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Monday, 21 June 2021
Page: 30


Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (13:28): I'm very pleased to be able to support the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020 and I acknowledge the work of the Senate Economics Committee, which Senator Brockman has referred to. I also want to particularly thank the deputy chair, Senator Gallagher, for the work that has been undertaken in examining this bill and the detailed studies related to it. I also thank the department. Prior to the last election, the caretaker convention allowed me the opportunity to consult with the department about the matters that relate to the community fund and other matters. While I may not agree with every aspect of the draft bill as it was then, I do want to acknowledge that the department treated me, as the shadow minister, very well and I think answered every inquiry I made in regard to the policy issues related to the fund and the site selection processes that had been undertaken up to that date, including the community consultation processes that have been undertaken. I just wanted to acknowledge that.

This is a bill that has taken 40-odd years. The process began with the 1978—I emphasise that: 1978—meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory health ministers that asked for the Commonwealth to coordinate a national approach to the management of radioactive waste and the development of relevant codes of practice. What concerned me in the consultations that I undertook in these matters, as a former science minister, was the failure of the previous attempts to develop an effective strategy here. It is something that I felt very deeply. There are times when we have genuine national interest projects that go to the welfare of the entire nation, and this issue is one of those. We simply cannot understand the importance of the nuclear technologies that this country uses, with their enormous benefits, without understanding the need to deal with the safe disposal of the by-products of those technologies. Frankly, since the 1970s this country has failed to face up to its responsibilities. Despite our international obligations, despite the extraordinary advances in those technologies and despite the ubiquitous uses of those technologies, we as a nation have failed to deal with the consequences of the use of those technologies. This bill provides us with an opportunity to begin, hopefully, the next phase of meeting those international and national interest responsibilities.

For decades, ARPANSA has warned us that it's simply not tenable to keep storing waste at ANSTO's facility at Lucas Heights and at the various other sites around the country. It's simply not tenable to have nuclear waste left in filing cabinets. It's simply not tenable to use nuclear technologies throughout industry and to have a situation where one in two of us is relying upon the benefits of radiopharmaceuticals for health purposes, where one-third of all procedures used in modern hospitals involve radiation and radioactivity and where 500,000 doses a year are produced by ANSTO and not deal with the consequences of that. We have something just short of 10,000 cubic metres of low-level waste in the country at the moment, dating back to CSIRO sites in Port Melbourne—soil, gloves, plastics, filters and other industrial equipment. And we have some 3,700 cubic metres of intermediate-level waste from radiopharmaceutical production.

We have been told for far too long that the facilities at ANSTO simply are not able to cope with it and that sooner or later they'll be exhausted. We can't have a situation where we are faced with one proposal after another being defeated because it can't meet the various requirements of both the science and the politics of the development of such a facility. It struck me that the idea of a reverse auction was the appropriate way to go; that is, for the 22 sites that were proposed that meet the scientific criteria—that's why the Academy of Science strongly supports these particular sites—provide the communities with the opportunity to engage in a proper process of consultation and provide the necessary social infrastructure to support community development at those sites. The $31 million that's provided here certainly helps that proposal. The capacity, however, to understand the reach of nuclear technology means that these methods can't be held up all the time or forever, as they have been throughout the various measures. At the back of the Senate report, there's a list of various activities undertaken, throughout the period of the last 43 years, in an attempt to find a solution to this fundamental national problem of dealing with the by-products of the nuclear manufacturing capabilities in this country, whether it be the use of technologies for measurement in mines—even in this parliament we use nuclear technologies, in this chamber and in the security at the front desk. We use it in civil construction and in so many other ways.

The amendments the government has proposed, removing the most contentious elements of the bill when it was first released, go some way to dealing with the questions that remain outstanding, and I trust that the judicial processes don't lead to further delays. With regard to the consultation with Indigenous communities, the Barngarla people, I note that there are no native title issues with regard to the specific sites in this bill. As the Senate report makes clear:

Native Title rights have been extinguished at the specified site; however, the Aboriginal heritage, either tangible or intangible, may still be present. The land was voluntarily nominated by its owners for selection as the site for the Facility. Additionally, the process for acquiring any additional land to extend the site for the purposes of establishing and operating the Facility or for allweather road access includes a consultation period.

In terms of the electoral system, they are matters that went through a judicial process, to the point of the Federal Court full bench. That's a point worth emphasising. There has already been a judicial review of the balloting process.

The determination that others have to have further legal challenge for this is entirely consistent with the amendments that the government is moving. The Labor Party are not pressing our amendments on that matter. We will allow the passage of this legislation, which provides for a further level of judicial review. The $31 million in the community fund is still part of the legislation. That provides for $20 million in community support, $8 million over four years to improve the skills base, $3 million for a further Aboriginal economic heritage plan and a total of 45 jobs for the site. On top of that, there are 35 jobs at the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, so there's an extraordinary economic opportunity, as well, that comes through this process. They might seem small steps, but they're important ones. While I know that those who have a hostility to nuclear energy and the nuclear fuel cycle will be unhappy about any aspect of this, there are rigorous safety precautions built into this proposal. As far as I can tell, that's why the Academy of Science is so strongly supportive of it. All the rigorous scientific requirements for site selection and processes have been satisfied.

This is a matter of genuine national interest. The 40-year search for a permanent site may finally be able to be dealt with properly. The safety standards laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency are being met and monitored by ARPANSA. ARPANSA is supposed to keep the national inventory of our waste, but it is not doing a very good job of it. It is not providing proper scrutiny of what's happening in private industry, in our universities and at the state level. ARPANSA itself has 140 barrels left over from its days as the Commonwealth radium laboratory. That will presumably move to this site, but ARPANSA has to do a better job in its monitoring of our inventory. If it wants to act as the world-class regulator, it has to actually make sure it regulates the entire industry, including in the state and private sectors. The endeavour will only succeed if all parts of the government—the department, the agencies and the regulator—work together in a common interest and handle this matter properly and in a manner that's able to maintain our global reputation in nuclear research and our capacity in the manufacturing of radiopharmaceuticals, where we ought to be world leaders.

ANSTO is one of the great gems of the Australian research community. I have long been a strong supporter of ANSTO. You cannot rely on a storage site in tin sheds on wooden stilts, using drums for the storage of waste. ARPANSA in the past has made it clear that that licensing requirement will come to an end. ANSTO itself also made it clear it simply cannot provide the room in the future as a storage facility. It is totally inadequate as a site for the storage of waste materials. On scientific grounds alone, it should be rejected. So those who say, 'Just leave it where it is,' are ignoring the fundamental principles that are required in our national and international obligations for the proper storage of waste materials. We as a parliament have an obligation to act now, to decide now, and to be guided in making this decision in what is genuinely a national interest concern. It is a matter that is long overdue and, given that it's now 40-odd years since we started on this journey, it is surely timely that we do so.