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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 542


Mr CUNNINGHAM(8.17) —I wish to participate in this debate to support fully the Government's moves in relation to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Bill and cognate Bills. I believe that the legislation is well timed. As we have heard today and on other days in this chamber this debate will have a great impact on the nuclear industry, and it will produce different views from all sides of politics. In speaking to the legislation before the House I would like to quote from an article that I found in Nuclear Engineering International that relates to a report by the House of Commons Environment Committee headed by Sir Hugh Rossi. He said:

The first, over-riding, all pervading, impression which presents itself at every stage . . . is the enormous and seemingly unbridgeable gap which exists between the perception of the problem by the professionals and the anxieties expressed by representatives of the general public.

Scientists, in every country . . . assure us, time and time again, that the knowledge and technology exists with which to harness the enormous forces of nuclear power and to render mankind safe from the wastes it produces. With almost equal consistency elected and non-elected representatives of the general public expressed deep-seated fears.

This dichotomy of perception has led the nuclear industry into a defensive secretiveness about its work which serves only to heighten public anxiety.

Those words are very true. One will find quite a staggering difference between the northern hemisphere and Australia in debates on the nuclear industry. A few years ago I was privileged to spend a month in the United Kingdom. While I was there I had the opportunity to look at the nuclear industry and I also visited Sellafield, the waste disposal plant in that country. The report from which I quoted-the House of Commons Environment Committee's first report-came out recently. Some of the messages in that report are quite serious. The difference in the debates in the United Kingdom, for instance, and in Europe from those in Australia is that the northern hemisphere has a general commitment to nuclear power for peaceful purposes. It is an accepted proposition and there will be no going back from it. It is pleasing that we in Australia are not in that position; our general public will never be placed in that position. Because of our fossil fuel reserves we have no need for nuclear power and it is government policy not to go down the path of developing nuclear power in Australia for electricity purposes or to be involved in anything to do with nuclear weapons.

This legislation covers waste disposal and the mining and milling of uranium as well as other measures that are carried out by the Atomic Energy Commission. However, this report is from the point of view of the United Kingdom, which sees nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel. Over there the debate hinges on not only nuclear power but also fossil fuel, acid rain and all other problems with the environment. The Committee has also come out with some scathing comments in relation to that. The all-party Committee, whose members represented a wide political spectrum and who hold a wide range of views on nuclear power, produced a unanimous report on the basis of examining over 70 witnesses and visiting six countries. The Committee expressed amazement that the British nuclear industry is pressing ahead with increased reprocessing in the absence of properly engineered facilities for the disposal of radioactive waste. As well as proposing a reappraisal of the need for oxide reprocessing and THORP-which is the big processing plant there-it recommends, among other things, that there be an investigation of the costs involved in the Magnox fuel processing plant, and that classification of waste should be modified to take into account half lives and alpha content with particularly toxic radionuclides being excluded from the lower level categories. The report further stated:

UK industry should go for ``Rolls-Royce'' solutions to waste problems to help it gain public acceptance.

In Australia the Atomic Energy Commission has been working on the synroc process. While I was in the United Kingdom two years ago the new glass vitrification operation was being built at an enormous cost and it is hoped that it will be in operation by 1989. It will process the high level waste which is stored at present in what one would call very heavy bunkers. I was able to visit the United Kingdom at the time when the seventh waste disposal unit was being constructed. I had the opportunity to walk right inside it and look at how it was done. It was a fascinating process. In the one area were stored some 30 years production of high level nuclear waste from the industry in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. Of course, all precautions have to be taken in this process because we are talking about the real high level waste-3 per cent of the processing plant.

The walls of the container are some three foot six inches to four feet thick and are made of solid concrete. There is a 12 foot space between that wall and another one of similar proportions. The inside container has four foot thick concrete walls, a four foot thick concrete base and a four foot thick concrete roof which is lined with one inch stainless steel up to a height of six feet around the walls and right around the floor. At the time I was there the containers cost about #100m each to build.

Into the two stainless steel containers, which were made of similar thickness stainless steel, was being built a cooling system which had back-ups to the extent of one working at a particular time with three complete back-ups in the system. So the liquid waste fluid that was put into that container had to be kept cool-because if water was not flowing through it to keep it cool, over a very short period the container would start to heat. As the heat generated, the container would melt even though it was enormously thick and eventually it would probably split and spill its contents on to the floor. So there were three back-up systems in what was called an almost fail-safe procedure to keep the liquid waste cool. This was the seventh facility that was being put in place. Six were already in full operation and fully enclosed. I asked the question: `What would happen if the three systems broke down?'. I was told that there is a further back-up system. The four foot concrete floor of the container is covered by one inch of stainless steel, draining another central point, which has another back-up pumping system. In the same room, a spare #100m container, identical to the one the waste is in, would pick up any spills from the first container and pump it straight back into the second one. There would have to be a complete break down of the process the second time in order for there to be a spill. So an enormous cost is involved in storing high level liquid waste.

In spite of all of those costs, the United King- dom is still going ahead with the storage facilities based on the fact that it would be the last that it would put into place. It would then move towards disposing of the waste into a glass vitrification process where, it was claimed, once it was put into it all that was required was air circulation for the next 50 years until it had cooled.

It is in this area that the synroc proposals have been looked at. The Commission, under this legislation, will continue to develop the synroc concept for the immobilisation of high level nuclear waste. Of course, we also need to investigate methods of disposing of the radioactive waste generated in Australia from the use of radio isotopes in industry and medicine, and to study the migration of these wastes in groundwaters to improve the understanding and possible behaviour of buried nuclear waste. Regardless of what is said in this debate on this industry around the world-it is a worldwide issue-we have for the last 30 years developed nuclear high level waste which has to be disposed of permanently. Whilst I came away from my visit to the Sellafield plant fairly satisfied with the approaches that have been taken, and although we keep being told by the experts that we have the technology to dispose of this waste in the long term, at this stage there is nowhere in the world where it has been done. It was clearly explained to me that when 30 years production of high level wastes are stored in the United Kingdom in a room which would not be any bigger than this parliamentary building, one can see that if they can be stored in glass or, as we are trying to develop in Australia, stored through a synroc process, the urgent need to dispose of it underground will not occur.

The report from the House of Commons was very scathing in that the United Kingdom has not at this stage moved towards anything like a safe depository anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it is not likely to do so. That is of great concern. If the United Kingdom is to have enormous reprocessing facilities for nuclear fuel and if the waste is not placed in stable and permanent places in the future, we will have a serious problem on our hands. I believe that the developments towards the synroc process are very important. It is very important that we continue these developments because we have a responsibility, while we are selling uranium, to take an active interest in the world scene as far as this matter is concerned. We need to develop a process, and perhaps the synroc process, which is well down the track now, could be the answer in the long term. It was explained to me that there was no anxiety in the United Kingdom at this stage that high level waste should be put underground until the year 2020. At about that time the quantity that the United Kingdom will have stored in this glass process will need to be disposed of underground. Also it is believed that over the 50 years the heat in the waste will be at a level at which the glass can be stored satisfactorily deep in the earth in safe depositories.

It is an interesting and very important subject and one for which I believe Australia has a great responsibility. I believe that we have taken the right steps with this legislation in concentrating on those things in Australia which are important to us-that is, the mining and milling of uranium, the development of a process whereby we can completely immobilise high level nuclear waste in the long term and, of course, continuation of those great works that are being carried out by the Commission in industry and medicine.

So I have great pleasure in supporting the legislation before the House. I have been very interested in listening to the debate. The words by Sir Hugh Rossi with which I opened my remarks are very true; that we seem to have a dichotomy of opinion-two extremes-in the debate around the world. The more information that is made public by the nuclear industry, getting out of its defensive and secretive position, the more it will be for the good of the world in the long term because I do not believe that there is any possible hope of stepping away from nuclear power in the future. Certainly the Northern Hemisphere is not in a position to do that. Whilst in Australia we do not have the necessity to become involved in nuclear power, because of our natural resources, we have to monitor that industry and work towards better efforts in the areas in which we do so well. I commend the legislation to the Parliament.