Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2018


Economics References Committee; Report

5:52 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I take note of the report into the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. I'd like to thank the committee for the work it did in relation to this particular inquiry. I'd also like to thank the secretariat, who did a fantastic job behind the scenes. In general, I support the findings of the committee. However, I don't feel that they go far enough. Out of my responsibility to the communities of Kimba and Hawker, I now wish to add to some of the findings of the report.

Centre Alliance accepts that Australia has a responsibility to safely and securely manage radioactive waste from the production of nuclear medicine to a range of nuclear based scientific and industrial purposes. Inherent in that acceptance is the fact we need to have a facility. However, to have a facility we simply have to make sure that that facility comes by way of community consent—that's really, really important.

I think the process we've gone through is flawed for a number of reasons. The government commenced the site selection process with a commitment to obtain broad community support. The National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012 does not require that, but the minister made a statement and made a commitment that that's what he would do. However, when they first tested the waters on this, they found that the broad community support was wanting, so they increased their persuasion efforts. They set out to inform the community. I have no problem with that, but they only sent experts that shared the government's perspective. Contrary views from very well respected academics and professionals were not presented. It was sort of a Soviet mode of, 'Please don't think your government will do that for you and then tell you what you need to know.' They then sought to inform by taking people across to ANSTO. I don't mind the fact they did that. That was quite generous of the government. However, they went beyond a reasonable brief when they extended state funded trips to include things like dinner cruises on Sydney Harbour. They sought to encourage the community through a multimillion-dollar community benefit program and then tripled the benefit when they sensed that their encouragement was failing. A fair process must not only be fair; it must be seen to be fair. On this count, it fails.

The minister in some sense also hedged his bet. The department made a submission to this inquiry and made a very strong point that it wasn't a requirement of the act to have broad community support. However, the minister did make that statement, and people repose confidence and trust in what ministers say. If they say something, we anticipate they will honour what they have said.

Unfortunately, we have ended up with a situation where we don't have broad community support in Kimba or in Hawker; we have a very divided community. The minister has sought to, in some sense, alleviate the concerns of the community by running an AEC vote. The AEC, a very reputable entity here in Australia, is in some sense being used to establish legitimacy of the pathway that the government's taking us on. I recall back in this chamber, in March last year, then Senator Xenophon asked the minister at question time what he thought that broad community support was and the minister basically said:

We had taken forward a proposal from the Hawker region—Senator Xenophon might be aware of that—where support was at 65 per cent. We have not put a definitive figure on broader community support, for the reason that it is not just about the overall figure; we would need a figure in the range of the support we received in Hawker.

But the minister appears to have walked away from that now. Broad community support will mean whatever the minister wants it to mean. To twist a phrase from Joseph Stalin, 'It is not the people who vote that count; it is the people who interpret the meaning of the count.' Having visited the communities of both Hawker and Kimba during the inquiry, they are bitterly divided. The process has polarised the community and there's likely to be ill feeling for many years to come. It's my view that, unless a 65 per cent vote in favour of the facility is achieved and all adjoining neighbours are in agreement and the Aboriginal community are on board, the government must look to alternative sites. The distinguishing mark of 'comrade minister' is the AEC vote, the instrument with which he does all his mischief.

The process of finding a permanent solution for storing and disposing of Australia's low-level radioactive waste began in the 1970s. It has taken at least four decades to get to the point where we are now. If one of the Hawker or Kimba sites is selected, the government intends to move intermediate-level waste to any newly-built facility as a temporary measure until an intermediate-level waste disposal facility is built. It is anticipated a similar process will be undertaken to identify and select a site for an intermediate-level waste disposal facility. In reality, that means intermediate-level waste will be at the low-level facility for decades. It's probably reasonable for nuclear scientists, who think in radioactive half-lives, to think 40 years is temporary, but that's not what the community thinks. Intermediate waste can and is being stored at Lucas Heights. ARPANSA's Chief Regulatory Officer, Mr Jim Scott, told the committee that they can't put the waste there because the ANSTO Act doesn't allow that to occur. But he didn't elaborate the fact that the act could be changed. Why do we need to do a double movement here? We have a facility right next to a reactor that could take that waste and store it safely until such time as a facility is available.

In some sense, I think we need to be very honest about what's happening here. We've got a facility that the minister would like to resolve—he said in the media that he'd like to have this whole thing resolved prior to the next election. That indicates there's a political taint to all of this. There is no point in having this facility as a site that will cause so much angst. There are alternatives. There is Crown land, for example. There are a number of places where this facility could go. There's also a proposal before the minister for a site in Western Australia, where the community may well be much happier to take this, and broad community support could be achieved.

The committee have done a very good job with this report. They've laid out all of the facts. They've made some very solid recommendations. But I think we need to be very careful. In my view this process, particularly because the minister simply will not give the criteria by which he will make his decision, has become a sham. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

6:01 pm

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

I rise to add some comments in relation to this committee report as well. Of course, the Australian Greens have had a very proud and long history raising serious concerns about how successive federal governments have intended to impose a national nuclear waste dump on various communities. Let me be absolutely clear: it seems that time and time again the Commonwealth continues to try and put these dumps in areas where there is strong community opposition, particularly from First Australians, with a hope—perhaps a naive hope—that, because it's in the outback, it's out of sight, out of mind. The views of those Aboriginal communities are not as important as, indeed, if the debate were being held about whether the dump was going into the northern, western, eastern or southern suburbs of a capital city.

As a South Australian, I'm extremely concerned about the impact of having a national nuclear waste dump in South Australia, and, particularly when the government has not been up-front with the community about the impact that this dump will have, the type of waste that this dump will hold. For a long time the federal government refused to accept, acknowledge or be honest about the fact that intermediate waste would be stored in these facilities—we now know that is well and truly the case—and even then, despite that, not stored properly. It is temporary storage, which begs the question: where will it go after that? It seems ludicrous to go through this whole process only to be storing intermediate level waste in an inappropriate manner for what is deemed to be 'temporary'. Let's be clear about what 'temporary' means. The minister himself, on ABC Radio in South Australia some weeks ago, said that 'temporary' meant 100 years. For 100 years the outback in South Australia—the Flinders Ranges—could be hosting intermediate level waste above ground. This is just a dangerous and ludicrous proposition.

South Australia has a proud history of beautiful ecotourism and celebrating its outback environment. The idea that we would turn the Flinders Ranges of all places into a nuclear waste dump is just gobsmacking. South Australians won't accept it. We don't like it, we're not going to accept it and we will fight it all the way. This report as tabled by the committee and the dissenting report tabled by me representing the Greens make it very clear that the fight over this location of a nuclear waste dump is far from over.

We know the communities in both Hawker and Kimba have been torn apart by this process. They are hurting. They feel manipulated. They feel undermined. They've had neighbour turn against neighbour in relation to this issue. It has been the absolute opposite of generating community consensus. This issue and the way it has been managed by the federal government—the dishonesty, the mismanagement and the heavy-handedness—have torn families apart. The local traditional owners in both Kimba and Hawker are strongly opposed to having a nuclear waste dump. In fact, when I was out in Hawker some weeks ago visiting locals there, talking to local business owners, tourism operators and members of the Aboriginal communities, it was quite clear how concerned people are. I was shocked to learn that one of the locations where the government wants to put a nuclear waste dump in the Flinders Ranges is on a secret women's site. What is even more horrifying is that, of course, the land that has been nominated is part-owned by former Liberal Senator Grant Chapman. He's put up his property for an option to host the dump. There was no consultation with his neighbours.

This hosting of a nuclear waste dump on a sacred women's site in the Flinders Ranges is just abhorrent. I must say it has echoes of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge saga. Of course, it was the same family—the Chapman family in South Australia—who pushed for the creation of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge despite it impacting on a sacred women's site. Fast-forward, and all of these years later we have culturally significant land in the Flinders Ranges, important to the local Indigenous population—particularly women—now being handed up as the place to put radioactive waste. No wonder this is causing extreme angst in the Hawker community.

This is not to mention the impact that it is going to have on the local tourism in that area. The Flinders Ranges are beautiful. It is an untouched wilderness. People come from all over the world to see the Flinders Ranges and to spend time there. It's something that South Australians are extremely proud of. And yet this government wants to turn it into a radioactive waste dump.

The other location that has been flagged in South Australia, of course, is Kimba, smack bang in the middle of prime agricultural land. South Australia has a green, clean grain reputation. The idea of putting a nuclear waste dump—radioactive waste—in the middle of where we export our grain from is a slap in the face to the industry in South Australia and to the communities who rely on it. Again, there is no community consensus and no social licence. There is just heavy-handedness from this government.

The Greens will fight this all the way from the federal perspective and from the state perspective, because we don't want this radioactive waste dumped in the Flinders Ranges. We don't want it dumped on our prime agricultural land. We certainly don't want the ports of Port Pirie, Whyalla and Port Lincoln turned into highways of ships full of radioactive waste. It has now been admitted by this government that this will happen if these dumps are created.

These ports and these port communities in our state have every right to have their say on this issue too, and yet they've been locked out of the process, kept in the dark and told that everything will be A-OK and doesn't affect them. It is simply abhorrent that the South Australian community is being treated like this. We have fought, as a South Australian community, a national waste dump in our backyard before and we won, and we will do it again. Make no mistake, this fight has only just started.

6:11 pm

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

I too rise to take note of this very important report and put some perspective into the South Australian position. Clearly, Senator Hanson-Young has articulated the Greens' party position, but I'd just like to take the opportunity to recommend to senators who are interested in this matter to read the evidence. You need to read the evidence. This is a very challenging process that's been ongoing for some 45 years. Sooner or later we're going to get the solution to it. I do believe that the community that shows broad agreement will be economically beneficial in this process.

On the tourism argument, the simple fact is the most visited place on the planet is the country of France, with 83-odd million tourists per annum and with an increase of eight per cent last year. There are 18 nuclear reactors in operation every day. That's a high level of nuclear waste under the region of Champagne. Last time I looked, people were still buying champagne. The position that we will not have tourism and we will not have agriculture is a really unfortunate one to put, because clearly the evidence is against that.

We can look at the geology. I was startled to be made aware that, despite concerns raised about the geological soundness or appropriateness of the Hawker site, Canberra is actually more geologically unsound—Hawker sits behind Canberra. That's what Geoscience Australia's evidence is saying.

The simple fact is we have 225 radioactive shipments each week in Australia. That's not low-level waste; that's radioactive shipments each week. Our transport industry is more than capable of doing it successfully and safely—that is our lived experience. Eighty per cent of those shipments will be used in better imaging and radioactive isotopes for medical imaging. The other 30 per cent, I believe, is used for cancer treatments. No-one is going to forgo the opportunity to have a better medical outcome or a better cancer treatment.

We, as a country, simply need to deal with this problem. I accept it's a very challenging problem. I was at the hearings. Unfortunately, Senator Hanson-Young's diary didn't allow her to go to Hawker and/or Kimba and hear the evidence directly. I heard the evidence from our Indigenous communities, and it's fair to say they haven't been treated appropriately in the process. That's not shied away from in the report; that's a recommendation of the report.

It's also fair to say that, like the rest of the community, there's a divergence of view in this matter. There are some people in Indigenous communities who support an outcome which will allow training and Indigenous employment and there are other people saying that it's totally abhorrent. I accept that as evidence. The minister's got to work his way through that, and, if there is broad community consultation, then there'll be an acceptable outcome.

I'd like to go to the issue of the dump and the waste. The evidence is this: within two metres of a low-level radioactive shipment, you'll get the same amount of radioactive exposure as you would eating a banana. That's what the evidence says. If you eat a banana or you're two metres away from a radioactive waste shipment, you will get the same level of exposure. So let's not try and pretend that this is going to be an outcome that is detrimental to a community that accepts it. At the moment we do tranship—out of Port Pirie, Whyalla and all of those places in South Australia—extremely volatile mining chemicals. They are probably equally as dangerous as radioactive waste, and the volume is much more, but we do it safely because that's what transport does. There are always appropriate protocols and security. So I don't regard low-level waste—or whatever waste—as being particularly challenging to the transport industry, because that's not the evidence. There are fly ash and acid B-doubles on the road to Roxby Downs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I used to look after 150 drivers that did it. They got paid well and they did it safely and with very few incidents.

I don't have the same view as the Greens party on this, clearly, but I do have this broad view that wherever it goes, it needs to have good, solid support and it needs to have really good economic outcomes. I think that's achievable and, no matter which government it is, it will have to happen. In South Australia, we shouldn't shy away from the fact that we have four—I think it's four—of the five producers of uranium in the country. If we're going to take the benefits of production, it's a bit rich to say we want nothing to do with the end product. With those few short words, I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

6:16 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was fortunate enough to be the coalition senator participating on this particular inquiry. It was interesting to listen to Senator Hanson-Young's contribution, because you could think we were in two different places. I did travel to Kimba and I did travel to Hawker, and let me put on record the very warm reception that the committee got. That's not to deny that there were differences of opinion in those particular communities but, can I say, I was particularly surprised by, in some places, the strength of the community support to want to act responsibly in dealing with what is a very, very significant and national issue. So I extend my thanks for the warmth and hospitality that the communities and residents of both Hawker and Kimba showed me and the committee.

For those people who want to know, in a relatively short period of time, why this is absolutely critical, they only have to go to paragraphs 1.10, 1.12 and 1.13 of the committee report. From the coalition's perspective, we have put some additional comments on the record but don't oppose the final view that the committee has come to, as demonstrated in the report. Our additional comments go to the issues of community sentiment, Indigenous support and financial compensation, as well as some general comments around the site selection process.

In response to Senator Hanson-Young's very colourful contributions, it is worth noting that radioactive waste is already spread among more than 100 sites across Australia, including five sites within 200 kilometres of the township of Kimba and eight sites within 200 kilometres of Wallerberdina Station. As was put on the record, and as is demonstrated in the variety of information that was made available to local residents, that has resulted in no impact on local or regional farming products and no impact on local or regional farming pricing or reputation. That, I think, is a very, very critical point.

I totally appreciate—and those of us who have been around Australian politics long enough know—that this is exactly the sort of issue that the Australian Greens like to get colourful about and like to create adverse and cataclysmic environments around. But, can I say, this is a very responsible way to address an issue that is with us already and that is not going away: the two major parties of government, whether the Labor Party or the coalition, are committed to dealing with this issue responsibly. I think this report is an important first step in coming to a resolution on what a final site will look like.

For the record, I will read into the Hansard what paragraphs 1.10, 1.12 and, most particularly, 1.13 say. Paragraph 1.10 states:

While the Australian community benefits from the production—

Already benefits—

of nuclear medicine and nuclear research activities, there is also a responsibility to safely and securely manage the associated radioactive waste products from its generation, through interim storage solutions and ultimately to permanent disposal. The process for finding a permanent solution for storing and disposing of Australia's radioactive waste began in the 1970s and is ongoing.

The question for Senator Hanson-Young is whether or not the Australian Greens want to be involved actively, responsibly, in finding a solution or whether they want to harp from the sidelines. Paragraph 1.12 says:

Presently, there is no disposal pathway for stored Australian radioactive waste, including the waste stored at Lucas Heights. The approach favoured by the Australian Government is to establish a dedicated National Radioactive Waste Management Facility …

The paragraph goes on to quote the department of industry that says:

Successive Australian Governments have recognised the efficiency, safety and security benefits that are derived from the centralised management of our radioactive waste holdings in a state-of-the-art special purpose facility.

Finally, and this is particularly important to put to bed some of the scaremongering that we recently heard from Senator Hanson-Young, paragraph 1.13 says:

A central NRWMF would permanently house the government's legacy and future streams of low-level radioactive waste along with holdings of other entities where these meet strict acceptance criteria. The NRWMF would also store, on an interim basis, Australia's relatively modest holdings of intermediate-level waste. Australia does not produce or store any high-level radioactive waste, and any such waste would not be accepted at the NRWMF. Further, no foreign waste will be accepted at the NRWMF.

This has all the ingredients of an issue that the Greens would love to scaremonger on, create disunity and divide communities over, but the choice is a simple one. They can either engage in a national conversation, a responsible dialogue, to find a suitable answer to this issue that is not going away—it will beset future governments—or they can continue to harp from the sidelines. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.