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Don't dump on the Territory

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 7 Dec 2005

Before I commence my comments I would like to address the rather cheap shot that Senator Troeth had at the Greens for not attending hearings of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee. It is outrageous and a hide when they called so many committee meetings that week. I was in another committee hearing, welfare to work, so could not attend two places at once, as much as I would have liked to. I also missed out on going to the native title committee hearings and the environment committee meetings on salinity-issues very dear to my heart. I think that it is outrageous that the government takes this cheap shot.

They called the one-day committee hearing on a day that the other member of the Greens, Senator Milne, who would have attended, could not make. It is outrageous that they level cheap shots at the Greens for not being able to attend committee meetings, when they call the meeting for one day, not really intending for the committee hearing to have any genuine outcomes. I am extremely concerned that the government, after putting the Senate through those dreadful two weeks, would deign to take such a cheap shot.

I believe that at any normal time the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005 would be one of the more offensive pieces of legislation in this chamber for a while-probably by a clear margin. However, given the extraordinary fortnight we have just had, I suppose it is just one of a crowd of pieces of appalling legislation. We have before us now a bill that purports to manage the most dangerous waste material produced by any Australian industry. Whether we like it or not and whatever we choose to do with it, this waste will still be dangerous to our children's descendants in thousands of years.

While there are a few people in the community who are so blase about this material that they suggest it can be treated like any other waste, the Australian government has gone to great lengths to assure us that it recognises the intrinsic hazards involved. The government believes that this waste is so dangerous that it needs to be evacuated from Sydney and placed as far from human habitation as possible. Extensive site selection studies for a dump site were undertaken in 1992 and have been continuing in some form ever since. These studies produced a shortlist of eight sites in July 1994. The maps from this period feature a bold heading that says:

No areas were considered within the Murray-Darling Basin or the Great Artesian Basin because of their important water and agricultural resources.

According to the Commonwealth government, this waste is so dangerous that it should not reside in such areas. In all of the studies undertaken until last year, when it was clear that the government was intent on dumping this stuff in South Australia, the final resting place for the nation's high-level waste was to be not in some outback, isolated shed, but in a deep geological repository hundreds of metres or more below the surface. Whatever the Greens think of the safety of this plan, it is a measure of the government's apparent respect for the hazardous nature of this waste that the plan has always been to dump it as far from human beings as possible, deep underground, in an area where inevitable contamination will not ruin resources of importance to future populations. The question of whose backyard it ends up in and how it gets there are problems I will turn to in a moment.

Contrast this with the approach embodied in the bill which the government has placed before the Senate. In essence, the bill is a 'get out of jail free' card for the Howard government. It bypasses the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for the entire site selection process, kicking in after the site has been selected and allowing government officials and contractors to do whatever they like without regard to Australia's most significant piece of environmental legislation. This strikes at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage protection, extinguishes native title, pushes aside the unique protections of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act and dismisses any entitlements to procedural fairness in relation to the minister's declarations.

The government has rammed this through with minimal scrutiny-it gave a Senate committee, as I articulated earlier, one whole day to examine the consequences-and picked on a politically vulnerable territory without the rights of a state and with only a handful of coalition MPs who have comprehensively hung it out to dry.

It is hard to imagine a more ruthless approach to dealing with this waste or a sharper contrast with what we might fondly imagine to be best practice. When the government was forcing the stuff on South Australia, at least there was some pretence of scientific vigour. Geological surveys were done, communities were told what to expect and sites were narrowed down according to a complex, multicriteria model. All of those are things of the past.

The Howard approach in 2005 is to simply choose a handful of convenient sites on Commonwealth land in the Territory and pass a piece of legislation putting any form of due process permanently out of reach.
This has moved beyond science and of course is now into the realm of pure politics. If the science minister had taken the time, he could have sat down with traditional owners from Central Australia who visited Parliament House in early November. He would have heard that there are 5,000 people living in close proximity to the two proposed sites in Alice Springs. He would have discovered that the sites in the catchment area are every bit as important to the local residents as the Great Artesian Basin and the Murray-Darling Basin. He would have been reminded that there is nowhere truly out of sight and out of mind where this material can be dumped and forgotten. Anywhere in Australia is someone's backyard. To target from Canberra someone else's land and so easily extinguish their rights is reprehensible-particularly when this is done by senators opposite who call themselves champions of private property rights. The concept of terra nullius, which was rejected by the High Court in 1992, is clearly still alive and well in this country.

In discussions with government, the Northern Land Council took a different approach to that of the Central Land Council and suggested that Indigenous communities wanted the right to nominate a site, rather than having one forced on them. With this came the demand for the right of veto-something you would think a government that spends a lot of time talking about private property rights and private rights would support-but the land council got done over. They have been given the right to nominate a site but no-one has the right to reject one.

While we are told that this is all about responsible management of existing waste, in reality we are just clearing the decks so that more of the stuff can be produced. The government and ANSTO are determined to proceed with their plan for a new reactor that will generate another 1,600 spent fuel rods, which will, according to ANSTO documents, result in a 12-fold increase in annual production of intermediate-level fluids and a four-fold increase in the annual production of all other waste categories. I remind senators that the facility producing this waste is subject to contention by the very people whom the government uses to justify its very existence. A 2004 report by health professionals under the banner of the Medical Association for Prevention of War concluded:

"The new nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney is not required for medical purposes. Like most other comparable countries, Australia can have world-leading nuclear medicine care without a reactor by importing reactor-produced isotopes and producing many other isotopes here in cyclotrons."

This morning, a statement by 18 prominent medical professionals was released, in part noting:

"As doctors we are professionally and personally committed to preventing disease and promoting health, today and into the future. We have become increasingly alarmed at proposals for expansion of the nuclear industry in Australia."

These are professionals the government is relying on to justify the existence of the reactor that is the source of this waste.

They do not want it. Talk within government circles about a commercial nuclear power industry in Australia is equally worrying.

There are no prizes for guessing where the waste from Australian nuclear power stations will end up if they are ever built. We do not need the research reactor that is producing this material. We need to take a good hard look at the waste that already exists and deal with that.

The Greens are frequently accused of opposing but not proposing, so here are a couple of propositions that go to the heart of this matter. I recognise that this government has inherited a headache dating back to February 1954 which has been poorly dealt with by successive governments for over half a century. I propose that we phase out the production of this waste, the first stage of which is to cancel any further expenditure on a replacement reactor in Sydney. I propose to move an amendment which clearly outlaws the import of nuclear waste from overseas. We have been told that this dump is intended for Commonwealth waste only, and this should be made clear in the government's bill.

Territorians are rightly concerned that, on the heels of thousands of tonnes of Canberra's nuclear waste, thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste from other parts of the world will follow. I urge the government to clarify its intentions in this regard and support this amendment.

I propose that, by way of the most basic due process, Indigenous people should be given the power to oppose a waste dump site as well as to propose one. I also propose that we pay attention to experts around the world who suggest that moving this waste may in fact be the most dangerous strategy in some cases, and that moving it while it is exempt from the laws which have been specifically put in place to protect people and the environment is a recipe for disaster.

This document comprising 144 pages and titled Let the facts speak articulates over 50 years worth of accidents in the nuclear industry. No matter what the process for choosing a site is, the transport of waste still represents a formidable obstacle to safe management, and this document articulates hundreds of accidents involving transport of nuclear waste. We are talking about shipments of reprocessed nuclear fuel passing through Darwin harbour for trucking to Central Australia along public highways, and several shipments per year from Sutherland Shire by road, halfway across the continent, through many communities along the way. It will be the largest movement of hazardous waste in Australian history, and it is wholly unnecessary.

The way in which this legislation is drafted to override state and territory laws gives rise to huge concerns that corners will be cut. I will move amendments during the committee stage to address this transport factor and ensure that the relevant state and territory legislation is not overridden. In an Australian context, this means rationalising nuclear waste management in this country so that states move to safeguard the waste in secure storage, while the considerable expertise present here and overseas is turned to the question of dealing safely with the more hazardous material that has been piling up at Lucas Heights for half a century.

High- and intermediate-level nuclear waste, which looks so intractable to 21st century eyes, may yield to promising technologies such as transmutation or synroc-potential solutions in which Australian researchers have played no small part. But this could take decades, and the waste needs to be safeguarded rigorously in the meantime. The very existence of these promising lines of research make it obvious that the very last thing we should be doing with this waste is trucking it to a remote location and tipping it into a hole in the ground.

In pushing so aggressively for a dump of this kind, the government forecloses options that may bear fruit in the future.

The Australian Greens recognise that this waste exists and that there are no easy solutions before us. We are prepared to work with those that are ready to look at alternative approaches to this issue with a clear sense of long-term responsibility. There is no reason why nuclear waste management needs to assume the kind of hostility to environmental protection, land rights and public health for which it is notorious. But the government's current approach is unacceptable to us. For this reason, we do not support the legislation.

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