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Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Repeal and Consequential Amendment) Bill 2008

CHAIR —Mr Wood, can you hear me?

Mr Wood —I can.

CHAIR —I am Senator Anne McEwen, the chair of the committee, and with me today we have Senators Scott Ludlam, Louise Pratt and Simon Birmingham. Thank you very much for taking the time to appear before the committee today by telephone conference, Mr Wood. Perhaps you could explain for the committee your position? You are a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory; is that correct?

Mr Wood —That is right. I am now the only Independent member. We had two recently, and now we have only one. I am the Independent member for Nelson in the Northern Territory parliament.

CHAIR —Which area of the Territory does your electorate cover?

Mr Wood —The rural area of Darwin, or part of that area to the south and to the east.

CHAIR —The rural areas of Darwin, so that is Palmerston, down that way?

Mr Wood —No, not Palmerston; just north of Humpty Doo, Howard Springs, that area up to the Vernon Islands, Gunn Point and Glyde Point.

CHAIR —Does your electorate cover any of the nominated or proposed sites?

Mr Wood —No, it did not, but I have had an interest in this issue since it came to the fore a couple of years ago in the NT parliament.

CHAIR —Would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Wood —I would. Basically I realise that this is a difficult issue, especially now that we have a Labor government in the federal parliament. We seem to be unable as a country to find a solution to an issue that has been dogging us for years, and that is we need to find a repository for radioactive waste, mainly from Lucas Heights research station, and from other parts of Australia. We have the sad situation where all the states are saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’ My feeling is that there are times when we have to throw our parochial biases away and make decisions for the country. Even though I do not particularly like the Northern Territory laws being overridden by the Commonwealth, I do feel that we need to make a decision as a country as to where this radioactive waste should be stored. I would prefer that the Northern Territory government could actually sit down with the Commonwealth government and, if no other state will do it, perhaps look at a site where both the Commonwealth and the Territory could agree on a place where this material could be stored. I have no doubt that it can be stored safely.

Unfortunately, I feel that most of the objections are based more on the fact that people are opposed to nuclear anything rather than trying to find a solution to something that exists; that is, we do have a nuclear reactor in Lucas Heights, and it is an important research facility for the whole of the country. It is something I very much support, because it is supporting not only medicine but also industry, the environment and it simply supports research into molecular science, which is something in which Australia should be a leader. I am basically saying that I am not happy with the radioactive waste management bill overriding the Territory, but I would accept that, if that were the only way we can get this country to sort out the mess that we have got into about where we should put the waste, I would probably support the repeal if the Northern Territory government or at least another government said it was willing to sit down and work out a response as to where we can store this material in what is a pretty big country. If we cannot find a site, I think we are not really trying.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Wood. Senator Ludlam has some questions for you.

Senator LUDLAM —Thanks for joining us, Mr Wood. We just heard evidence from the Australian Public Health Association and from Dr Hilary Tyler from the Medical Association for Prevention of War calling into question the need for a remote dump at all. They put the case that perhaps this material, to reduce the transport hazards among other things, is best left at the place where it is being produced, where it is close to centres of nuclear expertise. What do you think of that idea?

Mr Wood —If that can be shown to be the right approach, I think that is something that the Commonwealth government has to reassess. All of the information that I was given by ANSTO was that basically we needed a repository, not only for Lucas Heights waste, most of which is low radioactivity material, but also we have a small amount of intermediate waste that has to come back from France. Now, we need to store that somewhere. Whether that could be stored on site is a question that would have to be looked at carefully. I have no hesitation in saying that the particular materials that we have can be stored safely. They can be transported safely, because they are in a solid form and not a liquid form. We have also the issue of radioactive waste soil that is at Woomera, the material that was left over from the Fishermen’s Bend site, and I presume that we do have material from other places as well. I would be happy if someone said that the material could be stored at a particular site closer to its origin, and we can use that as a national waste repository. I do not have an argument with that either.

People can say that that is what they want, but is it not the case that all of the states and territories, all of the governments that up until recently were Labor governments, had said ‘not in my backyard’? So my gripe or my reasoning behind supporting the bill was simply: when do we actually act as a country? This is an Australian issue, a national issue. All of the other states have decided to tell the Commonwealth government, ‘Go away; we don’t want the waste,’ so we have never been able to have a decent debate on where it should go—what is the best place? So the Territory was basically the only place it could go, because the Commonwealth had the power to put it there. That is possibly not the ideal situation, but doesn’t it really reflect the fact that as a nation we do not have the maturity to work through these problems and come up with a solution? Governments see the politics of it as the prime reason they make a decision, rather than what is good for the nation, and I think that is why we are in this mess that we are in now.

That is why I am saying—I suppose, from a pragmatic point of view—that I support the Lucas Heights research centre. It is a very important centre for the people of Australia. We know it will have some waste. Surely, if as a nation we think it is great for the nation, we should be able to at least sit down and work out a place to put it. If that means closer to Lucas Heights, so be it; but you are going to have to convince the government of New South Wales to agree to that.

Senator LUDLAM —I put it to you that the Territory is not the only place where the Commonwealth could override territory rights; the ACT would be the other place where that was a possibility! I am not proposing that. But we hear a lot from the industry that this material is perfectly safe, so I do not understand, if it is so safe, why the industry is so keen on carting it as far away from large population centres as it possibly can and leaving it somewhere remote. Can you explain what your understanding is or why you believe a remote dump is the best way to handle this material if it is in fact so safe.

Mr Wood —There is probably a certain amount of politics in that as well—out of sight, out of mind, you might say. When you put it near populated areas, there is a natural inclination for people to say, ‘This will be a problem and therefore we would not like it on our doorstep.’ The facts are that, if you go to Queensland, their repository for nuclear radioactive waste is situated 11 kilometres from Esk. I have visited the site. It is 100 kilometres from Brisbane. They obviously believed that it was better to put it away from populated areas, perhaps simply because, even though it is perfectly safe, from a political point of view it made a little bit more sense. I have no doubt that you can store materials close to populations but, again, you do not go looking to make a problem for yourself if you can find an answer that will avoid that. In other words, if you can put the materials in a site which will not attract the criticism, you might say, that because it is close to people it could therefore do this and this and this—even though the science might say, if it stored in that manner, it will do no harm at all. If you can find a site which will avoid that debate and still come up with a solution to what you are trying to achieve, that would be an approach that I would think would make a lot of sense.

Senator LUDLAM —We have heard quite a bit of evidence over the last couple of days that, even though the government are trying to find the most remote site that they can, every time they turn up somewhere remote, they find that the area is inhabited by people who have actually given very strong evidence over the last 48 hours that they oppose such a dump quite strenuously. Do you believe that such a facility should go ahead, even against the expressed wishes of the traditional owners of the land?

Mr Wood —There are two things I could say on that: one is that I visited the Muckaty Station site, and there is a very small community that lives within about 20 kilometres of that area. My understanding is that they are the people who gave permission for that site to be listed. I would recommend that you and the committee actually travel to the Muckaty site and you tell me where you see these people. The site is on the edge of the Tanami. My daughter used to work out on the other side of the Tanami, and I have flown over it a number of times. If you can tell me how many people live out there, then I will accept what you say is reasonable. But I think we have to base things on facts. There are a small number of people that live there. I have been to Muckaty Station. I have spoken to the manager of the cattle lease. I have had a look at the site. It is on the road site that leads from the Bootu Creek mine, which goes to the railhead. There is no-one around that area, except, as I said, for a small number of houses and outstations which are actually just off the main road into the Muckaty Creek cattle station. If you go west from there, Senator, I suspect you would find absolutely no-one. That is not to say that people should not be involved and that is not to say that people should not be part of the decision-making process. But, as for the argument that people are living out there, I do not believe that is true. If you want to say that because people own that land they should be at least part of the negotiations, I would certainly say yes, but that is a different argument.

I was not part of yesterday’s discussions, but I do have the media release of the Northern Land Council of 25 May 2007, and I also have a media release from senior Ngapa elder Amy Lauder saying that she is ‘a senior elder of the Ngapa clan; my country is on Muckaty Station’. She goes on to say, ‘We have made this decision for three reasons’—this is the one where she is talking about allowing the land to be nominated for a possible Commonwealth radioactive waste repository. She says, ‘First, we want to create a future for our children, with education, jobs and funds for our outstation at Muckaty Station, and transport; secondly, we have been to Lucas Heights’—and I would ask how many people have been there—‘and accept that the waste facility will be safe for the environment; and thirdly, our decision will help all people in Australia because all Australians benefit from nuclear medicine which saves lives.’ If someone is disputing that that lady did not write that, or that she is not a traditional owner, I am not the person to argue that case. But that is why I went out to that site and that is why I had a look at that. If you have evidence to say otherwise, I am not the person to argue that because I simply was not there yesterday. But I would say that that came from the land council; they are the body that has been elected to make those decisions on behalf of the traditional owners. That bit of evidence was given to me.

Even if Muckaty is not the site, it does not get away from the issue that Australia is a very big country. I think I worked out that a nuclear repository in actual size is something like the equivalent of a soccer field, and it would take, I think, 0.0000000001 per cent of this country to hold the entire radioactive waste that we have in this country. It seems to me that the people that oppose having it do so because they oppose all things nuclear in this country and, no matter what I say, they will never agree with what I say—whereas I would say that if we as a country cannot site that small amount of waste in such a huge country then I do not think we are really trying.

Senator LUDLAM —Mr Wood, I think the Commonwealth government is actually trying pretty hard. Your arguments before had overtones, I suppose, of Terra Nullius—that it is just a big, empty country.

Mr Wood —Absolutely not. I do not agree one bit with that, but the country is a country that belongs to the whole nation. We are all Australians, black and white.

Senator LUDLAM —We heard from a number of Australians yesterday who gave quite troubling evidence. I do recommend that you take a look at the transcript of the hearings yesterday. We heard that the nomination of the site by the Northern Land Council was extremely problematic from the point of view of a large number of traditional owners with responsibilities for that area. But I will leave it there; thanks, Mr Wood.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Mr Wood, thank you for your time today. Firstly, how do you think the Northern Territory government reconciles its support for the development of uranium mining and growth of the nuclear industry at one end of the life cycle and its opposition to dealing with the other end of the life cycle?

Mr Wood —I do not know how  they reconcile that. In fact, the Chief Minister said recently when talking about exporting uranium that it was a clean source of energy for the world. But if you then asked him, ‘Well, do you want to build a nuclear power plant in the Northern Territory?’ he would say, ‘Absolutely not.’

It is similar to the argument the Medical Association for the Prevention of War used, that we can get medical isotopes from overseas, which is like saying, ‘We don’t really care what you have to do with your waste that you produce in producing those isotopes, that is your problem.’ So, to me, that also is slightly hypocritical, because if you do not believe in Lucas Heights and therefore you are not willing to accept the waste from Lucas Heights, why should you be saying to some other country: ‘We’re happy to use the medical isotopes that you produce through your nuclear reactors, and we don’t really care what you do with your waste from that particular facility.’

Senator BIRMINGHAM —To your knowledge, did past Territory governments cooperate with the Commonwealth processes under multiple Commonwealth governments to identify the most scientifically appropriate and secure site?

Mr Wood —I think originally there was some agreement because there were a number of sites throughout the Territory that were picked—I think there were some in the Tanami; there were some in the southern part of the Northern Territory—and then I believe the NT government said that it did not really want to belong to the negotiations anymore. That is a different government. I suppose this government has gone along a similar path. Probably that is why I am an Independent. I just think that sometimes parochial politics and sometimes what sounds popular is what politicians look for, whereas it is time we looked at issues as a country and not just one part of the country being our little area that we should be empowered over. We sort of become one-eyed, probably a bit like a few Collingwood supporters, but we really should be looking at what is beneficial for our country. The Commonwealth government being a Labor government who before, in opposition, probably would not have had to worry too much because we had all Labor states saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ now have to deal with this issue. They said they would repeal this bill, and that might have been a grand thing to say in opposition—but, now, what is the solution? That is where we are at the moment. If you repeal the bill, where will the waste go if most of the states, of which most are Labor, are saying, ‘Not in my backyard’?

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Mr Wood.

CHAIR —Thank you. As there are no further questions, thank you very much Mr Wood for taking the time to appear before the committee today. We appreciate it.

Mr Wood —Thank you, Senator.

CHAIR —That concludes today’s proceedings. I would like to thank all witnesses for their informative presentations. Thank you also to Hansard and Broadcasting, and to the secretariat for their assistance today.

Committee adjourned at 9.49 am