Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 535

Mr SCOTT(6.01) —The Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans), when introducing the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill in the Senate on 6 November 1985, amongst other things, said:

This legislation replaces the Australian Atomic Energy Commission with a new organisation to be known as the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, or ANSTO, and repeals the draconian provisions of the Atomic Energy Act 1953.

The Atomic Energy Act was, of course, drafted in the Cold War period and contained repressive security and penal provisions. This obsession with secrecy has been the hallmark of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and was most clearly illustrated in the cover-up of, the lies about, and the intimidation of Australian civilian and military personnel involved in, the British atomic tests at Monte Bello, Emu and Maralinga. The new organisation, ANSTO, must not be allowed to continue this obsession with secrecy. This will in great measure be reliant on the Minister responsible for that Organisation. The Minister responsible, Senator Evans, must also be a responsible Minister. It cannot be said that his irresponsible attack on concerned consumers who do not want food irradiation in Australia was an intelligent response, let alone a responsible response.

In order that honourable members can understand and appreciate the reasons for my critical response to the Minister's speech in the Senate, let me quote his dismissal of the anti-food irradiation lobby. The Minister stated:

The kryptonite lobby is much in evidence in any uranium debate, but I have never seen it more in evidence than in the context of food irradiation.

That attitude will set the new organisation, ANSTO, in a climate which is no better than the Cold War atmosphere that surrounded the introduction of the Atomic Energy Act in 1953.

The proponents of the nuclear industry have an obsession that they, and they alone, are right. That arrogance must be broken down. The Minister would do well to educate himself on how the consumer public feels about food irradiation. Over 40,000 petitioners from every State in Australia are calling for a ban on the import of cobalt 60, which is used in the food irradiation process. The Minister has confirmed that the Australian Atomic Energy Commission is involved up to its eyeballs in the sponsorship and implementation of food irradiation programs. The Minister said:

There is no intention of withdrawing from the involvement in these programs at this stage.

No doubt the Minister intends this involvement to continue under ANSTO. At a time of severe economic restraint, I think it is totally irresponsible to be spending several hundred thousand dollars through the Australian Atomic Energy Commission on this extremely controversial process of food irradiation which is unsafe, unnecessary and unwanted by Australian consumers. I ask the Minister: What is the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's expertise on, firstly, the nutritional value of foods before and after cobalt 60 gamma ray irradiation; secondly, the loss of vitamins in food after irradiation; and, thirdly, the production of carcinogenics after irradiation.

A cognate debate involving three Bills-the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Transitional Provisions) Bill and the Atomic Energy Amendment Bill-is, of course, more wide ranging than a debate on a single Bill. Of course, the debate becomes even more encompassing when one is responding to the earlier debate involving the Minister responsible for the introduction of the Bills. The Minister has declared that the Australian Atomic Energy Commission has been involved in the sponsorship and implementation of food irradiation programs. For the record, these statements are to be found in the Senate Daily Hansard of 17 February 1987 at page 96. The Minister stated that those who are opposed to food irradiation belong to the kryptonite lobby. The kindest response to that comment would be that it reflects an ignorant, biased mind. However, the Minister, Senator Evans, compounded the statement by saying that the AAEC was involved in food irradiation sponsorship and implementation and that ANSTO would continue down that track. In the most outrageous of all positions, the Minister said that the onus of proof lies with those who oppose food irradiation. If it were not so serious, it would be funny. Here we have the Minister responsible for the ANSTO Bills saying, on the question of food irradiation, that, firstly, opposition is from the kryptonite lobby; secondly, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, and now ANSTO, will continue to promote and sponsor the introduction of food irradiation; and, thirdly, the AAEC knows best, and that the onus of proof otherwise is on the kryptonites. What arrogance and what stupidity! It is a return to the Cold War attitude that surrounded the introduction of the Atomic Energy Act in 1953.

The introduction of these Bills needs to be set in an atmosphere in which the community will know and understand what the new body, ANSTO, is up to. Community concerns should be treated with understanding and should be listened to. I say with total conviction that the consumer public is very concerned about what might happen to its food if the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, and now ANSTO, have their way in introducing gamma ray zapping of their food.

Let me turn to some worthwhile references. The source of the references is far more qualified than those which were referred to in the original debate in the Senate by the Minister who introduced the Bills. I refer to an article in the Food and Chemical News of 28 July last year. Under the heading `Cancer Research Scientist Opposes Irradiation of Food', the article states:

Meanwhile, Cancer Research Scientist George L. Tritsch has opposed food irradiation in Letters to the Editor appearing in the July 20 New York Times and the July 21 Chemical & Engineering News.

Tritsch, who is with the Roswell Park Memorial Institute, Buffalo, argued in the letter to the New York Times, `To expose growing children to irradiated foods should not be permitted without clear demonstration that it is not accompanied by a late increase in cancer.'

In the letter to the Chemical & Engineering News he contended `that a dose of radiation sufficient to cause changes in food pathogens to result in their death must cause comparable changes in the food itself, i.e. alterations in nucleic acids and in membrane lipids'.

`The actual dose of radiation is irrelevant, since a single carcinogenic insult is all that is needed to produce a malignant neoplasm a decade or more later,' Tritsch wrote, suggesting, `Thus, irradiated food should be safe only for individuals with life expectancies of a decade or less'.

He urged `that irradiated food not be made available to the general public until we have indisputable evidence that this will not increase the cancer incidence two decades later.'

I am concerned because this issue has been raised in the Parliament for some considerable time and the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) has engaged the Australian Consumers Association to conduct an inquiry into food irradiation. In addition, my colleague the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Milton) and his Committee, the Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, are also inquiring into the matter. Yet the Minister responsible for these Bills has the audacity to say that this is a kryptonite lobby which complains, that the onus of proof is on the consuming public to say that the process is unsafe. I wish to pass on another message to this House, which I hope will take a far more responsible attitude to this question. A committee of the European Parliament, called the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, recently released a report on the irradiation of foodstuffs. It is dated 15 October 1986, so it is of recent vintage. In the summary and conclusions the report says:

(1) Despite decades of research, it is not possible to prove that food irradiation causes no harm to health.

(2) Practically all scientific studies admit a considerable degree of uncertainty as regards effects on human health.

(3) It is not possible to prove that food has been irradiated. There is not technical means of checking.

(4) As a method of conservation, radiation is no better or cheaper than other methods. Technological improvements to certain foods are of interest to manufacturers but not to consumers.

(5) The use of the technology involved is potentially more dangerous than with other types of conservation. Employees are exposed to considerable risk. This could lead to problems particularly in the Third World.

(6) Irradiation could be used to deceive consumers as regards freshness or ripeness of food.

(7) The microbiological effect of irradiation varies considerably and may even lead to an increase in germ cells.

(8) All the desired objectives of food irradiation can be achieved by other methods. Radiation does not provide greater protection for consumers against spoiled food.

(9) The use of ionizing radiation to conserve food is potentially more dangerous than conventional methods. Workers in radiation plants are exposed to greater risks. This may lead to major problems, particularly in the Third World.

(10) The construction and operation of radiation plants lead to even greater geographical spread and circulation of radioactive materials.

I submit that all these issues I have raised are extremely relevant to the Bills going through the House today because, as I said earlier, the Minister has made it clear that the Australian Atomic Energy Commission has been involved up to its eyeballs, that ANSTO will continue, that people who oppose are merely the kryptonites and that the onus of proof is on us. I think that the Minister is clearly out of court. He is out of his depth and I wonder who gave him the briefing on this subject. It concerns me that in trying to get to the heart of this issue in Australia, I have had to put several hundred questions on the Notice Paper to try to flush out the truth. To date, the truth still has not come out. I ask the question of this House, of my colleague the Minister and other members of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation just who is responsible for the legislation and regulation covering food? Who is better qualified? Is it the Health Department or the Atomic Energy Commission? I believe that on this issue we have seen members of the atomic energy group or club trying to grab a corner for themselves to keep themselves occupied and to ensure that they will have adequate Budget allocations. This is so much a waste of time in that the proper authority to deal with this area is obviously the Department of Health.

Because I have had trouble in obtaining information from the Health Department, I must ask which department is leading which Minister by the nose. I have never seen such an exposure of the Yes Minister syndrome as I have on this matter of food irradiation. I realise that I am being critical of my own Government and various departments, but until the truth comes out the consuming public will be very suspicious of what is going on. I do not believe that the two Ministers concerned fully realise the feeling outside among consumers. I would hope that the message would get across to them fairly soon. (Quorum formed)

As I began by saying, the old Atomic Energy Act was drafted in the cold war days and, hopefully, ANSTO will have a better birth, a better opportunity to carry out its work, and confidence that the community knows exactly what it is about. At an earlier point in my speech tonight, I referred to the secrecy surrounding the British atomic tests at Monte Bello, Emu and Maralinga. I played a fairly significant part in trying to uncover that secrecy and those who followed that particular case will recall what was subsequently revealed as the Pearce report. I have a copy of that report, which was in the closets for many years. It contains the secret burial places of the radioactive substances which the British Government left at Maralinga in particular. On a map it sets out the burial sites and the materials that were buried at those sites. These include plutonium, beryllium, cobalt 60, natural uranium and various other elements used in the dirty bomb. My reason for raising this matter is the secrecy that surrounded those tests and the concern it gave Australian citizens, both civilian and military, in not knowing whether they had been affected by the tests at those sites. It was only after this Government set up the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia between 1952 and 1963 and opened the closets that we found out what had been going on. We found that instead of the eight or nine atomic tests that were reported, there were some 100-odd tests, including what were called the minor trials. The trauma that civilians and military people went through because of the Crimes Act and the Atomic Energy Act-those draconian days of the secrecy provisions-is something that will never be properly estimated. I have had the opportunity to meet many of those people who went through those atomic tests, and I have seen the scars and marks on them. I plead with the Minister responsible that he ensure that the ANSTO Bills do not become a replica of the Atomic Energy Act. We have a much more enlightened community and, quite rightly, a more demanding community that needs to know and has a right to know what the Government is about and particularly what departments are about.