Monday, 21 June 2021
National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
The siting of a radioactive waste storage facility is a tough decision for our nation. It is one that has been under consideration for many decades—indeed, for about 40 years. Before I go through some of the history of that 40 years, I want to take the opportunity to thank the many people in Kimba and Hawker, and the Hawker region, who have been involved in this latest consultation process. It was my great privilege and honour, as the minister for resources, to meet so many of these great people, some of whom were for and some against the radioactive waste facility in their region. But both of those regions are special parts of our nation. The Hawker region is proximate to the beautiful Flinders Ranges, and I am thankful for the hospitality that was shown to me by the people of that region. Indeed, I paid for some of my children to come down onto Aboriginal country at the time to experience their culture and we stayed near the Flinders Ranges with the Adnyamathanha people at the campsite that they run. It's a great community, a great part of our nation. I hope they're doing well with all the domestic tourism that's going around at the moment.
I also love the town of Kimba, a beautiful town in rural South Australia. It is a lovely community, full of great people—again, people who support it and people who are against it. I've always understood why people would not be rushing out to support a radioactive waste facility in their town. It is a tough decision that, as I said, we as a nation have to make. I want to thank the mayor of Kimba, Dean Johnson. I spent a lot of time with Dean, and the landowners, the Baldocks—Jeff Baldock. I forgot to thank, from Hawker, Tiger McKenzie, a great fellow out there, a proud Adnyamathanha man who runs his own property with his people, and also Vince Coulthard, who was the CEO of Adnyamathanha at the time—I think he might still be, but I'm not as close to it as I once was. I want to thank others from Kimba, like Tony Scott, and Marie, from the local hotel, who put me up in a beautiful room for one night. Thank you, Marie. She runs a great pub there at Kimba, if you're ever passing through.
So, I just want to thank them, because I know how hard it has been for those communities to go through such a lengthy process. They haven't been there for the whole 40 years, but this latest process to short-list sites and go through a grassroots process to find a facility for our nation has taken many years, unfortunately. It did get held up in the courts—and it's the right of people to take court action—and of course it's taken a little while to get this bill here to this position. In that regard, I want to thank the Labor Party for, I believe, their cooperation here, and also congratulate the minister for resources, Keith Pitt, on bringing this forward. It's a very tough issue. If it was easy, it would have been solved at some point in that past 40 years. I want to recognise some of the previous ministers who have been involved in this process and put a lot of effort into it, many from the Labor side of politics, like Senator Kim Carr and former members Martin Ferguson and Gary Gray. I know all of them are very passionate about this issue, and I thank them for their long commitment and involvement. On our side, also, I want to thank Ian Macfarlane and Josh Frydenberg, who played a role in getting it to this stage. As I said, it is a tough decision. But it is one that we must make at some point.
We should be proud of the fact that we produce some of the best nuclear medicines in the world. We have a world-class nuclear medicine facility at Lucas Heights, just 30 kilometres from the middle of Sydney. It is respected around the world. It puts us in the upper echelons of nuclear research and technology around the world and in nuclear regulation as well, because it is a reactor. There is a nuclear reactor 30 kilometres from the middle of Sydney. It doesn't produce electricity, and it's a relatively small reactor, from memory—about 30 megawatts. But it produces lifesaving medicines that one in two Australians will need at some time in their lifetime. Think of the 76 senators here in this chamber, and add on a few of our dedicated staff and you'd maybe get to 100-odd people sometimes in this chamber; 50 of them will at some time in their lives need nuclear medicines, most of which, in this country, will have produced at Lucas Heights.
We should take pride in that. I'm sure all of us in that situation or with loved ones in that situation would want to have access to such medicines. But we also, if we want to have access to the good things, have to be adult about it and face up to the tough things that are produced as part of that process. As part of that process of producing those nuclear medicines, there is nuclear waste. There's both nuclear waste produced in the nuclear reactor reaction process itself, in the nuclear rods, and nuclear waste associated with the management of the nuclear medicines and distribution and application of those medicines, in things like medical gowns and equipment.
As I said, we've been searching for a place for around 40 years. I asked someone in the department once, 'When did we start doing this?' They mentioned that they'd asked someone once who they thought had been around at the time. It was in the Fraser administration that we started looking at this. It was that long ago, and we as a nation still haven't found a solution to this tough question. Right now, what's happening is that nuclear waste that's generated for this necessary, life-saving process, is almost all stored at Lucas Heights itself, 30 kilometres from the middle of Sydney. There's nothing wrong with that. It's perfectly safe there and has been managed safely for decades. But the site itself is small and we are running out of room at Lucas Heights to store it all—hence the need to find a long-term place to store low-level and potentially mid-level waste for our nation.
I heard Senator Hanson say that somehow the consultation had been inadequate. I'm not here to defend everything the government did—others will make their judgements about this—but there perhaps has not been a more extensive consultation process. Whether it's been effective or not I'll let others judge, but it has been as extensive as you can get in talking to people and trying to find a grassroots solution. At the start of this, before my time as minister, there were applications from different places around Australia. We called for applications. The government didn't go along and say, 'We're going to look at you, you and you.' We asked people to nominate their own land. A process was then gone through to look at whether there was initial support. Then the region of Hawker and Quorn was consulted as well and the Kimba council area was selected. A proper, intensive vote happened. Everybody in that area got a vote, according to the local government rolls. It was a democratic process.
We went through an intensive information campaign to provide people with the information they needed to make an informed decision. I believe I as minister travelled to Kimba and Hawker three times as part of that process to answer people's questions and concerns and to provide the experts there to help people make an informed decision about this. There was a lot of feedback and a lot of views on both sides. I want to stress here, as I said at the start, that I recognise and accept all different views on this matter. I always understood why people would have a certain view. There is not going to be a place that exists in this country where we would get 100 per cent, 90 per cent or 80 per cent support for a facility of this kind. That would not happen. I think some of those here who are holding out to perhaps seek such a nirvana or utopia either really don't want to find a solution to this because they, for some reason, oppose the nuclear industry, even though I'm sure they'd like to use nuclear medicines, or are seeking to use the understandable division in the community for their own political purposes.
What I was humbled by, though, was hearing all of those views. It was tough for those communities. It took a lot of time for them. I put aside almost a full week, I think, early last year to read through the hundreds of submissions we received. Alongside the vote, we called for submissions. I sat down and read each of the bespoke submissions individually. There were of course some campaign based letters and emails. I read examples of each of those. Yes, it was an eye-opening experience to read all of that individual feedback. As I said, there were people concerned, as Senator Hanson said earlier, about the hydrology, the geology and the safety of the materials. I completely recognise that. We went through a very extensive design process around stormwater, hydrology issues and geological testing. I can say I'm confident that this would be a safe facility based on world-best standards. It would have to go through the world-class regulatory process that we have here in this country, which already does regulate Lucas Heights.
What particularly struck me were the letters from young people in these regions, in Kimba and Hawker, especially those young people who saw this as an opportunity for them. These towns are only small. There are only a few hundred people in either location. They are vibrant communities centred around agriculture, primarily. But, outside of that industry, there are not an enormous number of job opportunities. I know what that feels like, coming from a regional town, albeit the larger regional town of Yeppoon. So many of our young people have to move away from their home just to find work because there's not the diversity of work opportunities in a regional town as there always is in a big city.
That's always going to be the case. We always face that handicap. But where there can be an opportunity to grow new skills, new industry, that is quite attractive to people in these circumstances. Some people want to stay in their home community. They don't want to move away, but they also need to have a job and need to be able to pay the bills. This facility would make a difference for some. It's not going to be a panacea. It's not going to help everybody. But, for some, it would help give them an opportunity that doesn't currently exist in these towns. Most importantly of all, it would help connect these small country towns—great places but small places—with the world-class nuclear industry that we have here in this country.
There are towns the size of Kimba and Hawker right around the country. But very few of them—none of them, I would say—would be able to have a direct connection to a world-class scientific establishment like the Lucas Heights nuclear facility. It is a world-class facility. I think what did seem to convince some people, if I could posit this, was travelling to Lucas Heights. We offered to have all the leaders of community consultation groups we'd established travel to Lucas Heights to see the waste that's currently stored. We offered opponents of the facility that access. A lot of people who went there were struck by it and said, 'This is a serious scientific establishment. Our small town of a few hundred people is not going to get a nuclear reactor or a medical facility, but, if we had this waste facility, our kids would get school trips,' as we're going to do. We'll make sure there are connected school trips to Lucas Heights. Some kid from Kimba might get interested in nuclear medicine and go on to a stellar career through that, or they might come back and help manage this waste at this facility. I think the projections were that there would be about 15 to 20 skilled positions at this facility, which would need training, and that would help people. That, to me, was probably a reason behind the fact that, at Kimba, more than 60 per cent of people supported the waste facility. I recognise there were opponents. I particularly recognise the position of the Barngarla people, who I met with and wanted to meet with more. But we also cannot ignore those 60-odd per cent of Kimba people who do want an opportunity for their children. We need to find a way of balancing these views and positions in making these tough decisions as a nation.
I hope that, through this process, we do not walk away from this tough decision. There have been a lot of other sites proposed around the country that have fallen through at the last minute, kicking this can down the road for future generations of Australians to deal with. We all benefit from nuclear medicines today. We should not be kicking the responsibility of managing this waste to future Australians. We should be able to take charge of this issue, find a solution, work with the communities involved and make this as much as possible a win-win for our nation.