Senate debates

Thursday, 30 November 2017


Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Facilitation) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:35 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to stand here today to correct what I consider to be an egregious wrong. It was an act of economic vandalism, and many would argue—I'm not one of them—if you accept the anthropogenic climate change arguments, an act of environmental self-harm perpetuated on the Australian people, with the principal architects being the Australian Greens, of course. What's more, when you consider a zero-emissions scenario that a nuclear industry, particularly a nuclear power industry, would bring to this country, this wrong is the second own goal that the Greens have kicked in the environmental space.

They pretend that the environment is their thing, but it's not. It's actually economic vandalism. That's their thing. They kicked their own environmental goal when they refused to endorse Mr Rudd's emissions trading scheme. But the most telling argument is that 19 years ago they dogmatically insisted that there be a prohibition on even the investigation, on even entertaining the thought, if I can put it like that, of nuclear power in this country. That has compromised our ability to achieve some of their other goals in limiting carbon dioxide. More importantly, it has put Australia behind the rest of the world when it comes to reliable, sustainable, power generation to fuel economic growth and sustain prosperity. Instead, it has foisted upon us this utopian ideal that wind and solar power is going to be able to generate our power needs in this country.

I ask you, if you love the Greens' ideology and you think that climate change can be mitigated through diminishing carbon dioxide, to just imagine for a moment how the landscape in Australia would be different if we were allowed to have nuclear power. We would have zero emissions power in this country. We would have reliable, constant and affordable power in this country, instead of intermittent, unreliable, expensive power, driven by the ideology that has prevented us from pursuing a nuclear industry. So we're burdened with this, and I think it's time that this parliament remove the prohibition on even entertaining the thought of a nuclear industry for Australia. I say that not because repealing these two modest prohibitions is going to deliver a nuclear outcome—nothing could be further from the truth. But surely nuclear power in this country should be able to be assessed on its potential environmental impacts, on its potential economic impacts and on its potential to deliver reliable baseload power for Australia. Regrettably, other parties have been complicit in this. I think it's time for us to revisit it after 19 years.

I look at my own state of South Australia. It was the late state MLC Norm Foster who, by crossing the floor to enable the development of the Roxby Downs mine, effectively repealed a ban on uranium mining in South Australia. Aren't we fortunate for that, because many thousands of jobs have been created and many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic activity has been generated, and all thanks to the strength of one individual doing that. It's very disappointing, of course, that federal Labor hasn't followed suit, but I do want to acknowledge the contribution of the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, who was at least prepared to investigate a nuclear industry for South Australia. He knew then, as he does now, that, in order to allow that to progress, he needed bipartisan support. Originally that was forthcoming, but then, of course, those with hearts the size of peas decided that it was a bit politically contentious and pulled support from it, which resulted in the Premier of South Australia having to walk away as well. What is proposed in this bill would mean that there would be no federal prohibition on a nuclear industry in this country. It would still have to go through environmental approvals. It would still have to be approved by the respective ministers. It would still need, from a political sense, community support or engagement. But we need to be able to have that conversation.

For the uninitiated, I'm a supporter of what I call the nuclear fuel cycle. It is a multistep process. It involves the exploration, mining and milling of uranium. It enables further processing such as the enrichment and fuel fabrication of uranium. It allows electricity generation via a nuclear power plant. It provides for the option of reprocessing a mixed-oxide fuel fabrication to create even more electricity. Ultimately, we will have to confront the great elephant in the room, which is the management, storage and disposal of spent fuel in repositories, just as we have had to confront the requirements for medical nuclear waste—low- to medium-level nuclear waste—that needs to be stored. But, rather than looking at this as something that we want to shunt under the stairs and hide away in the cellar, we should be embracing it and looking at the potential economic opportunities that would open up as a result of it, and I'll come to this a bit later on.

This nuclear fuel cycle doesn't even mention the associated research, the development, and the education and skills training that come with a fully functioning nuclear fuel cycle. Let me begin by touching on the mining aspect for a moment. It's been estimated that the mass of minerals required per terawatt hour for the generation of electricity is something along these lines: if you want a solar photovoltaic cell, it requires about 16,000 tonnes of minerals, effectively, to generate a terawatt hour; if you want hydro, it's about 14,000 tonnes; if you want wind, it's about 10,000 tonnes; geothermal is about 5,000 tonnes—and nuclear? Nuclear requires less than 1,000 tonnes, or mass of mineral tonnage, per terawatt hour. So, even those who are in the anti-mining space, even those who are saying they don't want the Adani mine for whatever reasons, even those who are hopping up and down about digging things up, have to acknowledge that if they don't like mining then mining a thousand tonnes of material to generate a terawatt hour of electricity is better than 16,000 tonnes, which is what is required if you want to go down the solar path.

Importantly, speaking as a South Australian senator, South Australia has a world-leading abundance of uranium. It would last, for our power generation, almost in perpetuity, if necessary. As I said, a thousand tonnes of minerals would generate a terawatt hour. In essence, if I can put it visually, uranium the size of a sack of potatoes could fuel our energy needs for a year. That's extraordinary—a sack of potatoes! You'd be familiar with that, of course, Acting Deputy President Williams. Uranium the size of a sack of potatoes could fuel our energy needs for a year. That is extraordinary. When you think that South Australia is effectively the world's superpower on uranium resources, with 25 per cent of the world's economically viable uranium resources, this is a potential bonanza for the state of South Australia. Let's compare that with some of the other leading uranium sources in the world. Kazakhstan has about 12 per cent—so South Australia alone has twice what Kazakhstan does—Russia has about nine per cent and Canada has about eight per cent. That puts in perspective just how massive this economic opportunity, this resource opportunity, is for the state of South Australia.

And let's not forget history. What fuelled the Industrial Revolution and pioneered so much was the abundance of easily available coal in the United Kingdom and its proximity to the surface, where it could be mined and used for industry. Yet here we have, abundant in one of our states which is most economically challenged, one of the cleanest, greenest, largest sources of fuel that is environmentally friendly because it requires less movement of tonnage of resources to generate the electricity requirements that we have, and we're not even allowed to entertain the thought, because of some federal legislation.

I'm reflecting on this, and there are many in this chamber who lament the economic state of South Australia. I do; I think it could be better and I think it needs to be better. But there are others who are unkind and refer to it as a mendicant state or refer to us as a drain on the economic nation. I disagree with that; I think we contribute an enormous amount, and that's very important. But imagine the contribution South Australia could make to the national economy if we opened up that 25 per cent of the world's useable or mineable uranium resources, invested in a nuclear fuel industry in this country and embraced the nuclear cycle. We are blessed with a geologically stable continent—South Australia very much so. We have large expanses of land which would be suitable for it. It would prove to be an economic bonanza for our country, and we shouldn't close our minds to it.

I made a point earlier about the Premier of South Australia, Mr Weatherill, who did launch a royal commission to investigate the potential of the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia. It was established in May 2015. It had over 250 submissions and it reported a year later. The critical finding was that South Australia could safely increase its participation in nuclear industries and was capable of managing the attendant risks. The report and the publicity surrounding it centred on the immediate economic opportunities, which promised to potentially generate $100 billion in excess of expenditure over the life of its operation. If the accumulating profits went into a state wealth fund, for example, and annually reinvested half the interest generated, a $445 billion fund could be generated over the next 70 years. That potentially would secure South Australia's economic prosperity for centuries to come if it were well managed.

The difficulty is that the Premier of South Australia walked away because the opposition leader, Mr Marshall, chickened out and ran away from it. This is a perfect illustration of the major parties not being prepared to tackle issues such as this because they have some potential for political ramifications. Rather than do what's in the national interest or the economic interest, sometimes they choose to do what's in their political interest. It's disappointing, but I commend the South Australian government for at least being brave enough to have the discussion and open it up. We now need to have that discussion and open it up by amending federal legislation.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report said that installed nuclear capacity is actually going to grow from 380 gigawatts to 450 by 2030. So it's going up by 70 gigawatts internationally. To put that into context, the Australian National Energy Market's generation capacity has never been higher than 48 gigawatts. So, in effect, the increase in nuclear generation globally will be Australia's national generation capacity plus 50 per cent, and Australia is denying itself this opportunity. It's the equivalent of nine Australian energy grids in global nuclear capacity being functional by 2030. We'll be building windmills and tipping in $60 billion worth of subsidies in wind and solar to have a fraction of the results that will be being delivered around the rest of the world. Until 2030 is about how long it would take to get a nuclear fuel cycle up and running in Australia. But, I hasten to add, the evidence from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Iran, Pakistan and Romania shows that it would take about 9½ years to get a nuclear power plant up and running. It could be done within six years, but let's just err on the side of caution and say that, if we got on with it next year, we could almost certainly have operational power plants by the middle of the next decade.

As can be inferred from the list of the countries that I just mentioned, Australia would not be a global pariah in exploring nuclear power. In fact, we would be embracing what the rest of the world is embracing. There are 447 nuclear reactors currently operating, in 30 countries worldwide. A further 511 of them are under construction, planned or proposed. Not one of the future total 958 nuclear power stations worldwide will be based in Australia. Doesn't that say a lot about the myopic vision of the future we have for our country, unless we support this legislation? Eleven per cent of the world's energy is sourced from nuclear—three times more than solar, wind or geothermal. Indeed, of the countries with the highest electricity consumption, the top 11 all use nuclear energy. Australia sits at 19th, possibly because we don't have reliable electricity or possibly because our manufacturing industry is deserting us because our electricity is too expensive. If you want prosperity, you need reliable, efficient and inexpensive baseload power. That is the challenge. Nuclear delivers that, and we're closing our mind to it. Look at France, for example. A large-scale nuclear energy user, it has power prices that are about 17 per cent lower than the EU average.

The royal commission stated, 'It would be wise to facilitate a technology neutral policy for Australia’s future electricity generation mix.' I agree. To make a range of technologies available, action is required now. In the case of nuclear power, these actions include amending existing legislation; setting key policies to send relevant signals for private sector investment; developing electricity market infrastructure; and developing a new regulatory framework that addresses key principles of nonproliferation, safety and security in the use of nuclear energy. If such preparatory steps are deferred, nuclear power would continue to be precluded as an option, meaning that it would always be an option on the horizon.

We can't afford to put it out onto the horizon. We often hear senators in here talk about jobs—about creating jobs, saving jobs. 'Jobs, jobs, jobs,' is the mantra. But, if you compare us with Canada, for example, which has nuclear energy, we have 3,000 uranium and nuclear related jobs in this country; Canada has 60,000 jobs—60,000 jobs in the very industry that could sustain Australia's energy and generate enormous prosperity for this country. Our industry has a value of approximately $600 million. Canada has a value of Can$5 billion. So this bill is about helping Australia and about helping my home state of South Australia to develop a nuclear fuel cycle, to get about signalling to the world that we are a 'yes' nation, not just on social issues but on economic issues. Let's be a 'yes' vote to economic opportunities for our children—and our grandchildren too. Let's say yes to lowering emissions, if that's your thing. Let's say yes to repealing archaic, narrow-minded bans, if that's your thing. Let's say yes to affordable, reliable energy. Let's say yes to Australia becoming to uranium and nuclear what Saudi Arabia has been to oil: a mineral supply that is the envy of the rest of the world. Let's say yes to investment in new technologies, yes to leading-edge research and improvements on the technology and yes to limitless energy so that we can have high-energy manufacturing and extractive industries to develop lifetime and multigenerational prosperity.

I encourage the Senate to see this as being a yes—to say, 'Yes, this is a can-do nation, not a nimby nation, not a nation that says, "We'll sell you the resources that we have so you can value-add," and cannibalise Australia's future prosperity.' Let's say, 'Yes, we can do it here.' We are being left behind due to crazy, illogical ideology that emanated from this place 19 years ago. We need to fix it. That's why I say there is a better way. We can start that better way by supporting this legislation, repealing the ban on nuclear energy and repealing the ban on a nuclear fuel cycle in this country that promises to deliver so much and make South Australia, and our nation, an energy superpower. Australia deserves nothing less.

11:54 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Bernardi for raising this matter for discussion today. It's certainly a debate that needs to be had. Perhaps Senator Bernardi has been following the urgings of Josh Frydenberg, the Minister for the Environment and Energy, who said that a national debate on domestic nuclear power is needed and essential. I have to say Senator Bernardi has just presented a very persuasive argument on why his bill should be passed, and, having listened intently to Senator Bernardi's speech, I can't say I disagree with anything he said.

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Facilitation) Bill 2017, which Senator Bernardi has introduced, aims to remove the prohibitions on nuclear facilities contained in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act. It should be clear that the removal of the prohibitions in itself wouldn't automatically allow for the construction and operation of nuclear facilities. The bill seeks to remove the automatic bans in the EPBC and the ARPANS acts which prevent the minister, or others, from approving certain nuclear activities. Under Senator Bernardi's bill, the environment minister would still have to consider applications to establish facilities under the EPBC Act, and the foreign minister would retain the power to decide whether or not to issue a permit for a proposed facility under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act.

Minister Frydenberg, on behalf of the government, has welcomed and encouraged a national debate on domestic nuclear power. Typically, the Labor Party, in their usual negative way, and in responding to threats from the Greens political party, who keep them where they are in the political spectrum, have said, 'Nuclear power is not a viable option for Australia.' Labor's spokesman, the Hon. Mark Butler, MP, said that. It is typical Labor negativity—they are not arguing against it through any great enthusiasm but simply because the Greens don't want it. The Labor Party are where they are in this parliament because of the Greens political party and their preferences. Certainly in my home state of Queensland, without Greens preferences the Labor Party would not be in power. The one thing that attracts the Labor Party more than anything else is power. They are not terribly interested in good governance, but they are interested in power for the party and for the union officials who, really, run the Labor Party and who effectively run governments where the Labor Party are in power.

As an aside, whilst the Greens political party preferences keep Labor in power in Queensland so too do preferences from the One Nation Party. Without preferences from One Nation to Labor candidates in many electorates in Queensland, the Labor Party would have no chance of forming government in Queensland. So, as an aside—not at all related to this bill—I hope the Labor Party in this chamber will cease its relentless attacks on Senator Hanson, which I tire of a bit, I have to say, because effectively Senator Hanson and her party have put the Labor Party into power in Queensland again. That was done inadvertently, I'm sure, but nevertheless that's what they've done, and it's to be regretted. The Greens, on the other hand, don't do it inadvertently; they do it very, very deliberately. They pretend they are opposed to the Labor Party on some things, but, in effect, they will always put the Labor Party into power where they can, because they know that the Labor Party are an easy target for their ideological stupidity, which they exercise on this and on many, many other issues.

It always amuses me, when we talk about uranium and nuclear power, that the Greens don't want carbon emissions, don't want coal-fired power stations and don't like hydro. They want to save the world, and there's one way to give reliable, cheap, plentiful energy without any carbon emissions at all, and that's through nuclear power—but do the Greens want that? No. My view of the Greens—and this is a long-held view from the times I was forestry minister—is that they just want to destroy Australia's economy in whichever way they can. I'm not quite sure what their ultimate aim is, but they are hell-bent on destroying the Australian economy and the jobs of Australian workers. Yet, they still seem to attract some—I might say ever-diminishing—political support, mainly from those in the capital cities whose jobs are always secure because they usually work for the governments and get a pay cheque at the end of the month. They're the people who can be holier than thou and sidle up with the Greens with some of their ridiculous policies on many things, including power and electricity prices in Australia.

The Labor Party show complete hypocrisy on uranium as well as their subservience to Greens' pressures. Remember that they had the three-mines policy: uranium from some mines was good uranium, but if it came from more than three mines it was bad uranium. Tell me the common sense, the justification behind such a ridiculous policy. I'm not sure if the three-mines policy is still a Labor Party policy—perhaps some Labor contributor to this debate could alert me to that—but certainly in the time I've been in this chamber that was the thing: uranium from three mines was good uranium but uranium from other mines was bad uranium, and so you couldn't have it.

I know he won't mind me saying this, but a former Labor energy minister in my home state of Queensland was the mines minister and energy minister in one of many Labor governments—the too many Queensland Labor governments—totally opposed to nuclear power, but, when he left the state parliament and went back to his home town of Mount Isa, he became mayor of Mount Isa and, on the way through, became an advocate, a lobbyist for the uranium industry. I don't criticise him for that. I agree that it was not only a job but also something that I think he personally firmly believed in—yet he was the one that oversaw 'no nuclear' when he was the minister in the Queensland government. In private conversations—well, I shouldn't repeat them if they're private conversations, should I? But I think he would tell everyone that he never thought it was such a very good policy, but that was the way of the ALP: you do what they say or you're out on your ear. Now, in his more independent stance, he acknowledges that nuclear power is good. It can be cheap in the long run and it can provide Australia with unlimited clean energy. He's no longer the mayor, but the council area he was mayor of—Mount Isa City Council—is the biggest city in Australia, I might say, because it goes far beyond the town of Mount Isa. There is a lot of uranium in that area that could be extracted very easily. In fact, in Queensland, generally, there is a great deal of easily obtainable uranium that could be used.

Senators will know that Australia is already the third-largest producer of uranium, and the Turnbull government supports the sustainable development and responsible use of this important energy service and source. But, as Senator Bernardi very articulately said, we find it okay to export Australia's uranium to other countries who then use it to produce cheap power but we don't allow it in our own country. Senator Bernardi's bill seeks to address some of the impediments to allowing nuclear power in Australia.

I make it clear that the government has no plans currently to introduce nuclear power into Australia, but we do acknowledge that nuclear energy is a proven technology. It can deliver baseload electricity with very, very low or no carbon emissions. We also acknowledge nuclear is an important energy source for many countries around the world. In fact, most of Europe used to rely on nuclear energy, and then we had that scare in Japan with a nuclear power plant that was old and not very well constructed, I'm told. Suddenly some nations pulled out of nuclear power; it's always amused me. Germany—which I've always admired, post war, in their energy and the way they were dedicated to improving their economy—used to have nuclear power and, for some reason that I've never been able to understand, following the Fukushima incident in Japan they shut down their nuclear power stations. They then had to buy all their electricity from France, which, of course, produces its power by nuclear energy.

I remember at one stage going and having a look at a tidal power plant in France many years ago and being shown around by EDF, Electricite de France, who ran the plant. I said, 'Gee, this tidal wave power is impressive. It must be good. It must be efficient and save you some money.' The official said to me, 'Actually, it doesn't save us anything. It's very expensive to run. It doesn't produce much electricity, but we keep it going because it looks good to the world. We get all our power from nuclear.' That's a pretty telling conversation. It encapsulates some of the arguments that you hear in this chamber and elsewhere opposing nuclear energy.

There are other forms of energy, but they're very, very expensive. There is one energy of course that's not expensive, and that's coal. I'm still hopeful that the Adani coalmine in Queensland will proceed with the railway line that will create so many jobs that are desperately needed in central and north Queensland. I'm hopeful that at some time in the future—clearly, not under the current Labor government—there will be a coal-fired power station in Collinsville, as promised by the LNP in the state election, that will provide cheap, affordable but certain baseload power in the north which we lack at the present time.

As I've said before, there are emissions from coal—I acknowledge that—but the emissions from Queensland coal are lower than from coal elsewhere around the world. If we don't export our coal around the world, those who need coal will buy it from other sources that don't have the same coal as Australia—high-quality, cleaner coal—and the emissions will continue. There'll just be more of them and come from a different place.

We have this ridiculous opposition by the Greens political party—and, it appears, the Australian Labor Party these days—who don't want cheap power from the plentiful supplies of high-quality coal that we have in Queensland. I very much regret that, in the electorate of Burdekin—which is where I live and, under a redistribution, goes down into Collinsville, Moranbah and into the areas where this mine and railway line would be also encapsulates Bowen where the Abbot Point port is—the sitting member, who's one of my party, is struggling to hold that seat even though the coal-fired power station would have been there and there would have been lots of jobs for workers, miners and railway people. Yet, One Nation, regrettably, in that seat gave their preferences to the Labor Party, and the Labor Party have indicated that they're not interested in a coal-fired power station, not really interested in coalmines and don't want Adani. So all those coalminers who voted for Labor or One Nation are effectively putting themselves out of a job and condemning their fellow Australians and their fellow Queenslanders to higher electricity prices under a continuing Labor government.

Senator Bernardi's bill, which aims at removing the blanket Commonwealth prohibition on nuclear power, is a welcome addition to debate in this chamber, but any decision to establish a nuclear power plant would, given the way the Australian political system works at the moment, require bipartisan support and community acceptance. I would imagine that community acceptance could be garnered if the debate were truthful, but you will have the Greens political party and those on the left of the Labor Party coming out with horror stories about what nuclear may or may not do, often forgetting that in Australia, whilst we don't have nuclear energy, we have over 60 years of experience with nuclear technology. In the last 60 years, we as Australians have benefitted enormously from nuclear science and technology, particularly in the production of nuclear medicines to diagnose and treat serious illnesses. I give a shout-out to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, who are a wonderful group of great Australian scientists. Unfortunately, many more that we could've had, who were leaders in that field, have had to go overseas, but those who remain with us do a wonderful job at ANSTO in helping all Australians with nuclear medicine. If you listen to the Greens, I think they're against that, but that shows their hypocrisy and inconsistency so usually they don't want to talk about those sorts of things.

I've mentioned that my own state of Queensland would benefit from greater activity in the uranium mining, export and usage area. Senator Bernardi mentioned his state of South Australia, and I might say, with not a great deal of respect, that South Australia certainly needs a hand-up somewhere, or even a handout, which is what it gets from the Commonwealth government now. I know that my colleague Senator Fawcett has very strong views on this subject, and I hope that he will be participating in the debate. I also know that my friend and former colleague Sean Edwards is a South Australian with a real vision for how nuclear energy, nuclear science and nuclear technology can change the face of what is now the mendicant state of South Australia. I wish Sean all the very best as he pursues—as I hope he's still doing—some of those very interesting and original ideas he had in relation to the storage of nuclear waste and the way to sustainably and carefully use nuclear energy in Australia.

I again thank Senator Bernardi for introducing this bill. As I said earlier, Minister Frydenberg, who is the government spokesman in this area, has welcomed a national debate. We do need informed, rational, non-ideological debate on this, and Senator Bernardi's bill is certainly a step in that direction. I thank him again for bringing this matter to the Senate for debate.

12:14 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bernardi, unsurprisingly, has put on the agenda this issue around nuclear energy. In his contribution to this debate on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Facilitation) Bill 2017, he seemed to indicate that this was something that came as a huge surprise to everyone who's involved in the debate on energy in this country. I find this hard to understand, because, as we know, the issues of nuclear power and nuclear energy have been part of discussion in this space for a very long time. Indeed, there has been a wide range of debates through the community, through the scientific community and through the economic community about the advantages, disadvantages, costs and processes of a whole range of energy sources, including nuclear energy. It's as though Senator Bernardi and Senator Macdonald believe that there's been a box with a closed lid and this shall not be talked about, which is just not true.

Over the years, issues around nuclear energy have come before this place and they have been part of the wider community discussion. Through that process, a number of investigations have taken place, and, as our shadow minister, Mark Butler, has said, the simple fact is that nuclear power in Australia simply doesn't add up. The arguments do not add up now and they didn't add up in the past. Sometime in the future they may, but at this time they just don't add up. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which is well skilled and well knowledgeable in this space, noted: 'It's difficult to envisage traditional nuclear power plants being established on the NEM given the current grid structure.'

We meet regularly here with CSIRO and we have the Friends of CSIRO group and on a number of occasions people have come here to talk about a range of energy options for our country, which is a significant discussion and one we need to have. CSIRO have noted the challenges to nuclear power in Australia, and they have been on the public record for many years. Senator Bernardi would be well aware of these, but I'm going to run through them again, because I think it's more important in this debate to talk about what's on the record about nuclear power, rather than to talk about how preferences operate in the Queensland state election. Interesting as that is, I could not see the absolute relevance to this debate.

In the CSIRO publications out there on the public record, the issues surrounding challenges to nuclear power in Australia include the legislative and regulatory framework development, including for protection, operational safety, waste storage and decommissioning. I'll go back to some of those later, but they are areas of concern that would need to be considered when debating further implementation or consideration of nuclear energy in our nation. Another area is education, science and technical skills development in this area. Amidst a range of university and developmental areas of research across Australia—a very competitive field, as you know—there has not been a focus on nuclear energy. I'm led to believe that there are no universities in Australia offering courses in nuclear engineering and that there's little nuclear engineering experience in our nation. Again, that is not to say that there should be an absolute denial; it's a statement on the reality of the knowledge base in our country at the moment.

Another concern raised by CSIRO is the commercial and economic framework to support significant up-front capital costs and eventual planned decommissioning. There has been considerable debate over the years about the various costs of different forms of energy in our nation and, consistently, the costings that have come forward about introducing a nuclear energy process in Australia have led to very significant calculations of the costs that would be involved. These costs need to be taken into account when you're looking at the various forms of energy options that we have. The expense of getting a new industry started, the expense of the technology needed and the expense of the actual infrastructure needed are very important elements for consideration. Currently, the indications we have and the data that's available to us indicate that the significant up-front capital costs are a major concern for anyone who is looking at this discussion around nuclear energy. Also, we have seen overseas—and, naturally, a lot of our experience is from overseas—that the cost of plant decommissioning has been found to be extremely expensive. Where countries have had to decommission nuclear power stations, nuclear power plants, it has caused a great deal of concern in terms of how much it costs to make them safe and also in terms of being able to continue operating in the area after they have gone through the process of closing them down.

Another major issue, if a decision were made to build a nuclear energy facility at a particular point, would be how long would it take for it to be operating on the ground, providing the kind of energy that we, as a nation, require? The CSIRO calculations say that it's a 10- to 15-year interval from the commencement to the start-up of a reactor. I know that Senator Bernardi gave other figures. I understand that it would be part of a discussion in this area, but the data that we have before us on the current knowledge that's out there from the CSIRO says that the time frame from commencement to completion and to operation is a 10- to 15-year process, and that, of course, is a very long-term plan, if we're looking at a transition to another form of energy.

There is also the issue of reactor locations. When we talk about nuclear reactors and nuclear waste facilities, a massive community discussion occurs when proposals are put up for these types of facilities. If Senator Bernardi—and I'm not trying to be too direct towards Senator Bernardi, but he has brought forward this bill—and other people as proponents of this form of energy want us to talk about it then they need to consider and clearly identify when putting forward a proposal to transition to any form of nuclear power where they would locate the infrastructure that is necessary to make such power operational. Our personal experience in Australia has been that when these things are brought out into the open—when finally, after discussions that often take place in secret, I'll say, and when finally decisions are made public as to where a nuclear reactor or a nuclear waste facility could be located—there does seem to be a reaction from the community that is not positive.

Certainly, I'm interested that Senator Bernardi has brought forward this issue, as he is a senator for South Australia. I remember the amount of community reaction it caused when a proposal was made several years ago for nuclear waste facilities to be located in the South Australian geography. The local community was not supportive of that. Then there were further discussions about possible locations in the Northern Territory. Again, the Northern Territory government and the Northern Territory communities that were involved in those discussions were very unhappy with their community areas being identified as possible locations. So, when you're looking at issues that need to be considered when you're going in this nuclear direction, you have to look at where you would actually place the infrastructure, where there would be support for that infrastructure and—from overseas experience—where it would be physically safe to have the infrastructure of the type that you would need. I do not have all the knowledge, but I have read papers about the kind of geography that is necessary for such a plant to be placed in, including access to water and access to other forms of technologies.

This leads to a very sensitive issue, which is water use. CSIRO has done a lot of work generally on the issue of water use in our community. They've used that knowledge in the discussion on what would be necessary for nuclear plants or nuclear operations. The indications that they have—and this is available on their website—is that nuclear plants use more cooling water than coal and gas plants. In terms of the sensitivities in our community and also the necessities of our climate and our access to water in Australia, that is a really important issue. Where would you be able to ensure that there were appropriate water sources, that would be safe and that would provide the support that would be necessary for the implementation of nuclear energy? The last point that they discuss at length—and this is after many, many years of community engagement—is the political and social acceptance of nuclear power, and that is not agreed and it is not clear in our community. In fact, there continues to be a wide range of opinion about the acceptance of nuclear power and that form of energy in our country.

Even if you were to overcome the community, legal and political barriers to nuclear energy, it's clear that due to the skills and other technical barriers it would take very many years, over a decade—and that's the optimistic option—for Australia to be ready to begin construction of a nuclear power plant. That also does not take into account, as I said, the real need existing in our nation, and I am very much aware of strong community opposition to nuclear power. It is important that we engage on those issues and—rather than dismissing them quite sarcastically as, I believe, Senator Macdonald did in his previous contribution—understand that there is community knowledge, understanding and frustration around the issues that are important. I know that there are other things happening in this place and I seek leave to continue my remarks later on this issue.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is leave granted?

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

Leave is not granted.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

There does not seem to be acceptance that we end this debate.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We want to hear your pearls of wisdom!

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

I know, Senator Abetz, that you yearn to hear what I have to say!

As I was saying, that remains a major issue within the community in terms of any acceptance of a change to the current position that we have in the country around nuclear power. Senator Macdonald did allude to the 'issue' or 'incident'—I should have written it down—of Fukushima. His dismissal of the significant issues around what happened at Fukushima was, I think, indicative of the lack of genuine understanding of the concerns in the community around this issue. Certainly over a long period of time one of the clear issues that has been raised within the community about anything around the further development of nuclear energy in our country has been a concern around a guarantee for safety and that there not be the kind of environmental, social and serious damage that occurred as a result of a series of nuclear incidents over many years. The most recent of those was in Fukushima, but the Chernobyl situation, of which we've just passed a significant anniversary, caused immense damage all across northern Europe and into the Arctic. In parts of Europe and the UK—I know that the UK are probably not referring to themselves as part of Europe any longer—there is still monitoring being done of ongoing issues around environmental damage in that area as a result of an incident that happened well over 20 years ago.

We've had Chernobyl identified and national and international reviews of what occurred at Three Mile Island and the significant safety issues that occurred. When something goes wrong in a nuclear energy facility, the resultant impact is much more serious than we see when things go wrong with other forms of power in the power industry. Certainly no-one can ever offer a guarantee. It doesn't matter what form of energy we're talking about, there's a possibility that there can be problems and that dangerous and destructive things can occur. However, our international experience at this point in time is that the resultant impact of a disaster, if something goes wrong with nuclear power, is significantly greater than what has occurred with other forms of energy problems. That has a major impact for the community and also for security in our nation. If anyone heard the number of submissions that Senator Ludlam made on the issue of post-Fukushima Japan from his many visits there and his interactions with community, parliamentarians and scientists, they would understand that the lessons to be learned by what happened in Fukushima must continue to be part of the ongoing debate on this issue.

I know that Senator Bernardi alluded to the very significant issue of nuclear waste that continues to bedevil our community even with the nuclear processes that we have, particularly in the medical field, already in Australia. Coming to an effective, agreed process for how we should operate the increasing amount of waste has proven to be a major obstacle already in our society. I'm not sure whether Senator Bernardi has been involved in any of the discussions around this issue, but I have. I know there are other speakers, so I'll end my contribution there.

12:31 pm

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

Two atoms are walking down the street. The first atom says he thinks he's lost an electron. The second atom asks, 'Are you positive?' All things nuclear don't need to be scary.

Nuclear power evokes the fear of the unknown, because nuclear science is so extraordinary and because we don't have nuclear power here in Australia. But nuclear power is an unremarkable feature of energy markets around the world. Nuclear power has grown from 3.3 per cent of global electricity generation 40 years ago to 10.6 per cent now. Nuclear power is relied on in countries like South Korea and Sweden. In France, 75 per cent of electricity generation is nuclear, and countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and China are further expanding their nuclear power by developing small modular reactors which generate little waste.

Over 60 nuclear reactors are under construction right now, and China plans another 200 by 2050. There are 400 nuclear reactors in the world and, within 10 years, there will be over 500. The global growth in nuclear power is ongoing, despite the 2011 disaster in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami killed 20,000 people and the resulting meltdown of an old and poorly sited nuclear power plant prompted significant upheaval but killed no-one. It goes against what hippies want to believe, but the nuclear power industry is significantly safer than any other large-scale, energy-related industries. Fossil-fuel power, hydro power and wind power are more deadly both in absolute terms and relative to the power they produce. That was the conclusion of the 2006 review commissioned by the Howard government, and it remains true today.

When I hear Luddites speaking about the dangers of nuclear power, I'm reminded of a joke. A guy walks up to a girl and says, 'Let's chat.' She says, 'What about?' He says, 'How about nuclear power?' She says, 'Let me ask a question first. A deer, a cow and a horse all eat the same stuff—grass—yet a deer excretes little pellets, a cow turns out a flat patty and a horse produces clumps of dried grass. Why do you think that is?' The guy thinks about it and says, 'Hmm. I have no idea.' To which the girl replies, 'Do you really feel qualified to discuss nuclear power when you don't know crap?'

Today we are debating a bill a version of which I was drafting but Senator Bernardi beat me to it. It is the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Facilitation) Bill 2017. I heartily support the bill and I congratulate him for bringing it forward. The bill removes Commonwealth bans on nuclear power and on nuclear fuel processing, reprocessing and enrichment. These bans are found in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act. Removing these blanket bans still leaves nuclear power heavily regulated. Nuclear activities and installations would still need to satisfy the generic environmental approval requirements in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. They would also need to be licensed under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act. Any nuclear activities in Australia would also continue to be subject to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act, the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations and the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations.

This bill, quite rightly, removes Commonwealth bans on nuclear fuels and power, but I think we can go further to show to the parliament, the government and the people that we can manage the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia. So I would seek to add to this bill by moving amendments at the committee stage. These amendments would establish a regulatory framework for nuclear fuels and power. They would allow the existing nuclear safety regulator, called ARPANSA, to issue licences to undertake nuclear activities, not just to the Commonwealth bodies that they currently issue licences to but more generally. They would require ARPANSA to make disallowable regulations regarding health, safety and environmental standards, and minimum disaster insurance requirements. My amendments would also remove Commonwealth interference in state and territory decisions on uranium mining and the transportation and storage of nuclear power. This involves amendment of the Environment Protection (Northern Territory Supreme Court) Act 1978, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978 and the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012. None of my amendments would trample on states' rights, so to get rid of the various bans on nuclear power that exist in state law, voters would need to vote at state elections for the Liberal Democrats, or, if they weren't quite such strong supporters of freedom, they could vote for the Australian Conservatives.

Let me finish as I started, with a cheesy joke, to remind us that all things nuclear don't need to be scary. A neutron walks into a bar. He orders a beer and asks the barman, 'How much do I owe you?' The barman replies, 'For you, no charge.' Nuclear power must have a future in Australia. If we are serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we have to embrace nuclear power. There is no other option. We cannot generate low-emissions electricity and keep the lights on and the costs down using wind power and solar power or hydro power. It cannot be done, and the countries that are trying to do it are failing. Only the countries that are investing in nuclear power are, at the same time, reducing their emissions and keeping the lights on. There is no other alternative. We must embrace nuclear power.

12:39 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian government is seeking to implement the National Energy Guarantee, a policy that is concentrating on affordability, reliability and lowering our emissions. In that context, we as a nation should be embracing every type of energy production available to mankind to ascertain whether or not it can live up to those three criteria of affordability, reliability and potentially lowering our emissions. To deliberately say, for bizarre ideological reasons, that we will not even look at or countenance one particular source of energy is to really put our heads in the sand and potentially deny ourselves the very best source of energy production that science has to offer the world.

We as a country have the benefit of at least 25 per cent or more of the world's uranium resources. We are exporting that resource to many countries around the world. Indeed, France and many other European countries have their energy supplied courtesy of our uranium. In the Western world, nuclear power has been part of the lifeblood of the economy and standard of living. Why should Australia be denied the opportunity of even looking at it and contemplating the potential that it might have for our own country? That is the issue in this debate. It's not about actually establishing a nuclear power station; it's only asking: can we engage in and have a mature discussion about this and ask the fundamental questions.

If we look at how much money we have spent, thus far, on the so-called renewable energy sector in this country and the forward trajectory of that expenditure, and if we were able to wind back the clock and grab all those taxpayer subsidies and put them into a nuclear power station, today—

Senator Bernardi interjecting

and I accept Senator Bernardi's interjection—we could have had 20 of them. I'm not sure if that calculation is correct, but I am more than willing to accept it. Therefore, our fellow Australians could have had affordable and reliable energy, with no emissions at all. It is accepted that nuclear power stations have the lowest emissions footprint of any energy source. Indeed, in my home state of Tasmania, wind farms are being built, and, in conjunction with hydro, that seems to work relatively well. But, as we know in Tasmania—and this is something the Greens will never talk about—the wind farms are responsible for the demise of dozens of wedge-tailed eagles, a threatened species. A little badge that a former senator wears on his lapel all the time, whilst he keeps promoting wind power—

Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting

And talking about wind, it's good to see Senator Whish-Wilson in the chamber. But I say to this chamber and to the Australian people: to deliberately say that you don't want to talk about nuclear power is as foolish and irresponsible as saying you don't want to talk about solar power or hydro power or coal power. This is what this legislation that has been introduced by Senator Bernardi seeks to do. What can be the problem, other than if you've got some bizarre ideological objection to the delivery of affordable, reliable and low-emission energy for the benefit of our nation, with us looking at the options? This is where the Australian Labor Party really needs to come to grips with whether or not they represent the workers of this country, the pensioners of this country, the manufacturers of this country, who are always on the lookout for a reliable energy source.

Sadly, those who live in the state of South Australia, such as Senator Bernardi, know the consequences of an over-reliance on solar and wind power. On one day those two sources can provide over 100 per cent of the need, but on another day only three per cent—I think that is the lowest they've ever produced. What happens when the Greens stop talking and the wind stops blowing, or the sun stops shining when Senator Bernardi stops smiling?

What happens? They are reliant on brown coal power from Victoria. And what happens when too much is required? The whole infrastructure falls apart. Nuclear is potentially an answer. It should be explored and allowed to be given the opportunity to be part of our energy requirements.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President, Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Abetz! Pursuant to order, debate is interrupted. You will be in continuation at the resumption.