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Wednesday, 9 May 1984
Page: 1826


Senator HAMER —Did the Minister for Resources and Energy see a report tucked away in the middle of newspapers recently about the coal mining accident in Yugoslavia which killed 31 people? Are such accidents, regrettably, very common in the coal to electricity fuel cycle? Can the Minister explain why a minor accident in the nuclear fuel cycle is front page news yet a major accident in the fossil fuel cycle is barely reported? Was the Three Mile Island nuclear power station accident front page news all around the world but was the most serious injury done to any person the rough equivalent of smoking one cigarette a month? Is it a fact that for the generation of a given amount of power one could expect more than 100 times as many deaths or lives shortened by such diseases as cancer or silicosis if the power is generated by coal rather than nuclear power? Is this quite apart from the contribution of fossil fuel power stations to acid rain and the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere- probably our most alarming long term environmental hazard? Are nuclear power stations clean in both these respects?


Senator WALSH —My attention has been drawn to a report of a coal mining accident in Yugoslavia. I understand that Senator Hamer said that at least 22 people were killed. I understand that subsequently that number was revised to 33. There was in February this year a mining accident at Kyushu in Japan in which 84 people were killed. Even though by the standards of many countries Australian coal mines are very safe, particularly the open-cut coal mines, over the last decade I am advised that 138 people have been killed in coal mining accidents in Australia.

Senator Hamer asked why-this was certainly not true of the Appin disaster on the South Coast of New South Wales three or four years ago; that was certainly widely reported on the front pages-serious accidents in other parts of the world in coal mining are not reported spectacularly by the Australian media. I suppose there is a variety of possibilities. One is that anything pertaining to nuclear power gives rise to a good deal more speculation and perhaps because of its relative newness, compared with coal mining, it attracts the interests of journalists a lot more.


Senator Jack Evans —And its potential for massive disaster.


Senator WALSH —I was about to come to that. There is the possibility, of course, of speculation about less probable but individually more significant damage being done by nuclear accidents. I hasten to put on the record that it is not technically feasible that nuclear reactors involved in an accident would explode the way some people seem to believe they would. Much less is it feasible, as I understand some people were seriously suggesting, writing and circulating some years ago, that if a conventional TNT bomb were dropped on Roxby Downs there is so much uranium there that that percussion would start a chain reaction. Nor is it technically feasible that an accident in a power reactor would cause a nuclear explosion but it could potentially cause a number of other very nasty things.

As to the relative risks of coal generated or nuclear generated electricity, the first thing that ought to be said is that there are widely varying estimates of the probabilities, due principally to the difficulty in establishing comparable assumptions and criteria. In two studies-I think reasonably authoritative studies-which have been done on this very subject-I will seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard a table showing the results of the assessments-very wide variations are shown. One is a study conducted by the American Medical Association and the other by Sir Edward Pochin in the United Kingdom. The higher estimate in total of those two tables equals the figure of 100 to which Senator Hamer has referred. I think one ought to be very careful in handling these figures because of the wide discrepancy in two serious studies of the subject but the conclusion which has emerged in those two studies-I think this is true of almost any serious assessment which has been done-is that the number of deaths from coal produced electricity per unit of electricity finally produced is higher. I seek leave to incorporate the table in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

DEATHS PER 1000 MEGAWATT(E) PER YEAR (WHOLE FUEL CYCLE)

Occupational Non-occupational Total

Coal-

Pochin U.K. 6 10 16 AMA 0.5-8 18-414 18-422 Nuclear-

Pochin U.K. 1.2-1.8 0.1-0.5 1-2 AMA 0.04-1.0 0.01-0.2 0.05-1 (Figures have been rounded)


Senator Chaney —I ask that the Minister table the papers from which he has quoted.


The PRESIDENT —The Minister is complying with that request.