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Tuesday, 16 October 1956

Mr L R JOHNSON (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) .- 1 desire to speak for a short period on the very important matter of the atomic reactor project at Lucas Heights, in New South Wales. However, I am pleased to follow the honorable member for Hindmarsh (Mr. Clyde Cameron) and the honorable member for Blaxland (Mr. E. James Harrison). Each laid particular stress on the very apparent need to get on with the job of standardizing railway gauges. Too often, this chamber devotes its valuable time to dealing with effects, when it could just as easily deal with basic causes. The speeches contributed this afternoon by the honorable member for Hindmarsh and the honorable member for Blaxland have been particularly constructive from that point of view. lt is useless for the Minister for Trade (Mr. McEwen) to talk about the great difficulty experienced in increasing our exports, when the Government is not prepared to face up to an issue of this kind, which has such an important bearing on our ability to improve our overseas trade position.

I was pleased, also, to follow the honorable member for Isaacs (Mr. Haworth) in this debate. He spoke of the position regarding telephone installations, and he made some important and impressive points. I am always interested in this matter, because no electorate in Australia experiences more difficulties with regard to telephone installations than that of Hughes. There are 4,000 outstanding telephone applications from that electorate alone, and I believe that to be a greater number than in any other Australian electorate. I am always interested and impressed when I hear constructive suggestions for solving this problem. I know that many people in my electorate, and in other parts of Australia, were greatly disappointed when it was announced that a fee of £10 would be charged for the installation of a telephone, lt is not generally realized that some £40,000 will be extracted from the constituents of the Hughes electorate alone by means of this charge. The Government should get on with the job of providing new telephone exchanges, and I am convinced that some standardization of construction of buildings would be of great assistance in this connexion. While, in the electorate of Hughes, people have been waiting for telephone installations for periods of up to ten years, we see elaborate exchange buildings being constructed on expensive sites in shopping centres, while suitable, and obviously less expensive, sites are left neglected. We believe that the standardization of these buildings would enable more people to obtain telephones. I hope that something will be done to improve the position, because great inconvenience is being caused to people all over Australia, particularly to those in my electorate, where 4,000 people are suffering because of the lack of this service.

I wish, now, to make a few remarks about the Lucas Heights project. This is the only atomic reactor being constructed in Australia, and I suppose that no country in the world is more in need of experimentation in this field than is Australia. Ours is a land of abundant raw materials and great potentialities. It has an unbounded future, and, obviously, must keep up to date with scientific trends. It is a matter for great alarm that this Government has chosen, in its atomic energy research, to place emphasis on the aspect of defence - or of aggression, because I often find it difficult to understand how we can defend Australia with an atomic bomb. It is a most ironical situation that, if an enemy invades Australia, we must drop a highly developed atom bomb on our own country in order to defend it. The Government has placed great emphasis on the defence aspect of atomic energy research, and it seems to have made little effort to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

Mr Duthie - Has it made any effort?

Mr L R JOHNSON (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Very little. As a matter of fact, one could have said a short time ago that nothing was being done in this regard, because the work on the Lucas Heights atomic reactor was brought almost to a complete standstill. In contrast, however, we saw tremendous development taking place at Maralinga in connexion with the testing of atom bombs. The first thing that one notices when arriving at Maralinga is the impressive power station, which is operated by Navy personnel, and one cannot help thinking that it would be far better if the same enthusiasm had been shown by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in developing an atomic power house, which could be located in that area, as in arranging for atom bomb development. The power house at Maralinga is used to purify the local bore water, at a very fast rate, for the use of the personnel located there for work in connexion with the testing of atom bombs. If we could spend some of the £ 15,000,000 allocated to the Department of Supply for defence purposes on the development of an atomic power station, I believe that the waste land of the South Australian desert could be transformed into a luxuriously fertile area where we could produce foodstuffs to improve the living standards of the people not only of Australia but also of other countries.

The Lucas Heights reactor project is very important, because its object is the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Many countries are competing in the race to develop atomic energy for purposes of peace. I understand that under the terms of the Colombo plan the people of South-East Asia will benefit from assistance that will be given in this direction. I understand that they will be assisted to establish their own centrally located atomic reactor project, and that they are pressing for it with great enthusiasm, because they appreciate the benefits that they will derive from this activity. But at Lucas Heights we find that, before the last election, the Government commenced to get on with the job of constructing our one and only reactor, and that after a short period of time had elapsed a labour force of some 500 men had been built up. Those men were lured from other employment. Men who had been working at the oil refinery and in other industries in the southern part of Sydney were enticed by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission to work on this atomic reactor project, and they were given a guarantee that full employment would be available. After they had been there for a short period these employees, who, incidentally, represent the pick of Sydney's tradesmen, were astounded to find that some of their number were being retrenched. This was a very serious state of affairs, and, naturally, the men became concerned and called meetings on the job. But their protests were all in vain, and within a short time some 400 men had been ruthlessly retrenched. That was a most outrageous procedure. In the first place the Australian Atomic Energy Commission enticed them from other work on the guarantee of a long tenure of employment. Having succeeded in getting the men there, the commission ruthlessly and offhandedly commenced to carry out a programme of retrenchment. In those circumstances Australia's only atomic reactor, the pride and joy of the Liberal party and the Australian Country party during the election campaign, suddenly ground to a standstill, and the Australian people must now accept the unhappy fact that Australia will do nothing, for a considerable period of time, in the field of atomic energy development for peaceful purposes.

This is a most important matter. The annual report of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission sets out in full detail the purpose of this reactor project. It says, for example -

The principal objective of the Australian research programme is to develop means for the economic production of industrial electric power from nuclear fuels. This objective the programme will seek to achieve through the advancement of reactor design and technology. In association with these endeavours, efforts will also be directed towards developing the peaceful uses of atomic energy in other fields.

In more specific terms, the programme provides for-

(a)   the construction of a high-flux general purpose research reactor for the investigation of the problems of reactor design, construction and operation, and for general research in the atomic energy sciences;

(b)   the erection of large specialized laboratories for associated research in the fields of metallurgy, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, nuclear physics, applied mathematics, reactor instrumentation and health physics;

(c)   the promotion of external research, in the universities and elsewhere, in the fields in which such research can contribute to the general_ development programme.

These, of course, are only the outlines of the programme. To carry it into effect, a wide range of related activity will be involved.

This is a most impressive array of intended activities, but it is most disappointing to find that the Government - I think because of its inability to regulate the flow of money to this work - has suddenly considered it necessary to abandon it and retrench the men involved. It is inexcusable for any government to fail to regulate the flow of money required to ensure the continuity of employment necessary to build up and maintain the confidence of the labour force. There is no reason why the flow of money should not have been regulated.

After the unions involved in this retrenchment programme had met, they decided to interview the Minister for Supply (Mr. Beale), who advised them that the Australian Atomic Energy Commission was fully aware of the difficulties involved and had approached the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden), and that it was hoped the Treasury would assist the commission in its endeavour to obtain additional funds. Dealing with this aspect of the matter, the Audito-General, in his report for the year ended 33th June, 1956. said -

The construction of the laboratories commenced during October, 1955, but with delays which arose through bad weather and strikes the expenditure of £815,361 to 30th June, 1956, on this se:tion of the project was incurred in approximately sis months of the financial year. However, a severe curtailment in the rate of progress of construction and a heavy reduction in the work force have since been brought about due to a reduction o> funds made available. The Treasury has been fully informed by the Commission of the consequences of the lack of adequate finance.

Yet the Treasury stubbornly refused to do anything! This is a most alarming situation. The Government stands indicted for the manner in which it has let the Australian people down, in the light of the fact that Australia will depend more and more in the future - probably to a greater degree than any other country - on the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. I sincerely hope that earnest consideration will be given to the need to provide adequate funds so that this project may be completed with the least possible delay.

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