Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Nuclear Power

3:06 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by opposition senators today relating to nuclear power.

It is little wonder that the government had such trouble answering those questions, which went to its plans for nuclear power, its failure to have plans for a high-level waste dump and its failure to have plans for protocols for the use of nuclear power. Today we have seen that the government’s ‘cunning plans’ are clearly all in a mess. This government has been caught out again trying to be too clever by half, seeking to come up with quick fixes to political problems rather than developing long-term strategies to deal with the challenges that are faced by this country.

What began as a sneaky plan to wedge Labor has backfired. We now have a situation where government ministers have a considerable amount to explain. We are entitled to know how it is that the government can plan to build nuclear power stations and where they would build these power stations. We are entitled to know how the government can contemplate such measures when they cannot even build a low-level nuclear waste dump, not to mention a high-level nuclear waste dump. So at the moment we have a complete and total debacle by the government.

For some time we have seen that some ministers have been honest enough to press their concerns and push for nuclear power in this country. We have also seen some ministers express their scepticism about the economic viability of such proposals. We have had the expertise demonstrated to us time and time again—or at least asserted to us to be demonstrated—by Senator Minchin. He pointed out that he is probably the most expert minister in the government on the question of nuclear power and nuclear energy, but he went on to say that such a proposition will not be viable for 100 years. Of course, such a position runs in sharp contrast to the position taken by the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, who says that such nuclear power facilities will be available within 10 years. We have seen the position of the Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock—who is also a supporter of nuclear energy—who pointed out that the Switkowski report clearly ignored the advice from international experts, ignored community advice and, more importantly, had a totally unrealistic attitude that a nuclear reactor could be operating in Australia in as little as 10 years hence.

We have seen unrealistic estimates of a 10-year cycle being established, at odds with even the most optimistic assessments from within the Liberal Party. In seeking these answers from the government, which it failed to deliver today, it is important for us to establish why it is that the Prime Minister—a very clever politician—has sought to enrich his mates through his various contacts in Australian Nuclear Energy, which was registered just five days before the Prime Minister established his nuclear futures inquiry. We need to see why Senator Minchin, who does not believe such an industry is likely for a century, argues that such a proposition should be considered as a viable option in the current environment—an environment in which we have coal supplies in this country which are able to last us for the next 600 years.

We are entitled to ask why it is that the Prime Minister ramped up this issue by announcing an inquiry into nuclear energy in early July last year, which closely followed the contacts that had been made by the former Treasurer of the Liberal Party in Victoria. We saw that quite strident measures had been taken through the government to secure a nuclear future when, quite clearly, the government cannot even get its story straight on a low-level nuclear waste dump, let alone the extraordinary complexities that would be required for a high-level nuclear waste dump. From this government we are now hearing proposals to establish a global, high-level nuclear waste dump in this country. So we are entitled to know: where are these facilities going to go? (Time expired)

3:11 pm

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have never seen a party so confused over the issue of nuclear activity, nuclear production or uranium mining in my life. Perhaps Senator Carr should have started his contribution by saying whether or not he supports the expansion of uranium mining. Senator Carr, it is all very well to leave the chamber, but perhaps you could tell us whether you support the expansion of uranium mining. Perhaps Senator McEwen, my colleague from South Australia, could tell us whether she supports the expansion of uranium mining. For a majority of people in the Labor Party it would appear as though it is okay to expand the mining of uranium so that you can sell uranium for others to produce nuclear power, but it is no good for Australians to produce nuclear power. I wonder whether we sell good uranium overseas and keep bad uranium here! It is an issue on which the Labor Party have looked as though they may change their mind. I am not even sure where Senator Marshall stands on the issue of expansion of uranium mining. He probably supports it, but perhaps he will tell us later.

The government have no plans for nuclear power. The government have no plans to build a nuclear power station—no plans whatsoever. What the government do support strongly is an informed public discussion on nuclear energy as one of the options for Australia. That is what the government support. They want to support a public discussion that is driven by facts, not the emotion, hysteria and scaremongering that we see from the Labor Party opposite. In the Labor Party a majority want to mine more uranium to sell to other people to produce nuclear power, but they are too afraid to have the public discussion in Australia as to whether or not nuclear power should be part of the energy mix for Australians in the future. Labor oppose having this debate for political reasons, because it is simply too hard for them. They do not like this hard debate as to whether or not it should be part of the mix. So we have the strange situation where some people in the Labor Party want to expand uranium mining and some key people in the Labor Party want to keep the three-mines policy. That is the policy they have had for the last 20 years, where uranium that is mined in three mines is good uranium, and we can sell that to overseas customers, but all the other mines produce bad uranium!

Do you know who is pushing the expansion of this mine? Senator Bernardi from South Australia would well know. The Premier of South Australia is pushing for an expansion of uranium mining, and he is the same man who, as the senior adviser to the then Premier in 1983, staunchly opposed the building of Roxby Downs and Olympic Dam to produce uranium in South Australia. He staunchly opposed the building of a uranium mine in South Australia and now 20 years later, when he has seen the benefits and the employment that it has provided in South Australia, he has come to the conclusion that he wants to make that mine even bigger. He wants to increase it until it produces far in excess of what is produces today. I will be interested in what Senator McEwen has to say, a South Australian who I can only assume supports Premier Rann in the expansion of uranium mining. I wonder what she thinks about the uranium going to other people to produce nuclear power. I suppose that is good nuclear power as opposed to any nuclear power that might be produced in Australia, which would be bad nuclear power and bad for our environment!

We have reached the stage where the Labor Party would run a short-term fear campaign because maybe their focus groups have told them that this is a good issue to bring up right now. The focus groups say: ‘People are a little bit concerned. Don’t allow the public debate to happen. Say: “We will not have anything to do with nuclear power. We’ll let other people all around the world use our uranium to produce nuclear power, but we simply will not do it in Australia because in Australia the only thing we can produce is bad nuclear power.”’ We have scare tactics and short-term fear campaigns from them, which they have tried before with things like the GST. Well do we remember the GST. I see the South Australian Treasurer lauding the fact that he is going to have an extra $69 million in GST revenue, which I am quite sure he would want to reverse and do away with as though he had never even received the money! (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad Senator Ferguson is interested in what we have to say. He should listen carefully and he may learn something. He ought to listen, but this is a motion to take note of answers to questions asked by the opposition with respect to nuclear power. I asked Senator Brandis, the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training, today about high-level nuclear waste dumps. I asked a very specific question about whether he agreed with Mr Hugh Morgan that to put together an internationally managed nuclear repository would bring great standing for Australia in the international community. Senator Brandis went on to talk about everything but a high-level nuclear waste dump. He talked about the general issue of nuclear power and about every issue being on the table before the government, and then he told me that he was then going to answer my question. For the next 30 seconds, until his time ran out, he talked about anything but answering my question.

I then gave him another opportunity to address the question on whether the government had any plans, had done any studies or had any proposals on building a high-level global nuclear waste dump in Australia. Again, what did we get? Absolute nonsense—gibberish that did not address the question at all. While Senator Ferguson says he is interested in what we have to say, one might encourage Senator Ferguson to talk to his frontbench ministers and ask them to answer the question, because the Australian public wants to know what the government has to say about nuclear power. It is not good enough for different ministers and for Senator Ferguson to say, ‘We have no plans on nuclear power; all we want is a debate.’ What absolute nonsense.

Look at what the Prime Minister said with respect to Australian Nuclear Energy Pty Ltd. In the middle of last year one of the owners, Mr Ron Walker, rang him up at home, as the Prime Minister said, not to ask him about racing tips but to tell him that he intended to set up a company that has interests in the generation of nuclear power and, obviously, from the comments that he has made, also in a global nuclear waste dump.

As ministers have told us today, having a high-level global nuclear waste dump or generating nuclear energy is against the law presently. Does anyone else find it rather odd that when Ron Walker rings up the Prime Minister and says, ‘I want to set up a company that is going to do things that are against the law,’ the Prime Minister’s response is, ‘That’s a great idea, Ron, because you know my view on it.’ That makes me think that maybe the Prime Minister has ideas to change the law. He is encouraging someone to set up a company that has interests in nuclear generation and high-level global nuclear waste dumps, which are presently against the law. The Prime Minister said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ Quite frankly, I think that is a bit odd. I think there is a bit of scandal going on and I think this is starting to reek.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Joyce interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What Ron Walker was obviously doing—and even blind Freddy could see it—was ringing the Prime Minister to get the nod. The Prime Minister says: ‘Yes, Ron, you know my view on this; this is a great idea. Have the nod.’ What happens six days later? We get a report set up and the result comes out—

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Marshall is entitled to be heard in quiet. I understand that you have the call soon, Senator Bernardi; you can express your views then. Babbling is disorderly, Senator Joyce. If you want to enter the debate, put your name on the speakers’ list, please.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Even if we got some babbling from the government about this, it would be better than the absolute nonsense we have been served up by the minister today, not even attempting to answer the question that I asked him. I think it is very strange indeed that the Prime Minister would encourage someone to set up a company to do things which are presently illegal. As I said, some short time after that the government sets up a report and, strangely enough—what does it do?—it finds that Australia should have 25 to 30 nuclear reactors over the next 20 or 30 years. What a coincidence!

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just tell us what your uranium policy is.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am surprised that you do not find this odd, Senator Joyce. The Prime Minister encouraged someone to set up a company to do things which are presently against the law, and then reports commissioned by the government suggest that we should have 25 to 30 nuclear reactors. What happens with nuclear reactors? They produce waste. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Listening to Senator Marshall is really quite inspiring! Typically, the Labor Party have once again put the cart before the horse. They have a history of this. They spent all their time in government spending money they never had and now they are finding nuclear reactors where there are none. They are seeing nuclear power stations where none exist and none are proposed to exist.

This government is committed to the future of Australia. It is committed to examining our energy needs going forward and that includes examining the role, if any, that nuclear power will play going forward for this country. But, as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources have said, this discussion is an ongoing conversation with the Australian public. It will not happen without bipartisan support. But what I find truly breathtaking about this entire debate today is the fact that the Labor Party are condemning three very successful entrepreneurs for being prepared to establish a company looking into clean fuel generation for the future.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It’s against the law.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What is spellbinding, Senator Marshall, is the fact that you are mocking these entrepreneurs who have provided thousands of jobs and who in fact, one of the Labor state premiers enlisted, and I quote, ‘to save the economy of South Australia’. It was all right to bring him in to rejuvenate and rebuild the South Australian economy. It was all right to rely on his advice, his wisdom and his economic expertise then. But now, when he is prepared to take the debate to the next level, when he is prepared to sink some money into investing in clean energy resources for Australia, he will not get through the door—he will not get through the door of Mike Rann in South Australia. Once again Mike Rann is prepared to close his door to something that may result in investment in our state. We do not know what that investment is, but the simple fact is that we are prepared to examine the issues going forward for Australia, unlike the Labor Party which shuts the door without even considering what the issues are.

You talked about nuclear waste dumps. What is worse—having hundreds of low-level waste dumps littering the streets of South Australia? I am really going to be interested in this because you are storing your radioactive waste under hospitals, near schools and in residential suburbs. It is absolutely appalling what you are doing because you are not prepared to take a national approach to what is a very serious issue for this country.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Marshall interjecting

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As an electrician you should know something about electrical generation—

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (Queensland, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator George Campbell and Senator Marshall! As I asked Senator Bernardi to be quiet during your contribution, Senator Marshall, he is entitled to be heard in peace. Senator Ferguson and Senator Campbell, exchanging views across the chamber when Senator Bernardi is trying to make a contribution is disorderly, you know that, and Senator Bernardi is entitled to be heard in silence.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I take a big, deep breath here because I need some oxygen just to understand exactly where the Labor Party are coming from. They have a position which, at best, is duplicitous. They want to profit from uranium mining. They want to profit from the benefit of the medical use of nuclear technology but they do not want to store their waste safely; they want to store it under hospitals, near schools and in residential suburbs. They want to store it in hundreds of locations because it is not safe in a national repository. We have had that debate. They want us to go forward with clean greenhouse-gas-free power generation. They purport to support the coal industry and yet they want to reduce emissions by 60 per cent over the next 50 years. It is a very long bow to draw. It is going to cost billions and billions of dollars. This is once again simply an ill-considered attempt to score political points.

What they do not realise is that they jeopardise the future of Australia if they are not prepared to enter into these debates. The Labor Party unfortunately have to wait for their national meeting or whatever they call it—their love-in, their get-together—and they need to have their policy decided for them by their union bosses. We have already heard today on the radio that one of the senators on the other side of the chamber has said they get instructed by their union bosses and, in fact, are under the control of their union bosses, so we know who is pulling the strings in the Labor Party. I suppose that they are trying to deal themselves into the nuclear debate to ensure that they can do something irrational with it, as they have with so many other industries in the course of the history of this country. I say to the people of South Australia and Australia, let us get into the debate, let us encourage people to explore alternative energy sources, not only for the good of our country but for the good of the people of Australia.

3:27 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If there were ever any doubt that this government has had its day, that it is tired and worn out and living in some kind of alternative reality to the rest of Australia, today’s answers in question time were indicative. I am talking, in particular, of the answers given by Senator Abetz, Senator Brandis and Senator Minchin to various questions from the opposition about nuclear power, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps.

While Labor is talking about a future Australia that embraces innovative new technologies to deliver us clean, green and efficient energy, this government is actively out there spruiking nuclear reactors. Senator Minchin said that the government is thinking about it, Senator Bernardi confirmed it, Senator Ferguson confirmed it and Senator Abetz confirmed it. They cannot now run away and say that they are not going to be looking at having nuclear reactors in Australia.

It is a source of power, as we know, that is cumbersome, massively expensive and dangerous. There are ongoing problems with the disposal of waste that comes from nuclear power, there are problems with how you decommission plants and there is a problem with the initial start-up cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion for a nuclear power plant. There is the fact that we do not actually need nuclear power in this country because we have adequate other resources to provide us with power, including things like wind power and solar power—if this government actually did something about researching and bringing on those alternative sources of power. This government, in particular the Prime Minister, will not rule out nuclear reactors being sited in Australia and it is actively encouraging its Liberal Party mates under the guise of the Australian Nuclear Energy Pty Ltd consortium to investigate sites for the key reactors in Australia.

Today’s answers during question time were sadly indicative of the lazy and knee-jerk response of this government to the issue of Australia’s energy future. Having been in denial about climate change for the last 10 years, having refused to sign up to the Kyoto protocol because they do not want to offend the Americans, having refused to increase Australia’s mandated renewable energy targets, having put every obstacle possible in the way of building a wind farm in Victoria because it would have upset a Liberal candidate’s campaign, the government now say nuclear reactors are a good idea. Bring it on, says the Prime Minister. He says to his Liberal mates that he thinks it is a good idea. Having of course failed to mention to the Australian public before the federal election that they are going to be considering nuclear power, they are now actively out there talking it up. Still, we are used to this government not being honest with the Australian public about what their intentions are. We saw that with the industrial relations legislation.

This government is happy to talk about a discussion on nuclear power, saying that it wants to have a full and free debate about it. But when you ask the government the obvious question that every Australia wants to know—where are we going to site these 25 or so nuclear reactors that are proposed in the Switkowski report?—you get the Prime Minister fudging and getting flustered about it. He gets personally abusive and accuses people who ask that legitimate question of being childish and juvenile and playing games. He said those words yesterday, that people who wanted to know where nuclear reactors were going to be sited in Australia were childish and juvenile.

Today I saw in the press that Port Augusta, in my home state of South Australia, is one of the prime sites for the establishment of a nuclear reactor, if indeed nuclear power proceeds in Australia. People in Port Augusta are today asking the question: ‘Is it going to be us?’ I wonder whether Senator Minchin in particular and the other South Australian senators who were in this chamber before will say to those people in Port Augusta: ‘Don’t be so childish! Don’t be so juvenile! Stop playing games!’ People want to know where these things are going to be put. This government will not answer that question. I am proud to say that Premier Mike Rann has refused to have nuclear power in South Australia, just like he refused to have a nuclear waste dump in South Australia. He is unequivocal. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.