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Tuesday, 1 November 2005
Page: 70

Mr KATTER (7:55 PM) —I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005. I thought the member for O’Connor spoke very well on this topic. He said that we are basically talking about things like surgeons’ gloves. The member for Calare made reference to the probable saving of his own life by the injection of radium isotopes into his bloodstream. We all know that there is radiation therapy for cancer and that all the little odds and ends that are used in delivering these life-saving and life-extending treatments accumulate over a period of time. When we went to the Ranger uranium mine, we saw a number of gloves and various things of that nature being put into a 44-gallon drum, and that is the same form of waste. I do not think any person in this place really believes that there should not be some sort of sane, systematic and responsible way of dealing with an accumulation of product which may not be a serious radiation danger but, all the same, needs to be treated with a degree of care.

People can get very carried away; they are terrified of ignorance. I have always thought that the people in this place should spend a lot more time educating themselves—on the ionic binding of molecular structures or whatever it might be. If they did that, they would realise the situation with acidic soils. I worked in mining and we used acid-leaching programs. Whilst it provides great humour for me, it was the bane of our lives that in-situ leaching would not work in acidic soils. No matter how much acid we poured down the mine, it would be neutralised and oxidised so quickly and rapidly by nature that it was fairly harmless.

In the early days of Charters Towers—the town where I live and where, in the 1870s, my great grand-daddy lived—people would go absolutely berserk about cyanide. Cyanide is the most deadly of poisons. That terrible monster in history, Hitler, used it to do what he did to the Jews in Europe. Cyanide is a very efficient poison. Probably a quarter of the entire surface area of the city of Charters Towers is cyanide heaps. All the kids at the various boarding schools used to dig tunnels through the cyanide heaps. What you have to understand is that cyanide, whilst it is a deadly poison, has a very short half-life—I think it is around 20 minutes—so it rapidly oxidises and becomes utterly harmless. There is not a single case in the history of Charters Towers, stretching from the 1880s to the present day, of anyone suffering, health wise, from cyanide.

So if you have technical knowledge, you realise the situation and have a clear understanding. You do not go through the terror, the stupidity and the ignorance that abounds in this place from time to time. You have a more intelligent approach to this. Having said all of those things, the reason a uranium isotope is so dangerous is that, unlike cyanide, which has a half-life of 20 minutes, uranium has a half-life, if my memory serves me correctly, of a couple of hundred thousand years. So the dangerous element here tends to last, whereas it does not last with other commodities such as acid soils et cetera.

The last member who spoke, the member for Herbert, quite rightly posed the question to the House: where is it to go? The opposition say that it should not go there. Where would they suggest it should go? Whose responsibility should it be, because each state government is going to say ‘nimby’—not in my backyard? That is natural and predictable. Someone here has to make a decision. All right, it is politics to complain about the decision, but let us complain a little less loudly. Let us not ask for genuine decision making and genuine honesty, but let us complain just a little less loudly than we have been and not be hypocritical in dividing the House on this issue.

I serve on one of the government committees that has the very onerous task of dealing with the issue of uranium mining in Australia. Of course, that takes you into the area of how safe or unsafe is radiation. The first places I went to—I do not know where other members went—were Nagasaki and Hiroshima where two atomic bombs were dropped and the radiation from them killed some 200,000 people in the space of 15 or 20 seconds. There was rampant radiation in those two cities, but the thing that staggered me—I did not know this; I suppose I was labouring along in ignorance like everybody else in this place—was that within two months people were being bussed back into Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Within a matter of months, there was a city again in a place that had been thoroughly covered in radiation poisoning. Two hundred thousand people had died in that area—150,000 were killed by the blast and a further 75,000 died from the effects of radiation poisoning. When atomic bombs have been dropped on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and two months later they are repopulated, and then years later there is very little evidence of the effects of those bombs—except for a slight movement in the incidence of thyroid cancer—on the long-term health of the people who moved back to those cities, are we really wasting a lot of time here on something that is not particularly important?

But, having said those things, I present a serious note of warning to the House. Of the people in North Queensland that I represent, some 50,000 or 60,000 live on the watershed of the Burdekin River and draw their water from there. The honourable member for Herbert and the honourable member for Dawson are from there. The Burdekin Falls Dam provides water for some 210,000 people. These people are drinking water that comes from the lower reaches of the Burdekin River. The Ben Lomond uranium mine, 40 or 50 kilometres from Townsville, stands right above it. A French company—I think it was Aquitaine—proposed the development of that mine. I was very positive about it. I had been brought up and lived in Cloncurry, my hometown, beside Mary Kathleen. I knew all the people who lived there. I played football there. I went to church there. I did hundreds of things there. We had no evidence that indicated uranium mining was dangerous. Some greenies living up there—not a race of people that I like in any way, shape or form; but in those days there were some sensible people associated with them—started making a noise that there had been a spill of high-level radiation.

Whilst I have waxed lyrical about the dangers of uranium not being great, there is a limit to the dangers we will accept. In the case of Ben Lomond, the company said that there had been no spill. The government agency—the forebears of what we now call the Environmental Protection Agency—also said that there had been no spill. That was for the first three or four weeks. When further evidence was disclosed, they said, firstly, that there had been a spill but the level of radiation was not dangerous and, secondly, that it had not reached the water system from which 210,000 people drank.

For the next two or three weeks they held out with that story. Further evidence was produced in which they admitted that it had been a dangerous level. Yes, it was about 10,000 times higher than what the health agencies in Australia regarded as an acceptable level. After six weeks, we got rid of lie number 2. I think it was at about week 8 or week 12 when, as a state member of parliament, I insisted upon going up to the site. Just before I went up to the site, the company admitted—remember, it was not just the company but also the agency set up by the government to protect us who were telling lies—that the spill had reached the creek which ran into the Burdekin River, which provided the drinking water for 210,000 people. We had been told three sets of lies over a period of three months.

So I say to the people of the Northern Territory: make sure that ordinary people have some sort of oversighting mechanism. Do not leave it up to the government or its officials. They will dance to the tune played by whatever piper is in charge money-wise or politically. They will not answer to the tune of protecting the people. That has been my experience.

The case of Ben Lomond was notorious, and the very development oriented Bjelke-Petersen government said no to Ben Lomond. The most development oriented government in recent Australian history said no because of the absolutely outrageous performance of their own regulatory body, as well as the mine itself. One other humorous aspect, which was not really humorous at all, was when I asked the regulatory authority chief, ‘How do you get your water samples?’ He said, ‘We have them collected.’ I said, ‘Who do you have collect them?’ He said, without any guile, ‘The company.’ So we had the company protecting itself, not the people of Queensland or the people who were depending upon this water for their water supply.

Having said those things, there has been a great boon to civilisation and mankind through the uranium industry—the Breda reactor industry, the electricity power station nuclear reactor industry. The figures from America are that coal-fired power is 1.8c a unit, which is about in line with Australia’s 3c a unit, and gas is near enough to 6c a unit, and oil is much more expensive than either of those. But nuclear power is 1.7c a unit. In India, there is the famous case of Enron, which built a $2,000 million coal-fired power station that never turned a wheel because no-one in that province of India had enough money to pay for the electricity—they look to the cheapest source of energy. Whilst I do not think the scientific case has been made out on CO, moving massive amounts of some foreign body into the atmosphere—or massive amounts more CO than is normally there—is not a desirable thing to do. In that sort of environment, a lot of countries have to look to this as a solution.

I do not want to go into the reasons why coal is a magnificent answer for China in its coastal areas. They would be very foolish not to go to coal and, of course, they are using coal. But they have enormous difficulty in getting coal into the interior of China, and to push the transmission lines into the interior would disrupt millions and millions of people and cause a lot of political and other upheavals. There is no easy solution. And so, like India, China has gone to the nuclear solution.

We come back to the original proposition that the member for Herbert and the member for O’Connor referred to—that is, where does this product go? You cannot sit over there as a responsible opposition representing the Australian people and just say, ‘It shouldn’t go there.’ There is an onus upon you to say where it will go. We would like to know from the opposition where they think it should go. The member for O’Connor very generously said ‘Western Australia’. The reason for that is that our science indicates to us that some of the strata in Western Australia is 6,000 million years old. It is a lot older than anything else on the planet, that is for certain—having had a bit of experience in the mining field.

We thought our homelands of Mount Isa and Cloncurry were very old because they are Pre-Cambrian and probably date back 600 million years. What you are looking for are stable formations, and the reason that Western Australia is stable is that it is six billion years old: it is the same now as it was then. I am oversimplifying slightly, but it is still valid to say that that strata has not changed in billions of years, not millions but billions—that is, B for bravo. That makes Western Australia ideal for this sort of operation.

But we are talking tonight about the federal government having to do something, and I think a responsible government does have to act here. I spoke to my very worthy colleague from across the border in the Northern Territory the member for Solomon. I said, ‘Which way are we supposed to be going on this?’

Mr Snowdon —It’s my bloody electorate, not his.

Mr KATTER —You just listen to what I am going to say. He said, ‘We’re going for it.’ I said, ‘Who wants this in their backyard?’

Mr Snowdon —He does.

Mr KATTER —Will you just listen to me? He said, ‘We need some money.’ It is a proposition that a lot of people in this House do not seem to be very interested in. If you go to a place like Doomadgee, where we are short about 100 houses and going backwards and losing more houses than we can build, we will shortly be back to 200 people living in galvanised iron lean-tos on the Nicholson River at Doomadgee—as it was when I was minister. Within seven or eight years, on present trends, that is what is going to happen. I cannot get any enlightenment from this House. I have pleaded and I have spoken on this maybe 30, 40 or 100 times. I have asked this House to deliver to the first people of Australia—the Aboriginal people, if you want to use that term—the private ownership of land so that they can do something with it. They are supposed to own 40 per cent of the surface area of Australia but of course they own absolutely nothing but some chimera, some mythical figure, called tribal ownership. Nobody knows who it is or what it is or what they can do with it. You can see the absolute proof in any single Aboriginal community in Australia of the lack of any ability to look after themselves. If you are not going to allow them to own their own land like every other single person on the planet, then it might be nice if you gave them some other source of income.

The Northern Land Council made it quite clear in the hearings in Darwin that they were in favour of moving in this direction under certain circumstances and controls. I most certainly pointed out to them the Ben Lomond example. I said that they want to make sure that they have some oversighting body on which they have representation. But the member for Solomon is dead right: at the end of the day, you have to feed and clothe your children. You have to have their teeth fixed. There are a whole lot of things that you need money for. There are people here who do not seem to put any store in that at all—‘Let’s just increase the taxation and bleed everybody some more.’ It gives people a bit of pride if they have a negotiating leverage. There are those of us who have argued very stridently in this place against land rights and against the Mabo legislation and all of those things. But there is one good aspect of it: the locals, whether they be black, white or purple in colour, have some sort of leverage. If the member for Solomon is intending to use that leverage for the people that he represents, then I, for one, applaud that—(Time expired)