comes from the 2016 World Nuclear Industry Status Report; that's A$48 billion for four reactors, or A$12 billion each. The most recent edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report has just been released; it's a compelling read, and I would encourage people to have a look. In the latest report, the figure given for the UAE reactors is A$40 billion to A$41 billion or thereabouts.

Mr JOSH WILSON: I think the most important thing for this committee is setting public policy based not on corporate claims or paper fantasies but on reality. We're often pointed to France, France being a country that has a very high proportion of electricity from nuclear power. EDF is delivering a reactor in France, and the Hinkley Point C reactor in the UK. Just in the last week, there have been further time blowouts and cost blowouts in relation to both of those projects. In the case of the UK project, Hinkley Point C, they've added a further nearly A$3 billion, or two billion pounds, and that large reactor—which all economic theory and practice would tell you is going to deliver power at a cheaper cost than a smaller version—is based on a government commitment to a strike price of A$165 per megawatt hour for 35 years, indexed to CPI.

Dr Green : That's the guaranteed return to the developers. I don't think that's necessarily the electricity production costs. But they've been guarantee that payment—92 British pounds per megawatt hour.

Mr JOSH WILSON: Which is the twice the going price of electricity.

Dr Green : Yes, exactly. The subsidies over the lifetime of Hinkley Point, one nuclear power plant, albeit a very large one, with 3.2 gigawatts, are estimated to be A$55 billion—that's the lowest estimate I've seen—to A$91 billion. That's for one nuclear power plant. It's obscene. The UK government are not entirely stupid, but they've walked into this deal and it's appalling. The subsidies are extraordinary and they will go on for decades. They will hurt consumers and they will hurt poor people the worst, and this is exactly what we've avoided, thanks to the infinite wisdom of John Howard.

Dr GILLESPIE: Thanks for that very thorough evaluation. To put things in perspective: in 2015, when the Renewable Energy Target was adjusted and set, the value of the renewable energy certificates out to 2030 was placed between $32 billion and $42 billion depending on where the Renewable Energy Target was set. But the renewable energy we get as a result of that doesn't run grids. You have to keep things in perspective. Everything appears to get a subsidy at the moment. That's in Australian dollars that you and I are paying, and it's not the government that gives the subsidy for certificates; we just supply the legislation that makes the secondary market and the secondary consumer subsidy come into being. I don't think you should criticise Hinkley too much, because, if you look at the financing arrangements, France applied a nine per cent cost of capital over the 35 years, whereas the cost of capital available in the UK was a third of that. It is my firm belief—and this is on the parliamentary record—that if the UK themselves, rather than France, had financed Hinkley, it would have been half of that price, which goes into a lot of these cost estimates: if you're paying for expensive money rather than expensive equipment, it will still cost you a lot of money.

Dr Green : The UK is moving in the direction you are suggesting with what is called a 'regulated asset base' model. The effect of that is simply to shift risks onto taxpayers, who will bear the costs of the inevitable increases.

Dr GILLESPIE: Like we have in Australia.

Dr Green : Yes, and they're certainly happening in the UK. Just in the past week they've increased the cost of Hinkley by at least two billion pounds. They had a 1.5 billion pound increase a couple of years ago. This reactor has barely begun construction, and already the cost overruns would have to be well over A$5 billion. Keep in mind that in 2006 EDF said the cost of one EPR reactor in the UK would be two billion pounds. The real-world current cost estimates are seven times greater, so we have to keep that in mind. Conversely, the costs of solar and wind are a fraction of what they were a decade ago. Things are changing so quickly in this space. As I mentioned, even since this inquiry was called there have been significant negative developments in this so-called advanced reactor sector, with Russia postponing a fast neutron reactor and France abandoning a plan for a demonstration fast reactor. The costs are changing clearly in one direction, which is in favour of renewables. We are already at the stage where firmed renewables are clearly cheaper than nuclear and will soon be cheaper than fossil fuels.

Mr JOSH WILSON: Mr Sweeney, we've had evidence from ANSTO, but more particularly from ARPANSA, that there are very serious risks with nuclear reactors of any kind. It's a concern that in the public debate are these public health and environmental corollaries of the economic claims that have been made for yet-to-arrive nuclear technology, which effectively suggest that these new reactors—they use terms like 'walkaway safe'—are somehow, magically, inherently safer and that all the known risks about nuclear reactors have disappeared. ARPANSA and ANSTO made the point to the committee that that isn't the case. We've heard here today that serious incidents happen. Could you talk a little bit about the existing risks which we've seen recently in relation to Fukushima and in relation to the remediation of uranium mining operations here in Australia.

Mr Sweeney : There is a German saying—it's better in the German—that translates as: no trader cries out 'bad fish'. No-one says that their product is rubbish. That is certainly the case with nuclear, particularly in relation to SMR and so-called new generation. It's very much an exercise in distancing from the reality of an existing industry, seeking a clean slate and saying that the problems that bedevil the existing real-world nuclear industry cannot happen in our currently non-commercial, non-operational, effectively non-existent new nuclear future.

You raise a couple of really interesting points. Earlier the chair raised the point about the environmental impacts of the nuclear industry and whether Australia's environment would be better. The very firm, clear answer is absolutely not. If we look at this country's fledgling engagement with the nuclear industry, we have profound and adverse environmental impacts at existing and former uranium mine sites. Rio Tinto are currently spending in the order of $1 billion and facing enormous challenges to rehabilitate the Ranger mine site in Kakadu. The public purse will be hit with a new cost—the figures spoken about are in the range of $200 million to $250 million extra—in public dollars to clean up the former Rum Jungle site in the Northern Territory. There is a legacy of leaking tailings dams, underperforming mines and badly or non-remediated sites at every uranium operation.

Then we have the problem of waste, which is profound. In Australia we have a modest waste stream—not insignificant at all but, compared to a commercial nuclear reactor regime, modest—but we have had for 25 to 30 years under successive governments a series of fights at multiple sites to try to find a location to put this waste. We have not approached this in a mature or evidence based way; we have approached it in a highly politicised way, seeking to sort out a problem rather than to address a significant management issue. Waste needs to be isolated. Our existing waste from the ANSTO operation needs to be isolated from people in the wider environment for a period of 10,000 years. That's a considerable challenge. Right now, communities in South Australia are taking legal action because they feel disenfranchised about consultation about waste siting.

Again, this experience is mirrored globally. I have recently come back from Taiwan, where there was a Asian regional gathering of environmentalist based and other groups looking at nuclear issues as that country, Taiwan, an industrialised economy, joins with other industrialised economies like California and Germany in making a considered and conscious choice to move away from nuclear power. Taiwan has very few natural energy assets. It's highly dependent on energy imports, predominantly fossil fuel. Nuclear has shrunk from 50 per cent of Taiwan's electricity 15 years ago to 10 per cent today. Nuclear is being phased out by 2025. When I spoke to people in Taiwan about Australia, with all our energy options, considering nuclear power, they were disbelieving. These were high-level political and regulatory figures. They were disbelieving that you would take it on board.

If you look at Fukushima, it was Australian uranium that was actually inside the Fukushima reactor when the reactor complex melted down. We know that because of the clear direction from ASNO, the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, within DFAT. They spoke and confirmed to a Senate inquiry that Australian uranium was in the fuel load of the Fukushima reactor. When we hear about Fukushima fallout or that the Japanese government is just about to license the release of contaminated water into the Pacific, that started here, on the back of a yellow truck in the Northern Territory and in northern South Australia. And that is mirrored again and again around the world. There is this cascading consequence of contamination. Be it environmental cost, human cost—which is profound—social disruption or economic cost, these are very, very grave matters.

There is also this talk of nuclear being clean. It is absolutely unacceptable, not proper and actually inconceivably to say that about an energy source that generates three years of reliable electricity—low carbon, granted—in a reactor and then, when those fuel rods are no longer reliable, has them taken out, because they're then spent nuclear fuel, and they're a radioactive waste management issue for up to 100,000 years. Now, that's not a good rate of return—three years of cold drinks, cool beers and warm showers and 100,000 years of needing to be isolated. That's a massive impost on the future. So it's not clean, cheap and safe, and it's not necessary.

That is our perspective. The Australian Conservation Foundation is proudly part of more than 50 groups that have signed on, and I commend those groups to the committee. I'm sure you're swamped with paperwork, but this one's a short one—two pages of words and two pages of logos representing millions of Australians who are saying that our energy future is renewable not radioactive. That's where the jobs are. That's where the electricity is. That's where we can repower and power our homes and our workplaces and also repower our national economy and, in particular, our regional economies.

Thanks for the opportunity to make a comment. I hope that was sharp enough. From the perspective of ACF, the environmental lens is one of reduction at source. Instead of putting a filter on the pipe, you stop the stuff going down the pipe. You reduce a problem at source, and that is through choice and policy choice. The policy choice that reduces the most problems is the one that says nuclear is not appropriate, and that choice was made under the Howard government. We really welcomed that prohibition, because the prohibition hasn't stopped debate or discussion. It hasn't stopped a whole range of dialogue and engagement around nuclear issues. But it has stopped us having a major cost burden, having more waste and having an imposed industry that leaves a massive intergenerational burden.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Sweeney.

Mr PITT: Mr Sweeney, in regard to storage and what we do with waste, I have a question that I'd like to ask. My understanding is that there are about three million solar panels in Australia now. They include chemicals like cadmium, hexafluoroethane, polyvinyl fluoride and a pile of other elements. My understanding is that there is no waste disposal process in Australia for those panels now. Given they have a lifecycle of somewhere between 10 and 20 years, depending on age, use and a pile of other issues, what exactly do you suggest that Australia does with those panels? This is going to be an ongoing problem.

Mr Sweeney : Absolutely, and I think it's a very pertinent point; every industry has an impact. We see it with e-waste. We often are quick to embrace the product or the technology without a whole lot of thought to life-cycle or whole-of-life implications. You're certainly right that it is a growing problem, and that is because of the popularity of the product. Australians are voting with their roofs for solar. It's a detailed answer, but the long and the short of it would be to put end of life front of mind and to set up processes and policies that say that this needs to be treated as a waste product, it needs to be not chucked in the tip or disposed of individually but collectively streamed in a way where there's recovery of what's recoverable and there's isolation of what's not and what's hazardous. I certainly think a really important pathway for any technology, including renewables, is to take care of waste. It certainly hasn't happened in relation to nuclear waste, which is a profoundly threatening one—

Mr PITT: Mr Sweeney, I will just interrupt you there. So what you're saying is that you'd like to see those recycled and repurposed. Do you have any idea of what the cost might be?

Mr Sweeney : No, I haven't got an idea off the top of my head of what that cost might be, but certainly the ambition would be to see them recycled, repurposed and recovered where available. Should there be materials within that serve no use and pose a threat, they need to be managed and isolated in a credible way. I haven't got the costings of how to do that, but that's certainly something that I'm sure many people who are closer to the delivery of the renewables sector would have given significant thought to. That would be a useful outcome from the consideration of this: how to close that loop and get the best possible result for the best possible renewable future.

Mr PITT: I have one more quick question. Dr Green, you made some comments about the South Australian royal commission. I have in front of me 12 recommendations, four of which are either to remove or to pursue the removal of legislation which prevents not only nuclear power generation but waste storage and a number of other elements. I wonder if you'd care to make some comments on those results.

Dr Green : Yes. From Kevin Scarce downwards, there was a strong pro-nuclear bias in the royal commission, for better or worse, and that's why its findings, with respect to SMRs and so-called advanced reactors, were all the more striking.

Mr PITT: My question's about the legislative change that they've recommended. They've recommended we remove the prohibition.

Dr Green : They recommended that the South Australian government recommend to the federal government that the prohibitions be repealed, and the South Australian government rejected that recommendation, because the South Australian government understood that this is essentially a frolic and nuclear power is not viable for South Australia. Why would you waste time on that when there are so many pressing issues that need attention?

CHAIR: Let me just stop there for a moment. To the witnesses: as I mentioned earlier, because we started late—which was our fault; my apologies—we're happy to go through until 11 am. Are you okay with that? We're okay at this end; there are nodding heads. Mr Sweeney, hopefully you can join us until 11 am.

Mr Sweeney : Happily.

CHAIR: In that case, Mr Pitt, why don't you continue until a quarter to? Then I'll provide five more minutes to each of the others.

Mr PITT: Thank you. Dr Ruff, in some of your evidence you spoke about the potential for a nuclear strike on a storage facility. I'm just wondering: for my benefit and that of others here, what parts of Australia are currently within range of a nuclear strike from someone else?

Dr Ruff : All parts of Australia are within range of a nuclear strike.

Mr PITT: Is there a likelihood?

Dr Ruff : But there are no spent fuel pools in Australia of any size in comparison to those associated with commercial nuclear power plants. They are variably sited. In Fukushima, for example, the spent fuel pools are actually on top of the reactor, within the same building. In many other facilities, they're immediately adjacent. But they're essentially large—swimming-pool-size—water pools that are continuously cooled and have, essentially, a building over them but no multiple-engineered containment layers like the ones the reactors have.

Mr PITT: The heat gets taken care of?

Dr Ruff : Yes. In Fukushima, 70 per cent of the total radioactivity on the site was in the spent fuel pools. It's just that they are a particularly vulnerable, as well as large, component of the total radioactive inventory at those dispersed sites around the world. But certainly all of Australia is within range of nuclear weapons.

Mr PITT: I'll finish with that. Thanks. But you can come back to me if you get time.

Ms STEGGALL: I have two questions, and I'll put three on notice. Dr Green, your group has said:

If Australia's energy future was solely a choice between coal and nuclear then a nuclear debate would be needed. But it is not. Our nation has extensive renewable energy options …

Do you agree that, in the context of this debate, our starting point is that we need to set ourselves the target of getting to zero emissions?

Dr Green : Yes.

Ms STEGGALL: It's a bit of a long proposition, but it's about getting to zero emissions. How do we get there? That is really the question that we're looking at. We know as a fact that renewables are going to play a significant part—solar and wind—and there will be varying degrees of acceptance of that in the political landscape. Whether it's going to be a 30 per cent, 70 per cent or 100 per cent renewable future, there will be a significant proportion of renewables somewhere within that range. So what we're really looking at is: as we aim to get to a zero-emission future, what proportion is left that would need to be addressed by another source of power—which might be coal, gas, hydro or nuclear—and, as such, how can it be financially viable for such a small share, essentially, of the energy market?

Do you agree that our journey in considering this from a financial model has to be limited by the parameters of what percentage of our energy mix it's actually likely to take up in 10 to 15 years time?

Dr Green : Yes. Basically, yes to all of those propositions, including the zero emissions future. I would add that climate change is not the only existential threat—that nuclear weapons proliferation is arguably the second major existential threat we face. But, thankfully, by not going down the nuclear path to reduce emissions, we don't have to deal with this dilemma.

Just in the past couple of days, IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, have distributed material, and their argument is that 90 per cent of the necessary emissions reductions can come from renewables plus energy efficiency. So they get us almost all of the way there. I haven't read the fine print; I would imagine there are sectors like aviation where they're struggling to square the issues. And there are uncertainties around this. Globally, renewables are 27 per cent of electricity generation; that has doubled over the past decade. That's great. That's 170-odd gigawatts per year at the moment. We don't know where this train is going. We don't know, when we get to, say, 70 or 80 per cent renewables, what the choices will be then. It might be that the final 10, 20 or 30 per cent of renewables are the most problematic and the most expensive, in which case we have to revisit all of these different options. But for the time being, especially in a country like Australia, which is blessed with renewable resources, there is a very clear pathway forward and it's being mapped out for us, as we speak, by the Energy Market Operator and CSIRO.

Ms STEGGALL: So, with that small proportion that would essentially be left with a question mark over it, is your research pretty much that any nuclear power or any suggestion of an SMR would require significant government subsidies? Is there any evidence of private enterprise being willing to invest in this?

Dr Green : No. I think that's the key point. If SMRs were half as good as they're said to be, where is the private finance? It's not there. It's not there in the US or the UK or Canada. They're insisting on massive government subsidies, billions of dollars, and without that we won't even have any prototypes of these small reactors or these advanced reactors, let alone fleets of them generating vast amounts of low-carbon power. So we're in a holding pattern now where, unless governments are prepared to bet on these technologies—these high-risk technologies and, in some cases, failed technologies—nothing is going to happen.

I think in our report I quoted former senator Peter McGauran, who made comments almost identical to yours, Mr O'Brien, and he was making them 30 years ago, that advanced, cheap, safe small reactors were coming online. That was 30 years ago. They didn't come online then, and there is no reason to expect they will now.

Ms STEGGALL: Okay. This is to Dr Ruff and Dr Beavis. In relation to health, as part of the inquiry we've had a number of submissions that lifting the moratorium will enable our uranium mining to basically take off, or that there would be an additional benefit, let's say, other than the future energy one. You've given evidence this morning that the prospect of increasing uranium mining and having more uranium out there in the world essentially increases security risks and health risks. Is it your evidence that the link should be made that, when looking at nuclear as an energy source, you can't dissociate it from the health risk of contamination of people, or from an attack or security point of view?

Dr Ruff : I think there's no way of separating those things. As Dr Beavis indicated, the more we know about radiation the worse it looks, and it's very clear—and Margie cited some of the evidence briefly—that even the relatively small amounts of radiation involved in differences in background radiation and the kinds of doses that are involved in common medical procedures play a significant role in cancer and chronic disease causation and that there is very clear evidence, from the normal operation of nuclear facilities and from every stage of the nuclear chain along the way, that there are routine emissions and that there are health and environmental costs involved for the workers and for downwind and nearby communities. Particularly given that the safeguards that are in place globally only apply beyond the enrichment stage and are of important but limited effectiveness, there's really no way we can be confident that, over the geological periods of time for which the materials are both a hazard and weapons-usable, they can be reliably kept out of malign use and weapons, by any regime that can be guaranteed for the time periods involved.

Mr Sweeney : Ms Steggall, if I might just jump in there as well—sorry to jump in—it's not just human health which is pivotal. I've noted the comments that a nuclear power industry in Australia could drive Australia's uranium sector; we have 35 per cent of the world's uranium reserves—why don't we use them when we could make a lot of money? I noticed, most recently, Ian Macfarlane saying this, and linking this, saying it could be worth $10 billion to the Queensland economy in uranium mining. That's simply fanciful! It is actually fanciful. We certainly do have considerable uranium reserves—a third of the world's uranium reserves—but we are actually mining and exporting less each year, and that's simply in relation to the market demand and commodity price. It is measured in US dollars a pound. It was US$120 a pound pre Fukushima; it's US$30 a pound now. The basic rule of thumb is that it takes US$60 a pound for a greenfield mine site to be viable in Australia. And we're seeing major players, including Rio Tinto, consciously choosing to exit uranium mining at Ranger. They decided not to explore and advance an underground option that they had. We are seeing profit shrink, production shrink and value shrink, and the sector is being hit by external commodity forces. To say that the creation of some nuclear powered future in Australia will lead to a uranium renaissance and bonanza is simply fanciful.

Mr BURNS: Thank you all for your presentations and for answering our questions this morning. My question's probably directed at Dr Ruff or Dr Beavis. It's in regard to some of the prototypes that are currently under construction, especially by Russia and China. Obviously, in both of those countries, there is a pretty close connection between industry and government. Do you have any thoughts on any further considerations, whether they be on safety or even political considerations that Australia would need to make in looking at some of the technology and the close links to other major political forces around the world—namely, Russia and China—and what Australia should be thinking about if we are looking at any of the SMRs that are currently under construction right now?

Dr Beavis : My knowledge of SMRs under construction is limited. However, I think we're at a turning point—although the trend for nuclear power generation, I think, has gone from about 17 per cent globally down to about 10 per cent over the last decade. The trend is that nuclear power energy generation is dropping as renewables increase.

In terms of concerns about China and Russia and their reactors and how they link with proliferation, I think the links are clearly there—that these reactors produce nuclear weapon fuel—and that is a concern. The real concern in Australia is that our neighbours, if they see us spending billions and billions of dollars on an industry that's not going to give us electricity for 15 or 20 years, will be wondering about the underlying motivation. So I think we can look at Russia and we can look at China—and, as Jim mentioned, China has put some of its nuclear builds on hold; I don't know what's happening in Russia. But I think we need to look after our own backyard, really, and say, 'If we start building nuclear—which, as I said, will take 15 or 20 years, optimistically, to provide energy to the grid—what is the underlying motivation of Australia, and what will our neighbours think of that?'

Touching on what Tilman has covered, we do not want to start a nuclear arms race regionally and we do not want to start a nuclear arms race globally. I think we need to be conscious of this. It's a bit like a drug company coming to sell you something—they never talk about the side effects. There is the side effect of weapons proliferation, the side effect of childhood leukaemia and the side effect of waste that needs to be stored for 10,000 years out of the water stream—the Egyptian pharaohs were 5,000 years ago. This is really long-term stuff that's never been done and never been achieved. The health impacts of nuclear materials getting into the water supply would be really massive. I have concerns about Russia and I have concerns about China, but, at the moment, my biggest concern is that Australia, in choosing this energy generation source, may be ignoring the side effects.

Dr Ruff : I just have a couple of comments. On the specifics about the complex family of potential designs that is SMRs, Dr Green is really the authority on those so I'd very much defer to him. The Russians have certainly been very active in constructing small reactors for nuclear submarines, for nuclear powered icebreakers and, now, for floating nuclear power plants for regional and remote regions. I think they are of profound environmental concern, have an appalling environmental history of mismanagement and have very extensive contamination from both civilian and military facilities.

In both countries, the nexus between the organisations that run weapons programs and civilian power—Rosatom and the China National Nuclear Corporation—are much more closely entwined than they are in many other countries. They are essentially inseparable. The regulatory environment from many perspectives—environmental, human rights, whistleblower protections, transparency—is very deficient in both. I think we are at some risk from continued developments in those places from both an environmental contamination potential—radiation, obviously, doesn't respect boundaries—and the contribution that those developments potentially make to weapons.

Certainly, in testimony to previous parliamentary committees considering Australia's potential uranium commerce with China and Russia, very significant issues were identified. In the case of Russia, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended against proceeding with that safeguards agreement at that time.

Dr Green : If I could briefly come in—

CHAIR: Sure.

Dr Green : I will do my best to keep this brief. A section of submission No. 36, from Friends of the Earth, deals with these safety issues; I won't go over any of that. Another issue is this argument that it ought to be a simple matter to convert small naval reactors into land based power reactors that the companies are operating: 'They've got the experience and they've got the skills'. That argument simply doesn't hold up.

The most important illustration of that point is Rolls-Royce, which is heavily involved and invested in naval nuclear propulsion and has been for many decades. It's been a world leader. But Rolls-Royce has only got a limited role in land based SMRs. It's got a handful of staff working on these issues, it's got an early-stage design and it's got a very long list of demands, and if those demands are not met by the British government then it's simply not going to build any land based SMRs. So there is clearly no simple link between naval propulsion and land based SMRs.

Dr Ruff : I'll make one supplementary comment. I should point out that there was a fairly widely publicised nuclear accident in northern Russia about a month ago. The Russian government was not particularly transparent about it, but there were clearly seven Russian scientists killed and measurable increases in radiation at Severodvinsk, about 40 kilometres away. It subsequently became clear from the isotope composition of the fallout that's been internationally monitored that that was a small reactor, very likely part of a nuclear powered cruise missile development program—an extremely concerning application of small reactors. This is slightly beyond the committee's brief, but I think the context about small reactors is diverse and has that very nasty dimension to it.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Ruff. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attendance today. Mr Sweeney, thank you for being on board via telephone.

Mr Sweeney : Thank you very much for the opportunity.

CHAIR: If you have been asked to provide any additional information, could you please forward it to the secretariat. The committee may have additional questions for your response on notice which will be sent to you by the secretariat. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections of transcription errors. Thanks very much.

Proceedings suspended from 11:00 to 11 : 06