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Lee asks questions on radioactive waste

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 8 Feb 2012

National Radioactive Waste Bill 2010, Questions

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:06): My colleague, Senator Scott Ludlam, has clearly set out the far-reaching implications of the legislation that we are now considering in committee. I would also like to take it up in the context of the implications for New South Wales, considering so much of the nuclear waste that would be stored at Muckaty would actually come from Lucas Heights, which is a nuclear reactor in Sydney in the outer suburbs near Sutherland. This waste would also be transported through New South Wales to then arrive at Muckaty in the Northern Territory. There are clear safety implications here and it would be useful for the Senate to hear from the minister how this is going to be managed. I think that this is very important when we consider that Lucas Heights will generate 90 per cent of the nuclear waste measured by radioactivity which will go to Muckaty.

As we know—and as has been explained many times—this spent nuclear fuel reprocessing waste is highly radioactive. This is waste that has been stored for a long time at Lucas Heights. The proposal is, as I understand it—and this is what I would like the minister to set out in more detail—to transport it to Muckaty Station. We know from the 2009 report commissioned by the government on possible transport routes from Lucas Heights to Muckaty Station, that it is proposed to send it possibly by road through western or northern New South Wales, or truck it to Cronulla and put it on a train to the site.

This is where we really do need a detailed response to the minister. As we know, the bill has serious implications for the traditional owners and the Indigenous people and all peoples in terms of the actual siting of the waste dump in the Northern Territory. But there are also implications in the transport of the waste, and this needs to be explored in considerable detail.

Taking that first possible transport route, where it would be sent by truck, that would mean that the waste would be going through built-up areas in Sydney, many of those suburbs, as well as regional built-up areas and country areas. The potential for accidents is considerable. We have seen that in the recent floods and in the Northern Territory with some of the accidents there. So how that issue is going to be managed is important, again, for the people of New South Wales whom I have been elected to represent, and also for people along that whole transport route. So I ask the minister to set out how that has been handled and what the government's response is to the potential dangers of moving highly radioactive waste over such a long distance. Thank you.
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:10): Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. I will just make two points. One, I think it is important: we are not being alarmist in this debate. I point out to Senator Rhiannon in starting that we currently have waste at hundreds of sites, I think, around Australia—tertiary hospitals, as well as Lucas Heights. So when she talks about floods, it is possible that the current sites might be flooded. I am not suggesting that the current arrangements are unsatisfactory, but to make those arguments, I think you have to acknowledge the fact that we are dealing with an issue that is already very real and you cannot wish that away. You can either choose to say that we will leave it all where it is, or you have to deal with it—and to move the waste to other sites, yes, you have to transport it.

But the transport of radioactive waste will be a significant part to the regulatory processes. A detailed assessment of the safe and secure movement of radioactive waste to a facility will be required in the course of an environmental impact assessment. That will of course involve consultation with local government bodies, as you referred, along preferred transport routes once the facility location is known.

Transport of radioactive waste to a facility cannot proceed without a licence from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which will ensure that the transport arrangements fully comply with the transport code of practice. I am advised that it is estimated that over 20 million packages of radioactive material are safely transported throughout the world each year, over 30,000 of them within Australia already. So we are not going to something we have not had some experience with. It is the case that we have a very strong regulatory process that will have to be followed and that work will obviously flow once the site is determined.

But when one talks about risks, one has to acknowledge, as I say, the existing situation. I am not raising alarm about our current arrangements, but we have multiple sites and this will give us a better management and allow us to have a better focus on the management of the waste. When people talk about floods or accidents or earthquakes, the reality is that we are dealing with those risks in many sites around Australia now.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:13): Thank you, Minister, for that response. Minister, I did think that your response was not fully balanced in some aspects of nuclear waste when you spoke about some of the issues to do with floods and transport, when you consider that you are not actually referring to spent fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive. It is very dangerous. There is widespread understanding that it is safest on site. That certainly would have been the wisest thing, and it should have been done with Lucas Heights.

I draw your attention, Minister, to what the public response often is in Europe. When spent nuclear fuel is transported, there are mass protests of thousands of people often taking direct action because of their deep concern about this, and I think that we would all acknowledge that those protests have been critical to the German government and some other governments in Europe revising their policy on nuclear fuel.

Coming back to the transport issue, you set out the ways that the government is going to manage this. I think that what we now need to explore is whether we can be confident in those measures that you have put forward. In the first instance I ask if you are aware of a 2004 New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the transport and storage of nuclear waste? This inquiry found that the transport of radioactive waste increases the risk of accident, including terrorist intervention. It also identified that moving waste by road can result in it being trucked through accident black spots where, obviously, the risk of accidents can increase.

That report found that moving the waste was not the best option. That report was actually supported by your Labor colleagues in New South Wales, and that position was put forward by them when they were in government. It is at odds, I believe, with what you are now advocating. So I would just like to ask if you are aware of that report and what your response is to those findings?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:15): I have to say that I am not personally aware of that report. I am not as knowledgeable on New South Wales upper house inquiries as perhaps I should be. I have enough trouble following the multitude of Senate ones. I am not sure, Senator, whether you served on that one and whether you need to declare an interest or not!

Senator Rhiannon: No.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: No? Okay! Nor do I think that anyone would suggest that decisions of the New South Wales Labor government, now deceased, would be binding in any way on this federal government.

This is about finding a practical, safe and appropriate resolution of a problem that has plagued us for a long time now. The Senate would be aware of our current arrangements needing to be addressed, and the prospect of us dealing with return of waste in a few years time. We think this is the best possible response. As I said, there will be significant regulatory arrangements around the transport arrangements and consultation to ensure that the most safe and appropriate measures are in place. The threat of protest action seems to me to be, again, an incitement to alarmist behaviour.

I think we need a calm, rational debate about what is required here. We think this legislation does that. Obviously, when the regulatory framework is in place—if this bill is carried—then those issues all flow and they will have to be dealt with as they have been in this country in the past: in a very measured way and focused on the safe transport of that waste as a priority. We do need a facility and we do need a better option than the ones we are currently utilising. While I am extremely conscious of the need for transport to be done safely and the whole range of other measures, this is the regulatory architecture that allows us to do that. Those things will be developed over time and no doubt senators and others will take a keen interest in those matters, as they should. But we believe we will have the regulatory framework that can give most reassurance about those issues as we find an answer to a very real problem.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:18): Minister, I did note in your response that you spoke about how we need a practical, safe solution. They are significant words; just taking those words, one could not disagree with them. But it is obviously where we find the solution.

I think that where that comment takes us is to what degree, and how, would the government consult with the communities at Lucas Heights and along the possible routes to take the nuclear waste through New South Wales, possibly Queensland, possibly South Australia and obviously also the Northern Territory—whatever route is determined. That is very significant for these communities. They clearly have a right to know. There are serious safety issues here and environmental implications.

Could you set out the form that the community consultation will take? Will it be consultation on the possible proposed route? Or will the route be determined secretly, and then will there be that mock consultation that many of us see is used these days to justify projects that governments in fact know are quite unpopular? I think it would be very informative for the debate at this stage to understand how that form of consultation will play out.

Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory—Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (12:20): If I could just be of small assistance with regard to the nature of the material that we are actually moving? First of all, there is a dictate of the radioactive repository that there is no particulate matter and that there is no liquid matter to be stored at the repository. This is unlike the yellow cake which goes weekly from South Australia along roads or on the railway line through the Northern Territory—through the suburbs of Alice Springs, then Katherine, then Darwin and then boarded at the wharf.

Most importantly is the notion that there would be radioactive rods. The rods have in previous times already gone overseas for reprocessing. The material that returns is actually being transported in containers that have to have been approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I have seen photographs of them and there is a very specific standard under which this material can be carried. That actual container will be used to store them in Lucas Heights and then that same container, which meets the international standards of approval, will be used to move that material from Lucas Heights to wherever the repository may be.

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:21): As I indicated, ARPANSA will have to ensure that transport arrangements fully comply with the transport code of practice and, obviously, there will be an environmental impact assessment as part of the development of the site. There are already ARPANSA codes available, but they will ensure the regulation. They are already on the record as having spoken about consultation. The suggestion that these sorts of things were done in secret is alarmist. I do not think there can be any suggestion of those things being determined in secret. There will clearly be public interest and people who will need to be consulted, and that will occur. We think we have some of the most rigorous regulatory frameworks in place with regard to these issues and they will continue to be applied rigorously.

Transport of radioactive waste will require a licence from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. There is an application for a licence and there is a process, and ARPANSA has made clear that public consultation will need to be a part of that process. I have great confidence that none of this will occur in secret, because there are clearly public interest matters to be taken into account when determining the transport routes.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:23): Thank you for that answer. Could you clarify: will the consultation be on which route is to be used before it is determined how the radioactive waste will be moved? Is it on which route will be used or is it to take place after the route has been determined?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:23): I do not have that level of detail. I will see what I can find for you, but if you are looking at routes and having a debate about a possible route then obviously alternatives will become part of that consultation. I would be misleading you to say I have a detailed briefing on that—I do not. I am happy to see if I can get something further for you, but ARPANSA will have responsibility to ensure that they comply with the transit code. It will require a licence, and those processes will require that engagement about routes. It seems to me that brings into play the issue of which route is to be used and what the alternatives are. Clearly if one is taking waste from Lucas Heights to, say, the Northern Territory, there are options. I will try to get a more detailed response for you about how that process works.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:24): I believe it would be useful for the chamber to have that information before it, so I look forward to receiving it. You used the term 'rigorous regulatory frameworks'. I am in no way implying, Minister, that you are like some of the Labor ministers I worked with in New South Wales, but that the term you just used was the regular language that they used. So many of their projects became highly discredited and are now being investigated so that sort of language sounds alarm bells for people who are trying to ensure that we handle this waste safely and that we manage these problems that society is periodically confronted with in a responsible way.

Sticking with this issue about how confident we can be in how various authorities manage this, are you aware of the Payne report? This goes back to May 2002. Christopher Payne was a former Australian Federal Police officer who was asked to look at security issues at ANSTO. This was just after the tragedy of the Twin Towers and before the Bali bombing, at the height of great concern about terrorist attacks. Mr Payne was asked to look at security measures. The Payne report confirmed that ANSTO were more concerned with appearing safe than with protecting the community and the environment. It was quite worrying to see the lack of commitment there appeared to be from ANSTO.

I raise this because it highlights the lack of confidence that there is when one comes to look at the ways the various authorities manage issues to do with nuclear waste. My question is: are you aware of this report, and what has been learned from ANSTO's apparent failure to deal with security issues that will be even more relevant if this nuclear waste is moved to Muckaty?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:27): I was not aware of the Payne report, but I can certainly ask to be briefed on that when I am dealing with ANSTO as I am now the responsible minister. From my point of view, I will be making sure that there is a very strong focus on safety and responsible engagement. I am sure that is the case already, but from my own personal view I would certainly expect it to be one of the No. 1 priorities. Having been briefed by the head of ANSTO recently, I am sure that is the case.

Drawing up instances of concern from 10 years ago may not really take this debate anywhere. And while you talk about what New South Wales Labor ministers said, your contributions seem to be leading towards the creation of fear, doubt and uncertainty. Talk of public confidence and public protests and such do not seem to be focusing on the bill or any evidence. We would be better off talking about those things rather than trying to raise concern based on allegations of past behaviour. Our job is to make sure the regulatory framework for the transport of waste that is occurring now, and the transport that will be needed when the disposal site is erected, is of the highest safety standards. That is an issue for the parliament now, and if you have evidence based concerns about that you are free to raise them. It seems to me we ought to be focusing on those things, and I am not sure the debate today will be advanced by me debating with you reports from 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Obviously the bill is before us, and if you have issues you want to raise about that regulatory framework then I am happy to engage with you. But I am not sure traversing your views of what occurred 10 years ago is all that helpful in advancing the debate. So I will try not to sound like a New South Wales Labor government minister if you try not to sound like someone exciting fear in the community.

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