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Monday, 21 June 2021
Page: 28


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (13:18): I rise to speak on the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020. This important piece of legislation has been years in the making.

Can I say at the outset that I support nuclear power. However, before embarking on any future policy of nuclear power, we must first sort out the disposal of our nuclear waste. This is the vital first step of that process. Every hospital is a radioactive-waste disposal site. Nuclear medicine is vital to the wellbeing of so many in the community and it will continue to save many lives into the future. We all know someone who has benefited from nuclear medicine. Eighty-five per cent of Australia's radioactive waste results from nuclear medicine, which, on average, one in two Australians will need in their lifetime for the diagnosis or treatment of heart, lung, musculoskeletal conditions and certain types of cancer.

But radioactive waste is produced not just in medicine but from a variety of other practices, such as industry and research, including in facilities such as ANSTO, CSIRO, the Department of Defence, hospitals and universities. The radioactive waste is currently spread across more than 100 facilities throughout Australia, including at five sites within 200 kilometres of Kimba, the site of the proposed waste storage facility. Storage in a national facility will mean the waste will be consolidated into a single, safe, purpose-built radioactive waste facility, consistent with government policy and international best practice. The National Radioactive Waste Management Facility program is at a critical juncture in what has been a 40-year effort to identify a community to host a facility. Importantly, it provides parliament with a say in this important national infrastructure rather than the decision about the site location resting with a single minister.

The bill also contains an amended definition of 'controlled material' to provide clarity as to the type of waste which may be stored at the facility. Thus, it aligns with other domestic legislation and international obligations. The new definition does not expand the types of material that can be stored at the facility. Rather, it covers all types of waste that will be held at the facility but, at this point, expressly excludes high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. This is designed for Australian waste only—namely, waste that is used in Australia, generated by activities in Australia or sent to Australia under contractual arrangements relating to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The facility will only be designated for and large enough to store Australian waste for approximately 100 years. It will then be monitored for 200 to 300 years afterwards. Near-surface disposal at ground level is a commonly adopted and safe solution for low-level waste, and such repositories are standard in many countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Japan and the United States. All waste will be fully immobilised and then placed within multiple layers of protection to ensure safety for workers, visitors to the site and the surrounding community. The facility will be designed and engineered to the highest of standards, with multiple safety barriers ensuring it is prepared for and resilient to all credible scenarios.

The government has established the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, which will lead the process to deliver the facility at Kimba. The agency will be independent of but will work closely with existing waste holders such as ANSTO, CSIRO or the Department of Defence. It is important that a dedicated agency does this work to build radioactive waste management practice and capability in Australia but is independent of existing waste producers.

Questions have arisen as to why an existing Commonwealth site was not chosen to store the waste. In 2017, 42 Commonwealth-owned sites were assessed, but the department did not identify any sites suitable for hosting the facility. In relation to ANSTO, in my home state of New South Wales, its functions relate to science and medicine production and the Lucas Heights campus was never intended to be, or licensed as, a long-term waste management facility. ANSTO has advised ARPANSA that it plans to move its radioactive waste holding to the national facility once it is developed, and ARPANSA has accepted those plans in principle. Australia's facility will be a world-class, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility, operated in an open and transparent way, in line with international best practice. All radioactive waste at the facility will be safely shielded so radiation levels, even close to stored or handled materials, will be well below regulated safety levels. As is the case at Lucas Heights, workers and visitors will not require protective clothing.

Australia has a uniform national radioactive waste classification system which is based on the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines and adapted for the Australian situation. Low-level waste emits radiation at levels which generally require minimal shielding during handling, transport and storage. Ninety-two per cent of the radioactive waste produced by ANSTO is low-level waste made up of paper, plastic, gloves, cloths and filters that contain a low level of radioactive activity. Intermediate-level waste is largely associated with the by-products of nuclear medicine and emits higher levels of radiation that require additional shielding during handling, transport and storage.

Australia does not produce high-level radioactive waste. A high-level-waste facility would require a separate investigation to determine technical requirements and other needs. This remains an issue for the future, but it must be tackled, because it behoves Australia to manage its own waste. Shipping our plastics overseas was a case in point. The move away from multiple storage sites for the same class of waste is aligned with international best practice for the long-term management of radioactive waste as recognised by the Commonwealth regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, ARPANSA. The government has committed to intermediate-level waste being temporarily stored at the facility while a permanent disposal pathway is developed—an absolute must. It is anticipated that it will take several decades to site and develop an intermediate-level disposal facility.

The role of the waste management function is to coordinate with waste holders, producers, regulators, international counterparts and policymakers to develop agreed pathways, strategies and management practices for Australia's radioactive waste from its production through to its disposal. This function will lead the development of a permanent disposal pathway for intermediate-level waste. This involves a major program of research and development activities, and while no deadline has been set, this process is expected to take years.

Regrettably, there are those who are simply opposed to anything nuclear. They forget that, on average, one in two Australians will need nuclear medicine in their lifetime. Cessation of all activities that produce radioactive waste would be counterproductive and damaging to our society and the economy. Even if it were viable for Australia to cease producing nuclear medicine, doing so would not provide a solution for our legacy waste, which has been accumulating for over 70 years and still requires a permanent facility. Defence is not a significant producer of radioactive material. Therefore, activities relating to the defence of Australia will result in very small amounts of radioactive waste being sent to the facility. Australia has no nuclear weapons capability.

Before I conclude, I would like to make some comments regarding nuclear power. The time has come to consider nuclear power. If we are to be ecumenical on all power sources, then nuclear needs to be in the mix. There is a certain hypocrisy about those who are opposed to even contemplating consideration of this issue. They are happy to go to Europe, including the UK, and have no qualms about benefiting from nuclear power supply on tour. They will happily sip champagne or good Italian red wine whilst adopting the NIMBY principle—'not in my backyard'—for Australia.

In summary, nuclear power generation creates different levels of waste. However, before we contemplate storage of high-level waste, it behoves Australia to successfully deal with low- and intermediate-level waste to demonstrate that in future we would be fully able to safely store any waste resulting from a nuclear energy cycle.