Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 September 2018


Nuclear Waste

8:24 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I apologise for not being able to speak when I should have done. Senators' speeches such as we've just heard are very powerful and emotional. Senator Gallacher's speech reminded me of the impact of road accidents on my own family.

However, that is not why I'm in the chamber tonight. I'm in the chamber tonight to talk about my recent visit to Leonora in Western Australia. I went to Leonora to attend a public meeting hosted by the Conservation Council of Western Australia to welcome the walkers from Walkatjurra Walkabout back from a month-long, 280 kilometre protest walk from Wiluna to Leonora in the north-east Goldfields of WA. The walk was to raise awareness about the dangers of uranium mining and radioactivity. At this meeting, I witnessed firsthand a community deeply distressed by the looming risk that Leonora could be the site for the proposed national radioactive waste management facility, a national waste dump for highly radioactive long-lived intermediate level waste, commonly known as ILW.

Senator Canavan has said that Leonora is the proposed plan B for the national radioactive waste management facility. This policy on the run demonstrates once again that there is no scientifically based process being used to identify the best method to manage this waste. The minister's approach is shambolic. Many Leonora traditional owners are concerned about Minister Canavan's proposal and feel distressed about the proposal to host a radioactive waste facility only 15 kilometres away from the town of Leonora.

I visited the proposed waste dump when I was there. It is a hugely rich and undisturbed area of country on a floodplain and lake system with many culturally significant sites. I visited there with Aboriginal elders and leaders from Leonora. I have to say that the people of Leonora aren't very happy that senators from South Australia are suggesting that Leonora would be a better site than South Australia. Having said that, I don't think the dump should be in South Australia either—but we don't appreciate fingers being pointed at Leonora or Western Australia for this dump site. I remind the chamber that the WA Nuclear Waste Storage and Transportation (Prohibition) Act 1999 prohibits the storage or transportation of nuclear waste in Western Australia. Nuclear waste, as defined in the act, is radioactive waste nuclear waste from a nuclear plant or from the creation, testing and decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Western Australia has made it pretty clear how we feel about becoming a waste dump.

For two decades, successive governments have tried to impose radioactive waste on unwilling remote communities. Waste plans for Muckaty in the Northern Territory were shelved after sustained Aboriginal and community opposition. The Greens have stood and will continue to stand with First Nations and remote communities that want to protect their air, soil and water. It is a national problem that has taken 60 years to make and will take 10,000 years to address. But, according to Senator Canavan, it will be sorted by Christmas. How to manage Australia's radioactive waste has been a challenge for successive federal governments, with communities across South Australia and the Northern Territory consistently rejecting plans for the dumping and storage of waste in their regions. Western Australians, pre-empting any move to try dump it on us, have also got an act prohibiting it.

It is irresponsible and deeply troubling that Senator Canavan is making these policies on the run. The radioactive management process has been flawed from the start. From day one, ordinary people have had their lives turned upside down. Right now the Leonora community are living with the threat of their region becoming a radioactive waste dump site if the government's plan is rejected.

Around 95 per cent of the materials planned to be moved to any new facility is currently managed at two secure federal sites. Low-level waste needs to be isolated for 300 years, and most is currently at the Woomera defence lands in South Australia's north. The more problematic intermediate-level waste, which needs to be isolated for 10,000 years, is stored where it was made at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's Lucas Heights facility in southern Sydney. ANSTO has previously acknowledged that it can manage its own waste. In fact, Carl-Magnus Larsson, the CEO of ARPANSA, has said that there is no urgency to move the ILW from Lucas Heights and that it is safe there at the current time. While ILW cannot be disposed of at ANSTO, it can be stored there pending a final disposal solution. There are no regulatory constraints that preclude extending the storage at ANSTO. Both sites have the physical, technical and regulatory capacity to continue to store this waste for many years, so the current sense of federal urgency and pressure is being driven by politics and ANSTO's corporate preference rather than by evidence or need. Currently Australia's most dangerous radioactive waste is stored above ground at ANSTO. This makes sense because not only is the waste already on site but the Lucas Heights facility also has clear tenure, high levels of security and policing and the most advanced radioactive monitoring and emergency response capacity in the country and, as the centre of the Australian nuclear expertise, is the workplace for around 1,200 people.

The federal government has not solved the complex management issues with radioactive waste. We need a proper regime that includes an integrated and evidence based national approach to radioactive waste management. Leading civil society organisations, including environment, public health, First Nations and trade union groups all support an expert, open and independent inquiry into the full range of radioactive waste management options. Australia has a long history of failed plans to locate national nuclear waste dumps. Plans have disproportionately targeted First Nations lands. Coercive attempts to dump radioactive waste on unwilling communities do not work. This is the experience here and internationally. I have seen the division and the heartache that has been brought to people in these communities, having been involved in campaigns over the previous dump sites. We do not want these problems foisted onto the Leonora community. We do not want a waste dump in Western Australia. It is time that there was an expert, open and independent inquiry into the full range of radioactive waste management options. Don't try and foist this waste on a community that doesn't want it. Don't try and foist waste on First Nations communities. Let's come up with a proper plan based on an independent inquiry that will look at the full range of options. We want to keep Leonora nuclear free.