Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Joint Standing Committee on Treaties; Government Response to Report
That the Senate take note of the report.
I would like, firstly, to acknowledge the work of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties in this area. It is one of the places in this parliament where there is actually a great deal of expertise in nuclear treaty matters. Going back to the time when Mr Kelvin Thomson was the chair of that committee, it examined proposed sales of Australian uranium to Russia. The committee handed down quite a damning report that said there is absolutely no way of tracking Australian obligated nuclear material and sales to Russia. It recommended some pretty steep and arduous conditions be placed before trade went ahead, and the government—this was under Prime Minister Rudd at the time—ummed and ahhed for, I think, at least a year, eventually came back and overruled the treaties committee, and then, not two years later, had to backflip yet again after the Russian government annexed part of the Ukraine, with all of the violence that unfolded after that. Again, it is a measure of the expertise of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties that governments ignore its recommendations on these very specialised, complex and high-stakes matters at their own risk. I fear that we will now be seeing history repeat itself. Recommendation 1 of this report states:
No binding treaty action be taken regarding the Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Ukraine on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy.
It said, 'Don't do it.'
The Greens note that there are a number of serious flaws and factors which should preclude any ratification of treaty action. These include increasing security threats to Ukraine nuclear facilities and nuclear material, safety concerns surrounding Ukraine's ageing nuclear fleet and life extension program, and the fact that the agreement does not meet the national interest test. The Greens would also like to voice our deep concerns that past Joint Standing Committee on Treaties reports and recommendations related to these sorts of actions have been flatly ignored. That leads the kind of embarrassing backflip that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, had to engage in a couple of years later, when she suspended the possibility of exports of Australian uranium into Russia. I would not have thought that is something that would need to be spelt out in great detail to this chamber, but that is precisely the risk of this industry. This is not like exporting coal; it is not like exporting copper; it is not like exporting gold. This is the only commodity that is exported from this country and elsewhere that is used as a feedstock in weapons of mass destruction. Within a couple of weeks—in fact, I think it kicks off next week—at the United Nations, the final talks for a negotiated ban on the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons are going to get underway. Australia is boycotting those talks at the same time as it is fuelling the industry that builds these weapons. We also agree with the conclusion of the majority report, which states—and I will quote it because it is clear:
… the repatriation provision in the Agreement is not in the Committee's view sufficient to ensure Australian nuclear material can be safely removed from Ukraine in the event that regulatory control is threatened.
Let that sink in for a bit.
The Treaties Committee, having consulted experts nationally and internationally on how these things work, have said: 'If things fall apart and the security in Ukraine cannot be guaranteed, we are not confident that we can get that Australian-obligated nuclear material back.' These are not hypothetical concerns; there is an ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which I do not think would be a surprise or a mystery to anybody in this chamber, and that is all the demonstration of the risks that you should need. Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and that led to the loss of control of multiple nuclear facilities and associated nuclear material in Ukraine. Why would Australia—at this stage, with tensions in that region so high—play into the trade in uranium in that part of the world? It is remarkable, and it is obviously a measure of the degree to which the big uranium exporters in this country and around the world have a political lock on the government—that you could take security and foreign policy risks that are that steep and still say, 'Yes, Rio Tinto, yes BHP—we still think that this is a good idea,' when it so clearly is not.
Again, to quote from JSCOT, having demonstrated that:
… war, civil unrest and corruption are not mitigated by safeguards, inspections and security agreements.
So why are we playing in this space? Surely, the writing is on the wall? Senior government regulators of Ukraine warned the following:
Given the current state of warfare, I cannot say what could be done to completely protect installations from attack, except to build them on Mars.
That quote is from Sergiy Bozhko, who was the chair of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate in Ukraine; he said that in May 2015 'Unless we build these things on Mars'. The Greens are not here advocating the construction of nuclear facilities on Mars, but there is a reason why nuclear power plants have been spoken of as predeployed radiological weapons. It is not simply a matter of risk against terrorist attack—that if somebody were to fly an aircraft or, indeed, to fire artillery into a nuclear power station, whether it had fuel loaded or not, the risks to the surrounding populations would be absolutely catastrophic. That has not happened before—at least, not at scale—but is that really something that Australia would want to be implicated in?
We believe that the best thing that the Australian government could do would be to read the report. We get a lot of these committee reports through this place and, every now and again, the government will pick up on one and you will get some action. I got my high hopes up around a few of them, but this is one that I would underline to government, senators and ministers in this place: read this thing. A lot of expertise has been brought to bear to put this document together, and it is putting up something of a red flag to say, 'Please be careful.' We would greatly appreciate the government showing an appropriate level of care so that we do not look back and realise the scale or the magnitude of the mistake that we made when we entered into this trade.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted. Debate adjourned.