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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
09/10/2019
Prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

WRIGHT, Mr Michael, National Assistant Secretary, Electrical Trades Union of Australia

CHAIR: I now resume the hearing and welcome a representative of the Electrical Trades Union to give evidence today. While the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as a proceeding 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 you to make a brief opening statement, and then we can proceed to a discussion.

Mr Wright : I should say at the outset—and my apologies to the committee for this—that this is not my usual portfolio within the Electrical Trades Union, so I may need to take more questions on notice than I'd otherwise like. My apologies in advance should that arise.

By quick way of background, the Electrical Trades Union operate throughout the energy industry. We're heavily involved in extractive resources, particularly coal for the rail industry, with the transportation of coal, and then generation, transmission and distribution and then right into the domestic household, particularly around installing PV cells and battery walls as well as the usual electrical work that gets done there. Despite that, the ETU have a longstanding opposition to nuclear energy in Australia. The official policy of the ETU dates back to the 1950s, resulting from the experiences of our members coming back from Japan in World War II.

I'm sure that others have already addressed the committee, perhaps far more eloquently than I can, on the dangers that are inherent with nuclear energy. The ETU remain deeply sceptical about the safety of the extraction of uranium. Mining is an inherently dangerous industry. Nothing about the extraction of uranium makes it safer. We are deeply sceptical about the operation of nuclear power plants. The risk of catastrophe is inordinately borne by the workers in the power station itself. Finally, ETU remain concerned about the absence of a feasible solution to the waste storage problem.

I would say as well that, as the union with probably the most workers exposed to energy policy in Australia, particularly in transmission and distribution and also in coalmining, what my members need is clear direction on energy policy. My members are already losing their jobs in the face of the lack of coherent policy across the federal government and state governments. We need a clear path forward for investment so that my members, the community and the Australian public can have certainty around the industries going forward.

Another problem we have with nuclear is that, even if this committee were to propose nuclear energy today, we would still be 15 or 20 years off having a functioning power plant in this country. In four years time Liddell will have closed down and there is already new generation on the books to fill that in. We just don't see the role of nuclear energy in addressing the immediate problems that our industries face and the job losses that are already on the way via Australian Energy Regulator determinations or around the need for integrity of the National Electricity Market.

It's a longstanding tradition of the ETU that we believe in public ownership of electricity generation in particular. Having said that, that would not get us over the line in supporting nuclear energy in this instance. We think the risks involved are simply unwarranted when there are far more feasible alternative energy sources. That will do for my opening comments.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Mr Wright. In those opening comments you said that the ETU is sceptical and that all mining is dangerous. Is that right? Can you clarify that?

Mr Wright : Mining is inherently dangerous. Different mining has different health issues and risks. Black coal obviously has black lung. In uranium mining there have been numerous cases of exposure to radon gas and the like linked to adverse health effects, increased rates of cancer—

Mr ZIMMERMAN: In Australia?

Mr Wright : Not in Australia, not with Ranger and not with Olympic Dam. But, internationally, there has been. Sorry, I should have been clearer on that. That's why we maintain that, when there is already all the usual risks of mining that pertain to an uranium mine, there is an elevated risk due to the nature of what's being extracted there.

CHAIR: Thanks for clarifying. We have heard evidence from various groups now about the relative safety of different sources of energy, with a mortality index indicating that nuclear is probably the safest of all energy sources. Is that news to you based on your evidence of saying no, primarily due to risk to workers? We are hearing evidence cited that far more lives, particularly workers' lives, are lost across different energy sources to nuclear. Have you looked into that? We would value your advice.

Mr Wright : Absolutely. I don't think it would come as any surprise to the committee that the ETU wants to keep its members safe. Inherently electricity itself is dangerous. You can't see it, you can't smell it and you can't touch it. As I understand the evidence in that regard, when all is going well in nuclear, as it usually does, the risks are lower than for comparable generation. The problem, of course, is when it goes wrong. The risk of catastrophic damage in which, ordinarily, there will be no survivors in a power plant is the risk that we talk about when we talk about the risk. It is true that there is risk involved in all areas of electricity generation, but again we see the catastrophic risk as being too great in nuclear energy.

CHAIR: Just to confirm, I understand that you are distinguishing between likelihood and consequences. You are suggesting that the consequences are so grave that that's why the ETU is against nuclear. How, then, does nuclear energy compare to other sources of energy, in your view, when it comes to past experience and evidence of deaths, injuries and accidents? Those statistics, if you like, bring together the likelihood and the consequences. How safe is it compared to other sources of energy.

Mr Wright : A key role of a union is to keep its members safe and alive, so this is something that we've looked at continuously over the last 70 years—or routinely, at least. The ETU has no direct experience with nuclear energy, obviously enough. Instead we have sent delegations to the south of the United States—to Texas—and also to the United Kingdom, observed the safety standards that are in place there and observed the risks that are incumbent upon the workforce. Again, the comparators are important here. Nothing in the evidence that we have seen shows nuclear generation being safer than a solar farm or safer than wind turbines. On the day-to-day risk, as opposed to the catastrophic risk, it's my understanding that there is some data that suggests that nuclear power plants have a lower incidence of health and safety incidents—if you'll forgive my grammar there—than you find in, say, a coal-fired power plant, but again what we weigh there is the risk of catastrophic failure, which we say is far worse.

CHAIR: If you've drawn that conclusion on the evidence you have seen, what evidence have you actually looked at?

Mr Wright : I believe our written submissions detail some of the reports that we rely upon there, but I might need to take that on notice to properly and fully advise the committee of the various reports.

CHAIR: That would be appreciated. Thank you.

Mrs PHILLIPS: Thank you. The civil society statement that's part of your submission is extraordinary. It has over 50 different organisations supporting that, which is amazing.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Can I just clarify: is that part of the submission, or is it for the next session?

Mrs PHILLIPS: I think it is. I hope I got that right.

Ms STEGGALL: It is in their submission.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Okay. I just wanted to look at that.

Mrs PHILLIPS: There are 50 different organisations—all different types of organisations—which is amazing. My question to you is: do you think it's ironic that the government is considering nuclear energy at a time when demand for firmed renewables—wind and solar—continues to grow?

Mr Wright : Thank you. I guess that gets back to the need that my members have for urgent action in this space to have certainty around the future of their industries. Even if nuclear energy were to be adopted as government policy, the lead time on that cannot solve the certainty issues that are currently causing my members and their communities such uncertainty. It's already leading to job losses in power and in distribution. The uncertainty that we find in the coal industry about what that future is is a grave concern. There are these real issues in play in my members' lives. Nuclear energy can't fix them.

Mrs PHILLIPS: So what should the government be focusing on?

Mr Wright : I think the most important thing for the Commonwealth government, and probably governments across Australia, is a coordinated response and a coordinated energy policy so that we don't have everyone running in different directions. The importance of publicly owned utilities in providing this sort of certainty can't be underestimated.

There are so many opportunities that you can see across Australia going begging at the moment. I was down in Tasmania just the other week. There's talk of it being the 'battery of the nation', but on current settings it's not heading that way or, if it is, it's heading that way too slowly. We see the need for consistent, coherent energy policy across the spectrum of governments and, again, we'd say that public ownership should be a key ingredient in the future of energy generation in Australia.

Mr PITT: Referring to your report, in section 12 you talk about 'displacing land and people' and say:

The creation of a Nuclear power industry in Australia would be likely to further encroach on native title as well as prime agricultural land.

Are you suggesting that pumped hydro, solar and wind won't have the same effect?

Mr Wright : It's my understanding that the footprint of a nuclear reactor is considerably larger than any of those.

Mr PITT: I suggest that is incredibly incorrect.

Mr Wright : If one includes the exclusion zone around it, and also the permanence of it, the rehabilitation of a wind farm back into farming land is considerably easier than the remediation of a nuclear power plant back into farming land.

Mr PITT: How do you suggest we deal with the hundreds of thousands of solar panels which are lying around at the moment which don't currently have a method of disposal in Australia?

Mr Wright : There is no doubt that there is a problem there and that it's a growing problem, but I would not put that on the same scale as the disposal of nuclear waste. I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you today.

Mr PITT: Sure. We've had evidence this morning that radioactive waste, obviously, decays over a period of time, but heavy metals—whether they're lead, asbestos or other things—simply do not decay; they stay the same forever. I guess what I'd put to you around solar in particular, given the very large footprint that it has had in its relatively short lifetime, is that I don't quite understand how that statement on displacement matches up with what's in the report.

Mr Wright : I appreciate that uranium decays in a way that lead or asbestos don't. However, the time frame in which it decays probably renders it effectively the same as lead or asbestos in terms of my lifespan and my children's lifespans. If the question is specifically on what the ETU propose around disposal of solar cells then that is something I'll need to take on notice, because it's not something that I've come prepared for today.

Mr PITT: Sure. I have one last question, Chair.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr PITT: In relation to risks—because there's been a lot of discussion about the risks associated with nuclear reactors compared to other types of generation—in 2016, Renew issued a report on the risk of fire from solar PV systems. Their statement was that 1½ per cent of residential fires in Australia were linked with solar PV systems. They also stated that for more than 60 per cent of those installers indicated that rooftop DC isolators were the primary cause. Have you got any comments to make around those types of risks?

Mr Wright : This gets back to the importance of rooftop solar being installed by licensed electricians and people specifically trained in it, under proper supervision in particular, which has not universally been the case, unfortunately. There is no doubt that all energy sources have inherent risk. In comparing rooftop solar, yes, there are concerns, particularly for worker safety where there's feedback into the grid when lines workers are working on other premises or on the lines outside. Some of those have technological solutions; other times it's due to faulty installation. Again, it gets back to the fact that the catastrophic risk we see with nuclear is why we're more comfortable with PV cells than we are with nuclear energy.

Ms STEGGALL: In terms of the question on notice about deaths—we've had this figure presented several times and reports of death rates from energy production, comparing brown coal, coal, oil, biomass, gas, nuclear, and that's where the claim has been made that nuclear is essentially safe, with very few deaths. If that could be clarified in a written way, I would certainly appreciate that. You talked a lot about safety of employment and looking at a just transition and that the problem now, from the point of view of your members, is needing direction and opportunities. Could you expand a little bit or explain to us the opportunities for employment from firmed renewables for your membership.

Mr Wright : The question at the moment isn't whether Australia will have an energy transition or not; it's whether it will be just or not. We're in the midst of the energy transition as we speak. We can see that in the Latrobe Valley. We can see that in all of our industries, even down to technologies that you wouldn't think of, like the LED streetlights leading to redundancies of electrical linesworkers. There is an energy revolution going on.

Our experience with renewables in terms of employment conditions has, frankly, been patchy to date. It has been a largely unregulated space. We have seen a lot of unlicensed electrical work in solar farms throughout the north-west of Victoria and Central Queensland and we've had situations of temporary visa holders performing unlicensed electrical work whilst getting paid $40 or $50 a day—all of which gives us a lot of concern, particularly when renewables are, in a lot of situations in a lot of communities, a real opportunity for good, stable jobs.

Whilst a solar farm will not have the workforce that a coal-fired power station has, there are opportunities at the moment for employment in regional Australia in the renewables sector, whether that be around maintenance, the operators in the region, or the increased role for transmission and distribution companies. As they connect, there will be a more disaggregated grid. Those opportunities exist today, and the ETU's fear or belief is that those opportunities are not being seized. So we're getting the downside, but we're not getting the upside. Frankly, if you look at solar farm construction, our experience until recently has been that it's been a complete mess.

CHAIR: Are there any other questions specifically on that topic before we move forward?

Mr PITT: I was just wondering, Mr Wright, if you could expand on some of the terms that you used, such as 'extra-low voltage' and 'electrical work', so that we have an understanding of the difference between the roles of a licensed electrician, for example, versus the comments you made around solar farms.

Mr Wright : I'll give an example that I think the department of immigration ultimately took up in September last year. We had two Filipino workers and two Thai workers working on solar farms in regional Queensland and down into New South Wales. These four people were getting paid $47, $48 a day. When my members found out about this they passed the hat around themselves so that they could pay for food and accommodation and the rest. They were brought out as specialists. Forgive me, I can't remember the class of visa, but they were short-term specialists. They were so specialised that they were unlicensed to perform the work that they were brought out to do.

This is what we have seen in the unregulated free-for-all that we've seen around solar farm construction. It's of great concern. Frankly, I'm not surprised that a lot of our members in those regions don't see renewables as the hope. They see the work being performed by backpackers and short-term immigrants who don't necessarily have an investment in the community, so they don't believe that renewables are a way forward for good jobs.

Mr PITT: What exactly are they doing? Are they plugging in a lead? Are they connecting something?

Mr Wright : Installation of plant, then of course the connection to the grid itself, which—it depends on the jurisdiction—will then be done in concert with the transmission authority.

Mr PITT: The example you gave is in Queensland. For the benefit of the panel and those who might be listening, and for the Hansard, exactly what types of activities do they do, in your view, which they shouldn't?

Mr Wright : Those four—it was the installation of electrical plant from Schneider. It was not extra low voltage; it was 240 volt. It was properly described as electrical work within the state licensing regime. It was just electrical work. Their site safety supervisor was the one who noticed that they didn't have a licence and thus couldn't perform the work. I should say we bear no animus whatsoever to these four individuals. They were just doing their job. We can't expect them to have any foreknowledge of Queensland licensing laws. Similarly, it has been a long-term campaign of the ETU to ensure that the installation of battery walls and solar cells in the domestic situation is done by licensed electricians, because the risks of it being done wrong are simply too great.

Ms STEGGALL: Following on from that, one of the areas that has been put to us relates to employment prospects and the prospect of increasing mining of uranium leading to an increase in jobs and whole new industries. In your experience, what part does AI play? How real is it to say that so many more jobs would be created in mining or in new technology?

Mr ZIMMERMAN: This proposition was put to us by the AWU just before lunch.

Mr Wright : As in the role of future employment vis-a-vis automation?

Ms STEGGALL: For example, one area that was put forward was that increased uranium mining will lead to a significant increase in the number of jobs, for example. It was also put forward that, as an industry, it will create whole new areas of jobs and employment.

Mr Wright : I would have thought that the possibilities for Australia in the renewable space would have been at least as great if not greater. Any increase in production of uranium at Olympic Dam in South Australia would no doubt involve some increase in employment, and any increase in employment, particularly in South Australia, would ordinarily be welcomed. But I would be very sceptical. It's very easy to overstate the employment benefits of a marginal increase in production, and I don't know that Australia's consumption of nuclear power would be sufficient to warrant the sorts of job numbers that at least I've seen floated around.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: You mentioned that the union's position in relation to nuclear energy has been longstanding. Without wanting to go into your internal processes too much, I'm interested in how you basically refresh your position on these things, and, in particular with the ETU—I know there is some commentary about it being untested—how you keep an eye on new developments in nuclear technology. Obviously there has been considerable discussion about the small modular reactors. Is that something that is likely to influence your views as time moves forward?

Mr Wright : We most recently considered this when we held a centenary conference in August this year. It was debated on the floor of that conference, where we had 250-odd members of ours from across all of our industries. We had representatives of the nuclear industry attend and speak. At the conclusion of that there was internal debate within the union, following which our pre-existing position in opposition was reaffirmed. In that presentation there was express discussion of the modular reactors. The financiality of nuclear is probably an issue that hasn't been touched upon, but I have no doubt that others have. That was a large consideration in terms of modular reactors as to whether it was even worth debating. So yes, it is something the ETU does review on and off—not continuously, as I might have said before, but routinely.

Ms STEGGALL: So your position today is fairly fresh in terms of having taken it to your members recently?

Mr Wright : Correct, yes.

Mr PITT: We did put this to one of the previous submitters: how many members are in the ETU? How many members do you represent?

Mr Wright : It's 63,000, of which probably 25-ish would be in or exposed to the energy industry, whether it's transmission and distribution or coal mining or rail.

Mr PITT: So the others are in manufacturing?

Mr Wright : The balance of our membership is in construction and manufacturing.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: And it's 25,000, not 25?

Mr Wright : Yes, 25,000 in the energy industries.

Mrs PHILLIPS: Following up on the signatories who signed this statement—as I said, there are over 50—how did that come about? That's a lot of organisations and a lot of members from different organisations.

Mr Wright : It was. I'm afraid I wasn't directly involved in the hashing out of that project, but it was a long-term commitment in terms of a lot of education, for the most part, of all the different people who signed on to that. A lot of the organisations involved in that had never thought of the issues that are central to us in terms of having a just transition for workers. Similarly, issues were raised by environmental groups that we hadn't previously considered. It was quite an extensive process that took months, from recollection.

CHAIR: Mr Wright, thank you very much for your attendance here today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, 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 will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thank you very much.