Wednesday, 24 February 2016
Answers to Questions on Notice
Question Nos 2642 and 2907
It is good that Senator Edwards is still here, because in some ways Senator Edwards has been leading the debate, and I acknowledge Senator Edwards's longstanding interest in this issue and the fact that he is leading the debate and has put quite a detailed submission to the South Australian royal commission led by Mr Scarce. I will make a couple of remarks on that basis before I close this afternoon. The fact is that Australia has for decades been unable to figure out how to handle the relatively small by international standards inventory of radioactive waste from our research reactor operations at Lucas Heights. I am not attempting to minimise the sheer volume or activity of the waste that is being generated in Australia, but compared to that which is produced by commercial nuclear reactor operations in countries around the world who went down the nuclear power path, Australia has a relatively small inventory of waste. It has waste from the 10 megawatt and then 20 megawatt research reactors that have operated in Sydney. Yet, look at the multi-decade rolling debacle of attempting to site this radioactive waste at some remote location in Australia. And compare that with the remarkable consistency of the Australian experience of trying to find somewhere to dump radioactive waste in jurisdictions overseas. Just to give one example—what is consistent between the Australian experience and the experience in the United States? It is that remote Aboriginal communities have been asked to bear the brunt of the world's and the nation's most dangerous categories of waste. And you have to wonder why it is. I asked ANSTO couple of years ago and their answers were surprisingly consistent with those contained in a promotional video by Pangea Resources that provoked debate in 1999 about the importing of radioactive spent fuel from overseas for dumping in Australia.
In fact Mr Scarce's royal commission uses very similar language as well. Why is it that the nuclear industry here and globally looks for high-isolation sites, stable geology, very deep groundwater with low movements, low seismic activity, distance from agricultural areas, distance from mineral resources and, most importantly, distance from population centres? Why is it that they seek such sites and then shortlist places like south-west South Africa, Mongolia or inland South Australia? Why is it that the nuclear industry looks for these remote high-isolation sites? The Scarce royal commission gives it away in one sense. For each facility, hypothetical facilities in this case, they propose, 'In these facilities the risk of the radionuclides migrating into the environment is managed by the geology in which the facility is situated, as well as its engineered barriers.' A little bit later, and I am reading from the executive summary here, it says, 'Each facility is sited in geological conditions that naturally limit the potential pathways for migration.' What is that code for, colleagues? It is that the engineered containment will fail, and when the engineered containment fails and the facility begins to leak they want to be as far from it as possible. They want that stable geology so that when their radioactive waste dump leaks it is a long way from them. That was in the Pangea video, and I thought that was a remarkable moment of honesty.
I had a similar moment of honesty from ANSTO at a Senate committee hearing a couple of years ago. Here it is again in the royal commission's findings—'Geological containment: when our waste dump leaks we want it to be out there in the middle of nowhere.' As those proponents from the Howard government and then Minister Martin Ferguson and more recently, Mr Ian Macfarlane, discovered when they prosecuted their case, going back to Senator Minchin, but particularly from the Muckaty experience, when you try to dump this material in the middle of nowhere you find people speaking up for that country. You find people who have occupied that country for tens of thousands of years, who put very strongly that they are not in 'the middle of nowhere'. In fact, if it is so dangerous that it needs to be moved as far from human habitation as possible then dumping it on an Aboriginal outstation or a cattle station in the Barkly region is in fact totally inappropriate. No wonder the people at the six sites around the country are discovering, now responsibility for this issue has passed to Minister Frydenberg, that people do not want this stuff. And it is very easy to understand why not. If it is so urgent to move the stuff from Lucas Heights because it is unsafe, how can you then make the case to the local people who you are asking to host this material that it is suddenly safe?
Senator Edwards has upped the ante on the debate somewhat by going even further than Mr Scarce has done in his South Australian royal commission—which, by the way, effectively pronounced the uranium industry moribund, correctly. It pronounced the global nuclear power industry moribund, correctly, and it correctly acknowledged that there were simply no possibility of a commercial nuclear power industry getting on its feet any time soon in Australia. It pronounced correctly that the reprocessing market is overdone and that there is no market for fuel enrichment in this country. Nevertheless, it left the door open for the import of spent fuel.
Is there a market for spent fuel that would allow you to adequately figure out what kind of price we could get for importing this poisonous material from jurisdictions overseas? No, there is not, so in the absence of a market and in the absence of any kind of international experience around price they have just made up some numbers. They made numbers up, and they have no idea what kind of revenues you could get from hosting international nuclear waste. They ended up with half a trillion dollars. How on earth do you arrive at a figure like half a trillion dollars, from various other countries putting this stuff on ships and it somehow magically arriving in outback South Australia? How do you get a number like that? The way that they did it was by saying you get $5 billion in annual revenues every year for the first 30 years. They just made that figure up by inventing a per tonne figure and then rounding up. And with 390,000 tonnes of spent fuel around the world, you end up with 60-odd thousand tonnes of the material landing in outback South Australia. Then you put the profit in a sovereign wealth fund, and over 120 years or so you will end up with this imaginary half trillion dollar figure. Senator Edwards has then leveraged these ideas and gone even further and said, 'What if we took 4,000 tonnes of that material and fed it into imaginary prism reactors that do not exist, and will not exist until at the earliest 2040?'