Thursday, 7 September 2006
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006
I rise to contribute to the second reading debate on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006. It is known that the bill is to allow the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to handle, manage or store radioactive materials from a broader range of sources and circumstances than is currently allowed under the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act 1987.
This bill either clarifies or enables ANSTO to, firstly, deal with radioactive material arising from incidents, including terrorist or criminal acts; secondly, participate in the management of radioactive material and waste 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; and, thirdly, deal with the reprocessed spent fuel waste that is due to return to Australia from France and Scotland for storage and/or disposal. ANSTO is already able to receive its own reprocessed waste from overseas. However, under ANSTO’s contractual arrangements, Australian spent fuel may be combined with spent nuclear fuel from other sources and processed in bulk. Thus, technically, returned waste may not be the product of ANSTO reactor fuel exclusively, although it will be of an equivalent quantity.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this proposal is the extension of immunity to contractors in order to limit potential legal action by the Northern Territory government in relation to the siting and operation of a waste dump in the Northern Territory. The extension of immunity would ensure that nuclear waste handled by contractors is considered to be Commonwealth waste under the ANSTO Act.
Whilst not spelt out either in the explanatory memorandum or in the minister’s own speeches, this bill is an attempt to prevent any capacity which may exist for legal challenge to a nuclear waste dump, by removing the possibility of challenging ANSTO’s authority to manage waste generated from non-ANSTO sources. This should be seen as part of the government’s wider agenda to extend and expand nuclear power, which the Prime Minister has occasionally flagged when needing a convenient distraction, I would contend, from his party’s latest troubles. The government refuses to provide any details of its plans for future nuclear power stations and waste dumps in Australia, as to do so would court embarrassing questions in coalition marginal seats. The Australian people will condemn this government for its undemocratic imposition of a nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territory, and Labor will be moving amendments to remove contractor immunity.
As a consequence of this bill, all Commonwealth radioactive waste from across Australia could be taken to Lucas Heights for processing. Lucas Heights already holds a significant quantity of nuclear waste generated by ANSTO, but as it is currently limited to handling only its own waste, this would potentially involve much larger quantities being transported to and held at Lucas Heights. One wonders how the member for Hughes will attempt to justify to the people in her electorate a massive increase in nuclear material resting beside their suburban houses. Labor will be seeking ministerial assurances that Lucas Heights will not become a de facto national waste dump as a result of the provisions of this bill.
It is important to note that this bill is not without its merits. It will bring Australia into line with standards set out in the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Australia has not yet ratified the convention, but these changes are a positive step for the country towards ratification. It gives ANSTO, as an expert agency, the power to assist state and federal authorities in the event of a terrorist attack involving radioactive materials.
ANSTO’s involvement in emergency situations of the sorts that have now occurred across the Western world was not envisaged during the drafting and amendment of the original ANSTO Act. Given ANSTO’s nuclear research and management expertise, it is appropriate that law enforcement, emergency and disaster agencies should be able to access ANSTO’s capabilities and facilities, including during terrorist events using radioactive materials. It is a benefit to the community’s peace of mind that nuclear science and research experts will be able to be involved in national security management and will be able to lend their expertise to the management of nuclear waste in Australia.
The opposition strongly supports the provisions relating to ANSTO’s role in dealing with nuclear terrorism incidents, including controlling and storing radioactive material which may be involved in a dirty bomb. Labor also supports appropriate actions that bring Australia into line with standards set out in the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
Of course the extension of ANSTO’s involvement, as the Commonwealth’s primary agency in nuclear waste and security management, is a positive development. Government investment in public sector nuclear research is premised on building and sustaining scientific capabilities and expert management of nuclear materials. The knowledge and expertise of ANSTO should not be limited to its own activities and materials. But Labor condemns the government’s authoritarian attempt to force a waste dump on the Northern Territory. This government cannot even gain community consent to establish a low- or intermediate-level nuclear waste dump, let alone the high-level facility that would be needed should Australia ever establish nuclear power—a possibility squarely in the Prime Minister’s mind, judging by his recent public statements.
There are some positive dimensions to this bill, but there are some alarming concerns for the opposition, and I think for the community, particularly in the Northern Territory. Therefore, the government should reconsider the bill and provide protection to those who may be adversely affected by the consequences of this bill. The government should be open and transparent about the way in which it chooses to make decisions that involve nuclear waste.
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.
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2006 makes important changes to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act to allow ANSTO to fulfil one of its statutory functions—namely, the provision of services in connection with the conditioning and management of radioactive materials and radioactive waste. I thank the speakers for their contribution to this debate and I acknowledge the fact that the opposition is supporting this bill. However, I will take this opportunity to clarify some of the more misleading comments that have been made, as evidenced by the opportunistic and blatantly false assertions contained in the proposed amendments.
The Australian government has no intention of establishing a long-term storage facility at Lucas Heights for non-ANSTO waste. In July 2005, the government made clear its intentions in relation to radioactive waste management when three potential sites in the Northern Territory were nominated for the Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility. Any Australian government waste conditioned at Lucas Heights will be subsequently transferred to the facility in the Northern Territory.
Concerns were raised regarding the impact on the local community of managing additional waste at Lucas Heights. The volume of radioactive waste held by other Australian government agencies—excluding CSIRO soil currently at Woomera, which is unlikely to require conditioning at Lucas Heights—is less than 25 per cent of the ANSTO waste already held at Lucas Heights. Compared with the average activity levels of all radioactive materials managed at Lucas Heights, the activity of other government agencies’ waste is dwarfed of the order of 14,000 times. I can put it another way: the activity of other agencies’ waste is about seven-thousandths of one per cent of radioactive materials at the Lucas Heights site.
A point worth noting about transporting other agencies’ waste to Lucas Heights is that ANSTO safely and securely transports on a daily basis radioisotopes from Lucas Heights to hospitals and medical facilities. These daily shipments have the order of twice the total radioactivity of all other agencies’ existing waste inventory combined.
The government remains fully committed to establishing a radioactive waste management facility in the Northern Territory, as evidenced by the introduction and subsequent passage through this parliament of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005. Because of the very real concerns about politically motivated obstruction of the Commonwealth’s activities and the need to progress this important project, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 will not apply to the site investigation phase of the project. Let us be clear about this: the three sites in the Northern Territory are existing Commonwealth properties that have been owned for 20 or 30 years with no environmental or heritage issues previously being raised. Two of the sites already have extensive Defence infrastructure.
The claims of the opposition that the Australian government would seek to circumvent proper Commonwealth regulatory scrutiny are simply nonsense. The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act explicitly provides that the government must comply with processes under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987.
This government’s definitive steps towards establishing radioactive waste management facilities stand in contrast to the opportunistic comments made by the Leader of the Opposition during his recent visit to the Northern Territory. In promising to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, the Leader of the Opposition neglected to address a most important issue: what would a Labor government do with Australia’s radioactive waste? Where would it intend to store ANSTO’s spent fuel reprocessing waste if a facility were not established in a timely manner? This highlights Labor’s total hypocrisy on this issue. Of the opposition speakers who have sought by virtue of their support of this amendment to condemn the government for the legislation enabling the Commonwealth to use existing Commonwealth land for radioactive waste management, not one has offered any alternative proposal. But then the opposition turns around and calls for a consensus approach to siting waste facilities.
We have seen how shallow the opposition’s commitment to a consensus approach is. When the member for Solomon introduced amendments to the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill allowing nominations of volunteer sites, the member for Jagajaga stood up in this House and said:
... the member for Solomon’s amendment is, frankly, completely meaningless.
The member for Lingiari said:
It has no impact and is just a cute political stunt ...
The opposition says it wants a consensus approach but, when given the opportunity to support exactly such an approach, all it could do was seek to denigrate the member for Solomon. Quite frankly, Labor has offered nothing in this debate to suggest an alternative approach to the provisions of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act.
This bill will allow ANSTO to have some involvement in the Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility. ANSTO is the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. It has the practical, day-to-day experience in managing and handling radioactive materials and waste. It has both the infrastructure and the qualified personnel capable of managing radioactive waste. If ANSTO is not permitted to condition and package waste destined for the Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility, we will be required to duplicate at another location the existing waste management facilities at Lucas Heights.
These government amendments have another important purpose. The existing ANSTO Act unnecessarily restricts the functions of ANSTO by requiring a regulation to be made each and every time ANSTO is requested to provide waste management services. While I sincerely hope that a radiological incident never occurs in Australia, if it were to, I doubt that the responding emergency services would find it expedient to have to contact the Governor-General to find out if the Governor-General is willing to allow ANSTO to assist. Passage of this bill will allow ANSTO to provide its expertise to law enforcement and emergency service organisations in the unfortunate event that such assistance is ever required.
In conclusion, protection of the health and safety of people and the environment should be a higher priority for the opposition than scaremongering about the sensible, safe and rational approach taken by the government to the management of radioactive materials and waste in this country. I commend the bill to the House.
That the words proposed to be omitted (Ms Macklin’s amendment) stand part of the question.