House debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Grievance Debate

National Radioactive Waste Management Facility

10:54 am

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Following a number of thwarted attempts, in March 2015 the government called for voluntary nominations of land on which to establish a national radioactive waste management facility. I raised the possibility of this being well sited in my home town—in fact, on my own farm—in April 2015. The process came about after the failure of the Muckaty Station proposal, following the failure of an earlier proposal in South Australia, and after an independent inquiry, which included conservationists and people from other sides of politics, recommended that the Australian government should pursue voluntary nomination of private land for the establishment of this facility and, following that process, work out where the most likely site was. So, as I said, I brought it up in my home town in early 2015.

This is a very important thing for the Australian nation. The OPAL reactor—and, before that, HIFAR at Lucas Heights—provides nuclear medicine for Australians on a daily basis. It provides around 12;000 doses a week at the moment. The establishment of the OPAL reactor was a very forward-thinking move by the Howard government, though it met some opposition at the time. Not only does it provide that medication for Australians and assistance to industry and other things but it is also provides for a growing export trade, because some other countries in the world have not had the courage to get on and do the same thing.

When Lucas Heights was established, the residents of Lucas Heights were guaranteed that it would only be for temporary storage of the low-level waste and that a permanent repository would be found. The other issue with Lucas Heights is that it's running out of room. I've been there, as have many citizens of Kimba. It's interesting that the waste that we're talking about largely sits in 44 gallon drums or 200 litre drums. It is unsealed, the workers do not wear protective clothing and they can work in that facility for around 10 years before they get the equivalent radiation of one CT scan. It's not incredibly dangerous, and it's not incredibly difficult to look after, but we need to find a repository. In addition, there are over 100 sites around Australia where this sits in hospitals—we say over 100, because we don't actually know how many there are; I suspect it is closer to 300—in basements that are unlicensed and not specifically designed for this purpose. So it is imperative that we get on with the job.

So the process was undertaken and the bill to nominate the Kimba site and get on with the job has been through the House of Representatives and now sits on the Senate Notice Paperand I'll come to that a little bit more in a moment. I've had a delegation in here in the last two days trying to make sure that it passes through the Senate. I thank those people who have made their time available to us, including the Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, and the shadow minister responsible, Brendan O'Connor. We also met with a number of Independents and we met with the Prime Minister. But I have to say that I'm really disappointed, particularly in the Labor Party, in that they are clinging to some kind of commitment to the legislation they passed in 2012 which they say is sufficient to establish the radioactive waste management facility. That legislation includes a whole lot of references to the Northern Territory because, at that stage, they thought that it was going to Muckaty Station. It also includes references to the payments that go to community, which are now completely out of date and not what has been promised to the successful community. So it needs to be amended.

What the Labor Party and some of the crossbenches are saying is that, under the current legislation, the minister can declare the establishment of the site. But, because they are not prepared to allow the site to be named in the legislation, that will allow that to be open to judicial review at every stage. That means that any person, any body and any organisation in Australia can announce that they have an interest and then challenge. I've already made up a list of 10 conservation groups that are on the record as opposing this facility. If we go down this pathway, this process that has now been running for over five years will go for another five years. It will extend the process in my home town of Kimba, which has actually ticked all the boxes and said, 'We are prepared to host this site.'

So I come to my home town and community of Kimba. I gave a speech in the second reading debate on this bill when it came through the House which set out my involvement in this process. It's a community with about 1,050 people. We had a population in the late eighties of close to 2,000; it was 1,900. We're seeing a continual decline in population across the agricultural regions. That's because of the efficiency of modern agriculture. It's not a bad story; it's a good story. But it is a story that leads to smaller and smaller towns on a continual basis. Once you get to a certain tipping point, then your health services are under threat and your school is under threat; the shops that actually make this a liveable place are under threat. Kimba hasn't got to that point yet but we're not so far away from it. We've seen towns around us disappear, basically. We need to attract a new industry.

After this was raised in 2015, the Kimba community went through a survey. We've been through two full plebiscites to vote on this position. We've had three Senate inquiries. It has been ticked off and approved at every level, yet the Labor Party are still resistant to allowing this to go ahead. It seems as though they want to extend the pain. Not for one minute do I come into this place and say this hasn't been a difficult debate in Kimba or that people have not found it difficult. I can take you to the site of a proposed wind farm and give you the same kinds of difficulties or the proposed site of a new port that people don't want or whatever—it's the same type of thing. These things happen in communities.

The net result is that the last community ballot that we had, which had an over-90 per cent turnout, showed that 61.58 per cent of people voted in favour of hosting this facility. Now that's in the same area that the same-sex marriage debate was decided at a national level, and that was a landslide. I can show you any number of clippings that'll tell you that that was a landslide. So this is a landslide in Kimba; we want the facility. Yet we are now being frustrated, or it seems as though we're going to be frustrated. I'm still hopeful that some senators will come around and we'll get this legislation through the Senate this week.

It's really important to note that we have some really strong individuals who have nominated their land. They have nominated their land because they want a future for their children in the Kimba community. They want their grandchildren to be able to get jobs in the Kimba community, because our greatest export, after wheat perhaps—or perhaps before wheat—is our children. They need opportunities for employment. They were brought up in a great community. They were brought up in a good school. But then they have to leave the community to go and find work elsewhere.

This facility brings with it 45 jobs. It brings with it an annual investment for the community of around a million dollars, depending on how we manage it. And it will bring $8 million worth of activity into the community per year. It is a lifeline for a community like Kimba. It could have been anywhere in Australia, but this is the one population that has been brave enough to stand up and have the debate, internally and externally. Let me tell you, there are a lot of brave warriors on the keyboards out there, giving advice from Sydney, Melbourne and overseas, and signing hundreds of names on petitions, even if they don't live in Australia. There is plenty of advice coming from people outside, but how about we respect the decision of the people in Kimba? They've spent 5½ years discussing this.

We've had every expert available in Australia come and visit. We've had mayors from communities in other nations come and tell us how fabulous these facilities are for their communities. We've had scientists at every level speak to us. We've had geologists, nuclear scientists and medical scientists speak to us. It is backed at every level. The nation needs it. We need to get on with the job because, if we extend this process at Kimba for another four or five years, we might lose it, and we would have to go back 40 years—because Paul Keating proposed this in the first place—and start all over again. If this parliament frustrates this community's will, when they have ticked every box, done everything that was required of them and actually got over the line and said, 'We will do it,' what other community would ever again put up their hand for this, only to have the parliament then say, 'You can't'?