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The nuclear fuel chain in Australia

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 25 Nov 2015

I rise to speak tonight on the changing debate around nuclear power and the nuclear fuel chain in Australia. Between the South Australian royal commission established by the state Labor government, the process towards setting up a national radioactive waste dump initiated by then industry minister Ian Macfarlane and the increasingly uncertain fortunes of the domestic uranium mining industry, nuclear issues in Australia are being given new visibility. But I also want to speak tonight of some of the unseen things that drive this industry. It is an industry entirely unlike the other commodity markets into which Australian resource companies sell, and there are some parts of this industry that its fiercest advocates would simply prefer that we did not talk about.

One of the most striking differences between the uranium market and those other commodity markets which Australians might be more familiar with and the one which the industry is most determined to deny is the link with weapons of mass destruction. In September this year this parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties handed down a unanimous report on the proposed nuclear cooperation agreement with India. I thank the member for Longman, Mr Wyatt Roy, who chairs that committee and I thank all of the members of the committee, including my colleague Senator Whish-Wilson, and obviously the secretariat and particularly all of those witnesses who gave evidence on this crucial and, I would say, grievously misguided proposal.

The unanimous recommendations, in essence, say that there should not be uranium sales to India by Australia at this time under the terms of the current agreement. They made those recommendations on the advice of, among others, very senior former Australian officials from within the nonproliferation world who cautioned that the nuclear cooperation agreement:

... has a number of loopholes which mean that under the terms of the NCA India could use our uranium in the production of material that could end up in bombs.

Witnesses before the committee included John Carlson, the former head of ASNO, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office. I had plenty of run-ins with Mr Carlson over an estimates table in years gone by when he headed that office, before Dr Floyd took over. Despite our agreements, the one thing that you could say about Mr Carlson is that he knows the industry, and it must have taken a lot for him to raise the kinds of red flags that he put up in the course of JSCOT's work. The Australian Greens share JSCOT's unanimous view that the Australian government 'cannot overlook such clear warnings about the quality of India's nuclear regulatory framework'. India is engaged in an active nuclear weapons arms race with its neighbour Pakistan, and just under one and half billion people live in these two countries.

Australia seems determined to circumvent and undermine the only disarmament and nonproliferation framework that the world has, just in order to open up another market for the desperate uranium sector. The very least that the Turnbull could be doing would be to pay attention to those who have worked inside the system who are warning us in very clear terms about what we are walking into. Very recently, the secretary of DFAT gave a speech stating that key disarmament and arms control treaties are failing to keep pace with the shifting security landscape of our times.

Australia, in the past, has played an important role in moving the world down a slow road towards the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. We ratified Australia, in the past, has played an important role in moving the world down the slow road towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. We ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1998, and Australia has said repeatedly, on paper it least, that we support global agreement on a fissile materials cut-off treaty to finally turn off the tap on production of the highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Both the Canberra Commission in years gone by and the more recent International Commission on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament-which was co-chaired by former foreign ministers from Australia and Japan-made their contribution. However we might critique these initiatives in detail, at least they show Australian government attempts at the highest level to bring nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons states together to try and restart the stalled disarmament process.

But these efforts, as welcome as they are, mask a much deeper and diametrically opposed agenda. Australia is firmly on the wrong side of the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agenda. The dismissive way in which the unanimous recommendations of the Treaties Committee were cast aside as less relevant than BHP or Rio Tinto's share price is one sign. But there are others. Successive defence white papers show that nuclear weapons still form part of Australian defence doctrine. We shelter ourselves under the United States nuclear umbrella. We host bases, targeting facilities and nuclear warship visits, all the while lecturing other countries on the importance of restraint and nonproliferation.

Far away, on the other side of the world, in United Nations meetings in Geneva and New York, which our government assumes will never filter back to Australia, we are quietly sabotaging the first hopeful signs in a long while of global resolve in this area. The UN General Assembly's First Committee recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of an Austrian sponsored resolution to fill the legal gap for the staged prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. This resolution was based on the careful study of the unthinkable humanitarian consequences of the use of these weapons. As a result, early in 2016, serious negotiations will get underway in Geneva to scope the elements of a global treaty banning these weapons. Why did Australia vote against this initiative? How many people in this country are even aware that that is what Australia's diplomats were instructed to do by the Turnbull government? The anodyne language of credible US extended nuclear deterrence in our own defence department and DFAT talking points is code for a willingness to countenance, endorse and legitimise the use of these horrific weapons, which are designed to inflict massive, indiscriminate civilian casualties. This is a dangerous double standard of Australia's that may one day prove lethal.

This debate has been carried out in the abstract for far too long. While US, Chinese, Russian and Australian defence planners are still clinging to obsolete Cold War doctrines of mutually assured destruction, in June of this year Australian intelligence agencies reported that the Islamic State, which through force of its medieval violence has rapidly united the entire world against it, has accumulated enough radioactive materials to build a so-called dirty bomb. This technology does not have to consist of an advanced fission weapon in the tip of a cruise missile to depopulate a city. The by-products and leftovers of this industry, which is treated so cavalierly by its proponents, will do just as well. And there is a reason that civilian nuclear power stations are occasionally referred to as pre-deployed radiological weapons by the disarmament community. This is one of the elements that pro-nuclear proponents would prefer that we did not link to their industry, which is in so much trouble.

One of the other most obvious elements is radioactive waste. Sixty years after the first reactive went critical in Russia, in the former Soviet Union, and shortly thereafter in the United States, there is not a single high-level nuclear waste dump for spent fuel in operation anywhere in the world. They have had 60 years. In Australia we struggle with what is by global standards a relatively small inventory of reactor waste from the 20-megawatt and, before that, 10-megawatt research reactor facility on the outskirts of metropolitan Sydney.

We went through a horrendous period of time in the late years of the Howard government when they initiated a campaign to dump radioactive waste at Muckaty that was taken up with extraordinary aggression by the Labor industry minister at the time, Martin Ferguson. To his credit, when he took up the position last year Ian Macfarlane cancelled out of the Muckaty proposal. I want to acknowledge all of those campaigners and those who worked to stop that disastrous proposal. Minister Macfarlane, in my conversations with him, went part of the way towards resetting the debate. To his credit, he did not simply choose another Aboriginal outstation on which to host this toxic material. He opened with a process, and I take him at his word when he said that he 'didn't know what its outcome would be'.

But I still believe that the minister's inquiry, which is now in the hands of Minister Frydenberg, asked the wrong question. The nuclear industry should take a good hard look at itself, ask itself and grace us with the answers if it has come up with any, not for which remote Aboriginal community should host this material that we are trying to get as far from our metropolitan areas as we possibly can. The real question is: what is the smartest, most robust management solution for the hosting and isolation from the environment and from human beings of materials that will still be radiotoxic and carcinogenic in a quarter of a million years? That is the proper question to ask, not which Aboriginal community should receive these shipping containers to be put in a shed on a slab of concrete surrounded by barbed wire hundreds of kilometres from places that people in the south-east corner of this country could not even name.

The proper question is: what is the safest way to deal with this material and isolate it from the environment and from people for tens of thousands of years? That is the question I think Minister Macfarlane's inquiry should have asked. Instead, it simply said to the Australian community, 'Put your hands up if you want to host this stuff. There is $10 million bucks in it for you. It's gloves. It's trash from medical facilities, universities and radioisotope production,' all the time keeping ambiguous and up in the air whether the spent fuel from the HIFAR and later the OPAL plant will actually be hosted at that site as well. That is where the government has made a grievous mistake. It is no surprise at all that at all six of its named sites which it is considering for future shortlisting genuine grassroots opposition sprung up immediately upon the announcement of those sites.

My colleague Senator Rhiannon last week visited one of the sites in Western New South Wales, at Hill End, which the government assessors have called 'Sally's Flat'. And surprise, surprise: there is potent and determined local opposition to the hosting of a radioactive waste dump on their block on their country. They do not understand why if it is so safe in Sydney it has to be moved far from population centres and dumped in their backyards. I think that is a very reasonable question to ask. Is it safe at Hill End, because, if it is, not why are they bringing it there? And, if it is, what is it that would make it unsafe in Sutherland Shire south-west of Sydney?

I think these are reasonable questions the government needs to answer not just for the people out by Bathurst but also for those in South Australia-which is quite clearly the ultimate target for this material-those in the Northern Territory and those in south-western Queensland. Is it the intention of the government to drop that spent fuel-the reprocessed waste that is on its way back from France and the material that has been sitting at Lucas Heights for decades-and that reprocessed waste there? Or is this really just about gloves and trash from universities and medical facilities? Just be up-front with people because taking the opposite approach of trying to be a little bit clever and a little bit cute and keeping those things up in the air has been failing since 1992.

There is a chance-and I think Minister Macfarlane grabbed half the chance and it is a shame that he was not able to go the whole way-to have a much more intelligent and nuanced conversation with the Australian people not just about which outstation should take this garbage but also how we should isolate it and deal with it for the time periods for which it is dangerous to human life and the environment.

The Greens accept-reluctantly, but we do accept-that that material that was reprocessed in French reprocessing plants and in Dounreay before the Scots had the good sense to close it down should be returned to Australia. It is obligated to us. We created it. It is arguable, although I would contest, that we benefitted from the creation of that material. You will not see the Greens putting out press releases condemning the government for its return. It is being returned partly to Lucas Heights because of the spirited campaign out at Muckaty to prevent it from being dropped in a shed 120 kays north of Tennant Creek.

The least worst option is to have that material hosted above ground-dry, monitored, well-contained and under the careful observation of dedicated federal police detail with surveillance equipment and razor wire. That is at least a temporary form of isolation. It cannot do any harm while it is there under that careful observation. And that is precisely why people in regional areas in South Australia, New South Wales and elsewhere are just a tiny bit sceptical about this process, which seems to be targeting various places to simply put it in a shed, maybe post a couple of security guards as they proposed at Muckaty and then walk back to Sydney. No wonder people are sceptical.

The other reason that South Australians I think have very good reason to be not merely sceptical but actively alarmed at the process to dump the material there-and I take Minister Macfarlane and his senior bureaucrats at their word when they say this process for a domestic waste dump has nothing to do with the royal commission initiated for some reason by the South Australian Labor party. That is quite clearly aimed at softening up South Australians for the imposition of a high-level spent fuel dump in South Australia by countries that are throwing their hands up and saying: 'We've had nuclear power for 60 years in some instances. We still do not have a management solution for it. Why don't we tip it into some remote place that we don't know the name of in outback South Australia?'

I take Minister Macfarlane and his bureaucrats and advisers at their word when they say the process for siting a local national radioactive waste facility has nothing to do with this idea that keeps coming up that we should host the world's radioactive waste-material of quite a different character, I should say, from that spent fuel and reprocessed waste from research reactors. Nonetheless, we can see what is being set up here. If that site is located in South Australia and they override community opposition and establish and host it there, give it a couple of years and we know exactly what is going to happen. The brochures will start coming out saying 'Hey, we've been running a successful national waste dump here for 48 months. Nothing's gone wrong. Why don't we make this commitment to import spent fuel through the Port of Adelaide and truck it to remote South Australia where it will rest in some form or another for another quarter of a million years?' I do not think that is what Minister Macfarlane had in mind. I suspect that is not what Minister Frydenberg has in mind either, but we can see the setup and people are not stupid. We know where this is going. That is the second issue that the uranium miners would rather we did not talk about. The toxic and poisonous carcinogenic by-products of their industry know no management solution and they have had 60 years.

The third issue that the miners would probably prefer that we did not point out is that their industry, even at the primary end, at the mining end, is in very deep trouble not just because of the catastrophe that overwhelmed Japan's Pacific coast on 3/11 but because peak nuclear was in the year 2002. Europe is on its way out. Japan is out. France is trying to work out how to drawn down and not have to replace the nuclear reactors it built in such a rush in the 1970s and 1980s. Germany is getting out. Italy has already got out. These are the things the uranium miners would probably prefer we did not talk about. The Beverley uranium mine is over. The Honeymoon mine in South Australia is over as well. The Roxby Downs expansion is cancelled. The Ranger 3 Deeps proposed expansion in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, which I had the good fortune to visit about this time last week, is cancelled. The Jabiluka deposit will never be mined. The Koongarra deposit has been reincorporated into Kakadu National Park. Colleagues, are you seeing a pattern here because I am? This is an industry that is on its last legs and it is just as well.

I want to acknowledge and thank those campaigners from ICAN, the global nuclear disarmament community who have worked tirelessly for three generations to bring this industry to a close and locals like Tim Wright and Dimity Hawkins, who keep carrying the flame and have actually helped in their way to reignite the global movement towards nuclear abolition. And those like Barb Shaw, Diane Stokes and dear Nabarula, who is so missed, who led the fight against the Muckaty campaign and, in effect, saved the Australian government from itself. And to Yvonne Margarula, the senior traditional owner of Mirarr country and the Mirarr mob in Kakadu National Park, for standing up so strongly in defence of their part of the world in Kakadu and saying, 'We had 30 years of mining at Ranger and we're done. We don't want Jabiluka.' And in particular those who themselves, with their own eyes, as teenagers or in their very early 20s experienced the white flash and can speak, as I have heard firsthand from them, what it is like to be underneath a nuclear weapons attack, those who will not ever let us forget, no matter how much the uranium miners might wish that we would, the terrible consequences of the nuclear industry.

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