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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1998


Senator MARGETTS(6.56 p.m.) —I rise to speak tonight to the report of the Senate Select Committee on the Dangers of Radioactive Waste. The report, which was released in April 1996, is called No time to waste . The committee received many submissions in relation to the issues of the production, transport and storage of radioactive waste in Australia. A lot of work was put into this committee and its outcomes.

For me, perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the main report was that, despite what could be considered to be very short-sighted approaches by many bodies, including government bodies, the preferred option of the committee, after hearing all the evidence, was that any storage site, if there is to be a national site, should be an engineered above- ground site.

That is really important. Often communities have felt that the choices were that they would either have a minimum engineered solution in a site that was considered, for some environmental reasons, to be appropriate or minimum risk or some such category, or there would be some sort of attempt at engineering, within a price range, a site which might be in a suburban area, near a water course and so on. So the choices for many people have seemed limited. It is not surprising that the response from communities around Australia asked to host radioactive waste dumps, whether it was a proposal for a national waste dump or for a state facility, have been antagonistic in most cases.

There are many aspects of the report which are worthy of consideration, including the ability of communities to be involved in decision making and so on. But there were areas where I disagreed with the main body of the report. In that sense, I joined with Senator Bell from the Democrats to write a dissenting report to the report of the radioactive waste inquiry.

The areas that we were concerned about included the creation and handling of radioactive waste from hospitals and research institutions. We did not believe that there should be a general exemption from these institutions because part of the problem was that we often talked about the cost of these decisions. We believe that the real cost, even the health and environmental cost, ought to be taken into consideration. The argument could not simply be that we are doing this research to benefit human health when the benefits and costs to human health, if there are any, should be considered when a decision is made.

We looked at the issue of user pays and the pricing of radioisotopes. We did not believe that the taxpayers of Australia should be heavily subsidising the price of radioisotopes because, once again, the real costs of transport, storage and final outcomes of radio nuclides should be incorporated somehow in the decision that is made.

We looked at the need for regulatory controls of industry which create nuclear waste. We felt they should be independent of the industry's ability to pay. You do not start from the end point of what this industry is prepared to pay for waste monitoring or disposal, such as a tailings dam, and work from there. You should look at what is a safe method of disposal. If it happens that that method makes the industry unprofitable, then that is the reality. In my opinion, those figures should be included in the calculation.

Concern was expressed to the committee in relation to the handling of spent fuel rods from the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor. Many members of the Senate would have seen recent media reports about the concerns of people from Dounreay at receiving Australia's nuclear outcomes from Lucas Heights—fuel rods. When we visited Lucas Heights the fuel rods were in a temporary bay which was in a pond. There was a rail which came up to just over one's waist. It was not impossible to bend down and put your hand in the pond. That was a fairly scary concept to me. Whatever the real or perceived risks—they were considered to be highly radioactive sources—you could put your hand into the water which was between you and the radioactive sources.

There were also areas where those rods were stored in a shed in a concrete floor. Each rod was in a hole in the floor with a cap. It is still a scary thing that what is happening in Lucas Heights tends to be like a holding pattern: you hope that you can push the rods off to somewhere else but eventually Australia gets them back. One wonders what the implications will be for Australia supplying uranium, say, to 12 nuclear power plants in Indonesia eventually. Will we then be able to refuse to accept receiving fuel rods back from those power sources? What do we intend to do with them?

We looked at the feasibility of dumping low or intermediate level radioactive waste in active uranium mines. Certainly at that stage we were still looking at terms of reference which only looked at radioactive waste and excluded mention of uranium mining and milling. That is why for me it was a logical conclusion to use the structure of this committee to go on to the next terms of reference, which we now have in relation to uranium mining and milling. It seems silly that we should be talking about using uranium mines when there had not been any parliamentary scrutiny of the safety or dangers of uranium mining and milling since the Fox report—and that was not specifically a parliamentary inquiry.

We were concerned whether a national radioactive storage facility is an acceptable proposition, whether the preference should be—and, in our opinion, could be—for state-based facilities. It was rather concerning that a large part of the perceived problem from the communities was the transport of radioactive waste around Australia. If you had one designated national radioactive waste dump, you would have a lot more risk involved with transporting radioactive materials across Australia in various forms.

There was concern about the promotion and use of photoelectric smoke detectors—that is, it is a growing source. There is not a huge amount of radioactivity in each source but we are looking at whether we are putting the right price signals into such things and whether we should be putting a price signal into other forms of smoke detectors. That was what made photoelectric smoke detectors more attractive in comparison to radioactive sources.

We looked at the export of used medical radiotherapy sources as aid. We make points of criticism in relation to whether we are actually assisting countries by, if you like, dumping radioactive sources on them without checking whether they have the ability to properly store the waste that they will have to deal with in the long run. We were assured that those sources were still useful. They took longer to take X-rays but they were still useful. But I do wonder whether it was an ethical thing to, if you like, prey on the vulnerability of many developing countries by offering them sources which we had no intention of checking whether they could be stored safely after their useful life.

We looked at the general issue of the practice of dilution and dispersal of radiotoxins. I would like to thank Senator Bell for working with me on the minority report. I would especially like to thank Senator Coulter for his time on the committee and the work that he did, especially when he was suffering from ill health during that time. He did a lot of work and it was extremely useful for the committee.

I would like to pay special tribute to the secretariat—Theresa, Geoff and Winifred but in particular Cheryl Scarlett, the committee secretary—and to the chair, Senator Chapman, for the work that he has done. I think it was a useful report. I think it provides a good basis. I am glad that we now have a uranium mining and milling inquiry.