Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Muckaty Station

3:32 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (Senator Carr) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ludlam today relating to radioactive waste sites.

The minister’s response was something of a surprise. Last Thursday night we were told that some of the documents that the Senate had requested would be tabled—and I will speak briefly about what was tabled—but that the minister had no idea about the anthropological study, he had never possessed it and neither had his department. It is extraordinary that, today, Minister Carr stood up, completely reversed his position and said, ‘Of course we’ve had it all along. It’s just that you can’t have it because it contains material that should not be released.’

It is remarkable that, during that time, for a number of days the department and the minister absolutely must have known that they had that material. This is not some obscure document; this is the foundation upon which the entire case of the Muckaty nomination rests. It is an anthropological study conducted on behalf of the Northern Land Council that identifies a number of people as the only ones who are able to comment in regard to the Muckaty lands, where the Commonwealth still proposes to dump radioactive waste. We are not able to review those ideas or any of the material that is contained there because it has never been made public. The NLC and the Commonwealth government’s approach since then has effectively disenfranchised everybody else up there, who are unable to challenge evidence that simply will not be provided either to them or to the broader public. It is extraordinary that the minister would send Minister Carr in here this afternoon to say, ‘Actually, yes, we had it all along; it’s just that it won’t ever be going into the public domain because we’ve been asked that it not be.’ This is the key foundation document on which the Commonwealth’s case rests. I will be writing to the minister to suggest that perhaps he review his position and provide that material to the Senate.

The material that was tabled is just as intriguing. The material that has made its way into the public domain is the Parsons Brinckerhoff study that was conducted for the Howard government and the peer reviews that were conducted subsequently. These were handed by the department to Minister Martin Ferguson more than a year ago and this is all they have had time to serve up. The peer review is very interesting. It points out that studies into the waste dump sites contained insufficient data. The technical investigations were limited and did not take into account seismology issues. That is interesting, isn’t it, because we know that the Muckaty site is an active seismic area. It is one of the very few active seismic areas in Australia. Geoscience Australia has told us that there have been 239 earthquakes in the area over the past 10 years and 1,298 earthquakes since 1988; 24 of those were at a magnitude of greater than five.

The peer review of the scientific studies also points out that regional flooding events are only very lightly touched on. That is very disappointing because one of the sites was regularly flooded in and there has been material in the public domain for months, if not years, that at least one of the sites was prone to flooding and completely unacceptable—but, of course, the Parsons Brinckerhoff study says that all four of the waste dump sites are appropriate. We visited the Muckaty site the week before last and could not get in because that site was flooded out as well. So I question the confidence with which Minister Martin Ferguson has said, ‘We’re free to go ahead at Muckaty.’

The justification for remote waste dumps is the key area that I want to touch on in response to Minister Carr’s handing over of this material, which, I might add, is really nothing that was not in the public domain already. It is a one-page summary of what the NLC says it has done and the public is still none the wiser as to the due diligence that was conducted by this Commonwealth government.

On the last occasion a Senate committee investigated this issue, which was by the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts at the end of 2008, we asked the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation why there was an insistence on looking at remote sites far from Australia’s centres of nuclear expertise. Mr Mackintosh, senior adviser, government liaison for ANSTO, said:

I believe it is for political reasons, Senator.

Mr Bradley Smith, from the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, said:

It would appear to be that politically the pragmatics seem to be that that is the only viable site at the moment that I am aware of for a Commonwealth facility.

I wish the government would go up there and face the people in Tennant Creek who assembled in a hall the week before last and tell them it has nothing to do with science; it has nothing to do with engineering; it has nothing to do with geology; it is politically pragmatic. That is the view of the industry and of ANSTO. This is nothing more than exposing the apparent political vulnerability of a particular community. I put the government on notice now that these people are not vulnerable at all. They are gearing up for a fight. They are going to challenge this proposal and I believe they are going to be successful.

Question agreed to.