Senate debates

Monday, 14 August 2017


Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2017; Second Reading

8:11 pm

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

The Labor Party will support the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2017. It's a bill which will allow for the crucially important public funding of a research agency to expand its operation. ANSTO conducts its operations at the Sydney campus, which is the nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights, and at the Melbourne campus, the Australian Synchrotron.

I regard ANSTO as one of the jewels in the crown of the Australian innovation system. ANSTO is one of those organisations that have gone from strength to strength. ANSTO is one of those organisations that I think are undervalued within this country. Of course, it's one of those organisations that people are only too happy to call upon, particularly when it comes to radiopharmaceuticals. I note that people are only too happy to complain about the use of nuclear research, except they fail to appreciate very fundamental questions about the value of nuclear research in so many aspects of everyday life, everything from smoke detectors to dials that we use on our clocks. This is, of course, an area of activity which was underestimated in its importance across the country.

ANSTO has expanded its activities at its Sydney campus, including at its nuclear medicine facility, and it has tripled production of molybdenum-99, which has been in worldwide shortage. Something like 800,000 Australians every year enjoy the benefits of this radiopharmaceutical. The aim, of course, of this proposed new development is to build a campus of major national innovation precincts. The legislation governing ANSTO unduly restricts its scope and the potential for the precinct. However, this legislation preserves the public interest and ensures that land cannot be alienated but can be used in such a way as to attract new investment and allow for operations to be expanded and for greater collaborations between the public and private sectors in an important area of public good—research.

As I said, the legislation as currently formed is unduly restrictive on what ANSTO can do. The bill overcomes this by allowing ANSTO to share its knowledge, expertise, facilities and properties with other entities. These entities need not have a direct involvement in nuclear science or technology but, of course, will need to be associated with the direct work that ANSTO is undertaking. The bill widens the definition of scientific research, innovation and training in ANSTO so that they are able to go beyond immediate work on nuclear science and technology.

The precinct itself will aim to produce a graduate institute providing research positions for up to 400 postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows at both Sydney and Melbourne campuses. I regard that as an extraordinarily ambitious target. I look forward to that actually being achieved. Nonetheless, I think the framework for this legislation allows that ambition to be pursued and I look forward to working with ANSTO to see that that is actually able to be pursued.

The changes that we're seeing here allow ANSTO to cooperate with industry, with universities, and with other publicly funded research agencies. This is the kind of exchange between sectors and agencies which I promoted when I have been the minister. It is an area of public enterprise which this parliament should encourage and should develop; therefore, I think this bill is entitled to be supported. I look forward to the measures that were actually initiated by the previous Labor government in this area, which saw the development of the innovation precincts across this country, which led ultimately to the Australian jobs plan which was developed in 2002. I believe this is an extension of that type of thinking, and it is appropriate that this bill be endorsed by this parliament.

8:16 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens will be opposing the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2017. We're disappointed to see that Labor is jumping over the divide here to support the government in this. We're not going to be supporting it, because we have serious questions in relation to why this is needed. We have questions that have yet to be answered by the government or, indeed, anyone within the bureaucracy who has been pushing for this much needed—so they say—legislation.

This bill will extend the functions of ANSTO to cover purposes relating to the security and defence of Australia. There is no explanation from the government about the intent or the need of this expansion of responsibility. I'd invite the minister, in his closing remarks, to perhaps give us a sense of why he thinks that this is actually needed because, to date, there has been no forthcoming explanation that is, in any way, plausible. It shouldn't be left to the opposition to do the government's work.

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

I just did.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I take that interjection from the opposition. There seems to be very little clear relationship between the medical research that ANSTO does and this proposed new responsibility of keeping Australia safe. What is the rationale, exactly, for that? This is a very serious question that hasn't been answered. So, if the minister would like to give us an explanation to that, we'll be looking forward to hearing it. Australia waging deeper intergeneration for nuclear research is a deep, serious question that cannot be answered from only hearing one side of the debate and that's all we've had to date. The generation is for those reactors that still do not exist; yet, supposedly, they are going to lead us to a place where nuclear products will be the saviour of the world, without the dangerous waste and practices. Well, we're yet to see any of that happen at all. We know this has been talked about for decades, and very little has come of it but, while it goes nowhere, the costs keep climbing. We do not want to be pursuing this course when we could be spending public money on more productive areas of research. This is an expensive white elephant without any justification, and here we see the government simply sinking more and more money into this black hole.

It is a very legitimate public policy question but the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties did very little evidence gathering in relation to this. It only heard from ANSTO in a one-day hearing on the future generation programs. We didn't even hear from the Australian Conservation Foundation or the Friends of the Earth—those other voices that often are used to help balance the rationale, the concerns and to point out the dangerous risks in these things. It was a done-and-dusted inquiry, pushed as quickly through this place as possible. Of course, there is a reason that the government doesn't want these experts to be heard; it is because they don't want the questions to be asked and they don't want the evidence to be borne out.

We should, to be absolutely frank with you, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, start this process again so that we can hear from all voices in relation to this debate—so we can hear whether Australians actually want to be expanding this type of research on this expensive path. When you think about all of the other areas of research that people are crying out for, here we have more public money and more demand on the public purse coming from a small in number but loud minority voice. It's simply something that the Greens cannot support.

All of these measures are pushing Australia closer to nuclear power. We know that it's expensive, it's not safe and that there's no place to deal with the waste in a reasonable way, though of course I guess that people in this place say, 'Oh, well, just dump it in South Australia!' I can tell you, as a South Australian, Mr Acting Deputy President, that we're not particularly happy about that either.

There is no hint of us changing our two sets of laws preventing this. Nuclear power the world over has been beset with cost overruns, delays and the inability to complete. And here we are seeing more money sunk into a white elephant, with the bipartisan support of both the Labor Party and the Liberals. So until some of these deeper questions can be answered and until it is put forward fully why this is needed, the Greens are not convinced at all and we will not be supporting this legislation.

8:21 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2017, which broadens the function of the Lucas Heights nuclear facility to include scientific research, innovation and training. I had the pleasure of a tour of the facility a few months ago, which helped me to understand its capabilities.

What this bill does, in terms of allowing ANSTO to do more than it can at the moment, is not enough. We must go further, because Australia is a nation of Luddites when it comes to things nuclear and, like all other Luddites, we're destined to get poorer and poorer as a result. If the government were genuine about being agile, innovative and technology-agnostic and about easing the cost of living for Australians facing huge electricity bills—and even about reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions—we would regulate rather than ban nuclear power.

We hear a lot about renewable energy, whose share of global electricity generation was 0.6 per cent 40 years ago and is now 6.3 per cent. But nuclear power has grown by more than this. It was 3.3 per cent of global electricity generation 40 years ago and is now 10.6 per cent. This growth of nuclear power has occurred despite the handful of kneejerk reactions we saw after the 2011 disaster in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami killed 20,000 people, while the resulting meltdown of an old and poorly-sited nuclear power plant killed no-one.

Nuclear power remains an unremarkable feature of electricity markets in numerous countries, including South Korea, Sweden and, particularly, France, where 75 per cent of electricity generation is nuclear. As the government's Finkel review admits, countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and China are now developing small, modular reactors to further expand their nuclear power. But this brief acknowledgement of nuclear is all that Finkel has to say on the matter. There are no recommendations on nuclear power, no inclusion of nuclear power in the cost comparisons between technologies and no inclusion of nuclear power in the comparisons on emissions intensity. It seems that Finkel was simply tasked with coming to the bizarre conclusion that fossil-fuel-based power generation is somehow more expensive now than in the past, and that we should have a carbon tax that isn't called a carbon tax and doesn't generate any revenue. It seems that Finkel stuck to his brief. What a shame he couldn't have been more agile.

If the government were genuine about being agile and innovative, we would exploit the huge business opportunity to store nuclear waste—not just our waste but the waste of the rest of the world. We already store waste at Lucas Heights, with no detriment and no hysteria, despite the fact that this is essentially a suburb of Sydney and that more than four million people live in the vicinity.

Australia is the most geologically-stable land mass on earth, and we also have a stable and secure system of government. By rejecting the option of securely storing the world's nuclear waste, we are missing an opportunity for higher incomes and increased tax collections.

The taxpayer is also taking a hit through our rejection of nuclear submarine technology. We are paying France $50 billion to gut their stealthy, long-range, nuclear-powered submarines so that noisy, range-reducing diesel engines can be fitted instead. This is absurd. Maintaining nuclear-powered submarines is not beyond a technologically advanced country like Australia. Our national defence deserves it, and our taxpayers deserve it.

Whether it's nuclear power, nuclear waste or nuclear-powered submarines, Australia is in a bad place that we need to get out of. A bit of agility and innovation is required.

8:25 pm

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill 2017 makes minor but important amendments to the ANSTO governing legislation, the ANSTO Act. The amendments will allow our national nuclear science agency the flexibility to successfully establish an innovation precinct adjacent to its Lucas Heights campus in southern Sydney and will allow ANSTO to potentially establish additional precincts in association with its other campuses. More broadly, the bill will facilitate enhanced collaboration between industry, universities and researchers and ANSTO across all its sites.

Importantly, the amendments will only empower ANSTO to make available its expertise and equipment or lease its land and facilities to parties that have a science, innovation, high-tech-manufacturing or technology-development focus and related amenities, and not for unrelated general retail, office or residential purposes. This is not about some sort of lateral jump into property development or anything else. This is very much about activities which are complementary to and consistent with the charter of ANSTO.

No additional powers have been granted under this bill with regard to defence and national security; that is a furphy. There was a 2006 enactment which addressed the threat of dirty bombs, which is a separate matter.

The other point I would make is: if you're asking about the sorts of companies which will be permitted by the bill to co-locate with ANSTO, they could include advanced manufacturing companies—such as robotic development companies or high-end medical manufacturing companies—technology development companies and engineering companies. Currently, such companies may only co-locate with ANSTO for the period of time that they're directly working with ANSTO.

The proposed ANSTO innovation precinct will co-locate and crowd in scientific partners, knowledge-intensive businesses, high-tech industry, and science, technology, engineering and maths or STEM graduates and medicine graduates around Australia's centre of nuclear capabilities and expertise. Close synergies and collaboration between our publicly-funded research agencies, such as ANSTO, our Australian universities and businesses and industry are a national priority. They are the key to driving Australian innovation. And geography does matter for some innovation. Precincts can facilitate the sorts of collaborative relationships Australia needs if it's to innovate and grow. As a parliament, we want to remove any impediment that may restrict or discourage these relationships. This bill does just that. Physical proximity can be very important in these things, and I have a group at the moment looking at the university precinct strategy to see how we maximise the prospects of being able to use our universities as hubs when it comes to building this sort of academic, industry and research organisation collaboration.

ANSTO already contributes so much to the Australian community. On average, one in two Australians will benefit from the lifesaving nuclear medicine produced by ANSTO. ANSTO's landmark and national research infrastructure, including the OPAL research reactor, the Australian Synchrotron and the Australian Centre for Accelerator Science, are a crucial part of our scientific, social and economic base. They enable scientists to tackle some of the most pressing challenges, in areas as diverse as human health and the environment and solving complex problems for industry. Critically, they maintain a home-grown, highly skilled workforce and help sustain Australia's competitiveness and global relevance.

One of the parts of this I'm particularly gratified about is that the intentions are to have not only a technology park but also a graduate institute and to have the first nuclear science and technology incubator in the world. These are big things, and we can do them because we've got world-class facilities like these. I reject the idea that there is any other purpose to this than promoting Australian science and innovation at the highest levels. I reject some of the claims that have been made by the Greens and others in this regard. There is much prejudice in this debate. People bring ideological blinkers to these debates. I believe in evidence based policymaking. I believe that what ANSTO is doing is good, within the remit it's been given. This bill will allow it to do other good things in association with Australian companies, Australian students and other researchers, as time goes on. The adoption of this bill will allow ANSTO to deepen its impact and reach for the benefit of Australian innovation, education, business and industry. There are no direct financial implications from this bill. As I said before, this is about the powers of ANSTO; it clarifies the powers of ANSTO to do all of this. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bill be read a second time.