House debates

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006

Second Reading

11:00 am

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006 allows the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO, to handle, manage or store radioactive material from a broad range of sources and circumstances. That range will be extended by this legislation. It will be much broader than currently is allowed under the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act 1987. The bill extends ANSTO’s power in three broad circumstances. The bill enables ANSTO, when it is requested to do so by a Commonwealth, state or territory law enforcement or emergency response agency, to deal with radioactive material and waste arising from incidents including terrorism or criminal acts, and it brings Australia in line with standards set out in the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. I believe that is a very important point, and it is one that we on this side of the House support.

The bill also enables ANSTO to participate in the management of radioactive material and waste that is in the possession or control of any Commonwealth entity. This includes material designated to be stored at the proposed Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility in the Northern Territory. I will spend some time discussing that issue further into my speech. The bill also enables ANSTO to deal with reprocessed spent fuel waste that is currently due to return to Australia from France and Scotland for storage and disposal. The majority of Australia’s medium-term nuclear waste is currently being stored in France. This legislation deals with the long-term storage of that waste and our obligation to accept back waste from France and store it here in Australia.

The bill also reinforces ANSTO’s ability to operate the Commonwealth nuclear waste dump, should the Commonwealth decide to transfer overall responsibility to ANSTO, and it ensures that nuclear waste handled by contractors is considered to be Commonwealth waste under the ANSTO Act. Currently there is some ambiguity around this—or at least the government feels there is some ambiguity—and this legislation seeks to deal with that ambiguity.

The key issues in this legislation relate to ANSTO’s power to assist state and federal authorities in the event of a terrorist attack involving radioactive material. ANSTO’s involvement in emergency situations such as dirty bombs was not envisaged during the drafting and amendment of the ANSTO Act. Things have moved on and, as members of this House are aware, issues surrounding terrorism are changing each and every day. The legislation in its current form limits the initial assistance that ANSTO could provide in an emergency to little more than the provision of advice. To my way of thinking, it is imperative that the organisation that has the expertise should take a much more active role than just providing advice. At the moment ANSTO cannot take possession of nuclear material in the event of an incident. This bill brings Australia in line with the standards set out in the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. It is my understanding that at the moment Australia is not a signatory to that convention. These changes will enable us to be a signatory to that convention. I hope that is the way the government will consider going.

The bill clarifies ANSTO’s role in assisting in the management of nuclear waste in Australia by lending its expertise to general waste management. Earlier this year I visited ANSTO and was very impressed with the expertise and dedication of the people who work there. It is a facility that, as a nation, we can be very proud of. It is at the leading edge of research worldwide. I, like previous speakers on this side of the House, have some serious concerns relating to the transportation and storage of waste at the proposed facility, but I shall deal with those concerns later in my contribution to this debate. ANSTO and its contractors can now be treated as part of the Commonwealth in relation to nuclear management. The Commonwealth’s liability for ANSTO and its contractors’ actions is very important. The bill clarifies that ANSTO and its contractors have the same immunities as the Commonwealth in relation to nuclear waste dumps. The Commonwealth believes that this provision will limit potential legal challengers from the Northern Territory.

Late last year I spoke on the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005, which related to the establishment of a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. At that time, I expressed my serious concerns about the establishment of that dump as well as the decision-making process to set up the dump in the Territory. This was a very good example of an arrogant government drunk with power, because it failed to consult with the community in a way governments should be expected to consult. Instead, the government rode roughshod over the communities of the Northern Territory and introduced legislation that overrode Northern Territory legislation and Commonwealth legislation which dealt with the storage of nuclear waste. That issue needed to be considered very seriously.

I was quite confused, and I still am, as to how the government could change its position in a very short time. In July 2004 the Prime Minister, who was anxious about the result of the impending election, announced that he would cease pursuing a national waste dump near Woomera, in South Australia. The then minister gave an indication that the Commonwealth would prioritise an offshore site for nuclear waste. In the election campaign, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, ruled out the Northern Territory as a dump site. His very words were: ‘The Commonwealth is not pursuing any option anywhere on the mainland.’ I find it most surprising that now the government has approved this waste dump in the Northern Territory without proper consultation.

I suspect even the member for Solomon was surprised when it eventuated, even though he did speak in the debate and seemed to support the legislation. Earlier in 2005 he said:

There’s not going to be a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory ... That was the commitment undertaken in the lead-up to the federal election and I haven’t heard anything apart from that view expressed since the election.

It seems like he was left out of the loop. The Northern Territory News picked up on the fact that the member for Solomon said one thing earlier in the year and then later supported the legislation here in the parliament.

The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory acknowledged at the time that there needed to be an Australian waste management storage facility—that is our obligation as a nation—but she could not come to terms with the fact that the federal government was riding roughshod over the Territory and not going through the normal course of approvals and regulatory controls; in other words, it was bypassing the Northern Territory. It was presented to the Northern Territory government as a fait accompli.

This is a very worrying indication of where this government is heading on nuclear energy and the storage of nuclear waste. This government does not feel that it needs to be accountable. It does not feel that it needs to consult the Australian people. The government is drunk with power. When we hear the response from the minister, it will confirm my thoughts. Although there are elements to this bill that Labor supports, I support the issues reflected in the amendment moved by the member for Jagajaga.

This legislation relates to the management of waste by ANSTO in an emergency. The New South Wales Emergency Management Committee previously sought advice from ANSTO on the storage and disposal of radioactive material which, in the event of an emergency—for example, an act of malice—the committee may be required to deal with. ANSTO’s involvement in emergency situations such as dirty bombs is not envisaged but, given ANSTO’s background in nuclear research and its management expertise, it is appropriate that law enforcement agencies and emergency and disaster agencies be able to access ANSTO’s capabilities and facilities, including during incidents of terrorism involving the use of radioactive materials—something I am sure every member of this House hopes will never eventuate. In its current form, the ANSTO Act limits initial assistance.

ANSTO is currently constrained to the management of its own waste, as well as that from other sources, such as Defence or the CSIRO. ANSTO is licensed to operate a store for research on spent reactor fuel prior to it being sent overseas for reprocessing. One of the consequences of this bill will be much larger quantities of waste being transported to Lucas Heights for conditioning and being held there during the processing, before eventual storage at waste dumps. I am sure that that will lead to enormous community concern. Over the years, the community surrounding Lucas Heights has expressed time and again its concerns about the facility. The fact that there could in the future be more waste being transported to and stored at Lucas Heights is something that the community will be concerned about and something that I as a member of this House am concerned about.

It is interesting to note that Lucas Heights has been identified as a possible target by terrorists. Willie Brigitte was allegedly planning to undertake some sort of terrorist attack with Lucas Heights as the target. That is important to remember. As a parliament, we need to be very mindful of the dangers associated with the nuclear industry. One thing in particular that concerns me is that it only takes three to four kilograms of plutonium to create a nuclear weapon. That is not very much. I believe that currently there is something like 250,000 kilograms of civil plutonium worldwide. That is enough to produce 60,000 nuclear weapons.

This government seems committed to promoting the nuclear industry. The member for Tangney has spoken in this debate, and I know that he is an advocate of and a mouthpiece for the nuclear industry. He is promoting the building of nuclear reactors throughout Australia, something that I am very opposed to. I certainly do not want to see a nuclear reactor situated in the Shortland electorate. Maybe Nora Heads, which is one of the most beautiful areas of the Central Coast, might be an area thought appropriate for a nuclear reactor. This is something that members on the other side of the House have not thought through.

They have made a commitment to a nuclear industry—sorry, I should say that they are holding an inquiry into whether or not we make that commitment. Ziggy Switkowski, who was the chair of ANSTO and who is somebody very committed to the development of the nuclear industry, is chairing that inquiry. That is very much an example of how the Howard government approach all issues: they put in place a person to chair the inquiry who is going to deliver them the result. That is what Ziggy Switkowski is: the person who has been put in control of that committee and who will head up that inquiry because he is going to deliver to the minister and the Prime Minister the results that they want.

The nuclear industry has problems associated with it—for example, the problem of waste. The Howard government has solved that by riding roughshod over the Northern Territory and establishing a waste dump there without proper consultation. It has many other problems associated with it. The main problems, though, are issues surrounding waste. Until those issues can be resolved in a long-term way, I do not think that as a nation we can embrace the further expansion of the nuclear industry. I am fully supportive of the work that ANSTO carries out in the area of medical research, but we should not go down the path of nuclear power and further expand our activities in that area. I do not believe that we can be certain that the proper safeguards will be in place or that the communities that we in this parliament represent will be safe.


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