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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1999


Senator CHAPMAN(7.07 p.m.) —in reply—As chairman of this select committee, I conclude the debate in the context of having opened it last sitting Thursday but having my remarks cut very short by the imminence of the adjournment. As we know, the report of the Senate Select Committee on the Dangers of Radioactive Waste was tabled out of session on 29 April. It was a very timely presentation because that date was the 10th anniversary of the then Soviet government's admission of the Chernobyl disaster.

Australia does not have a nuclear power industry. The amount of radioactive waste created in Australia is only a minute fraction of what is produced in some other countries. Therefore, fortunately, it is not possible for Australia to experience a Chernobyl-type accident. Nevertheless, the disastrous consequences of Chernobyl are a salutary reminder of the need for adequate regulation of radioactive materials.

Radioactive materials used in industry and medicine, some of which save lives, do provide benefits; however, they also have potential health risks if the radioactive waste is not managed safely. Radioactive waste cannot be destroyed. Radioactivity decays naturally over periods which may take millions of years. In using radioactive materials to obtain benefits, there is a price to be paid. That price is eternal vigilance in managing the waste.

The committee was concerned at the lack of up-to-date information on Australia's radioactive holdings. A national inventory of radioactive waste has not been prepared since 1986. The committee was told that radioactive waste is stored in approximately 100 places around Australia, but it seems that the exact figure is quite uncertain. The committee has therefore recommended that an up-to-date inventory be compiled.

Some conservation groups argued that the way to eliminate radioactive waste is to eliminate the use of radioactive materials altogether. This is not realistic because of the important uses of radioactive materials. Nevertheless, that does not diminish the importance of minimising the creation of radioactive waste and safely managing the waste which is created. We can achieve both.

Our report stresses this need to minimise the creation of radioactive waste. The hierarchy of waste management—reduce, reuse, recycle and treat before disposal—should apply as much to radioactive waste as to any other category of waste. Research projects which create radioactive waste, in hospitals for example, should undergo rigorous justification processes to weigh the likely benefits against the difficulty of handling the waste.

Consideration should be given to increased funding for research into alternative technology, such as cyclotrons, to replace technolo gies which use radioactive materials or create radioactive waste. There is potential to recycle

radioactive sources in domestic smoke detectors because the sources are much more long lived than the other parts of the smoke detectors. The committee suggests that more research could be done in this area.

A user pays system for storing waste in a central, publicly owned facility would seem to be an obvious way to discourage creation of radioactive waste. That brings me to the question of a national repository for radioactive waste. This was one of the major questions before the committee. The issue of a national repository has been considered since 1979. The previous government's proposal was for a shallow burial site for permanent disposal of low level waste and some intermediate level waste.

The committee heard two main views on the merits of a national repository. Those in favour thought a national repository would be a safer place for waste than the many small private stores which exist, often in populous areas across the country. Those against the establishment of a central repository thought it would encourage an `out of sight, out of mind' mentality and reduce the incentive to minimise the creation of waste. These witnesses thought that bodies creating waste should be forced to store it on site to ensure that the full costs are borne.

On balance, the majority of the committee favours the first view. A national facility is required; however, we do not favour as a repository a shallow burial site for permanent, irretrievable disposal. The committee favours an above-ground storage facility. The main reason for this is that storage, rather than permanent disposal, would allow for easier recovery of radioactive material in future for recycling or conditioning if technological advances make this viable.

Not surprisingly, the committee found the issues involved in implementing an appropriate user pays system for a central storage facility quite complex. In some cases, waste from obsolete technologies is stored, but those bodies responsible for this waste are no longer adding to those stores. This raises the question of how much should be charged to solve problems which were unforeseen 30 years ago. Other bodies, such as the Department of Defence, have adopted the waste of others over the years since it could be added to its own stores without cost. Again, this raises the question as to whether those bodies should now be charged for waste removal.

Other issues concerning a user pays system include identifying criteria for setting charges to cover long-term costs, valuing uncertain costs and benefits—for example, the benefits of medical research in saving lives against the costs and risks of managing the waste for long periods—and the need to pre-empt the temptation to dispose of waste illegally or hold it in inadequate stores to avoid the payment of charges. The committee believes that these issues should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

A clear distinction must be drawn between historic waste and future creation of waste. For historic waste, the concept of user pays as an incentive to minimise is irrelevant. The overriding issue is the safe management of an inherited problem. It would be appropriate, in the interests of safety, to accept this waste at a central facility on a subsidised basis. On the other hand, bodies continuing to create waste in future should meet the full cost of managing the waste. They should either pay to use a central facility or make their own arrangements on site—subject, of course, to adequate regulation and monitoring. In this way, the cost of managing waste will remain an incentive to minimise the creation of waste.

The need for adequate regulation and monitoring cannot be understated. Under the constitution, regulation of radioactive materials is primarily a matter for state and territory laws. However, in practice Commonwealth bodies, mainly the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, produce approximately 90 per cent of Australia's radioactive waste. As these Commonwealth bodies are not generally bound by state laws, this leaves a regulatory gap which was of concern to many witnesses at the inquiry.

The previous government proposed the creation of an Australian Institute of Radiation Protection with appropriate power to control Commonwealth bodies' use of radio active materials. The committee strongly supports this proposal. International standards require an independent regulatory authority. This would go some way to repairing community concern, evident in many submissions, about the authorities.

However, the committee does have some concerns about whether the Institute of Radiation Protection, as now proposed, will be truly independent of the industry which it is supposed to be regulating. This is an inherent problem in a small specialised field, such as nuclear science, where the staff of the regulator may look to the industry for future career moves. There will need to be particular care to design the Institute of Radiation Protection so that it really is seen to be at arm's length from bodies such as ANSTO.

I would like also to mention evidence received by the committee from the Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission in relation to the alleged importation of radioactively contaminated equipment into Queensland. The Queensland CJC discovered in a Gold Coast shopping centre stored X-ray equipment which had been imported from the United States. A faxitron radiographic inspection system was confiscated by the Queensland Health Department because the owner did not have a licence. Initially a TI-204 thickness gauge probe was also seized, but was later returned as it did not constitute a breach of the relevant state act. This evidence touched on other aspects of Operation Wallah and Operation Gallon, which was dealt with at length in in camera hearings of the committee and about which there are some continuing concerns.

In conclusion, as chairman of the committee, I would like to commend the other members of the committee who worked very hard on this matter. I join with Senator Margetts in particularly commending former Senator Coulter, whose scientific expertise was very useful to the work of this committee. I thank the secretary of the committee, Cheryl Scarlett, and her assistants, Theresa Rodgers and Geoff Dawson, and other members of the committee secretariat, together with my own research assistant, Andrea Bell, for their outstanding work during the inquiry.

The committee was a busy one. We held 11 public hearings as well as several in camera hearings, to which I referred a moment ago, and on some occasions we met on half a dozen occasions in the same fortnight. The secretariat worked tirelessly to support our schedule, as well as providing the scientific expertise that was so necessary for this inquiry.

Question resolved in the affirmative.