Today Senator Ludlam gave notice that tomorrow he will move the motion on the repeal of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 – below.
He also gave a speech on nuclear issues in the Matters of Public Importance today.
Motion on the repeal of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005
To move – That the Senate-
i) An Environment Communication and the Arts (ECA) Committee Inquiry found numerous and fundamental flaws in the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 and recommended in December 2008 that it be repealed;
ii) The Committee called for replacement legislation to be introduced into the Parliament in the autumn 2009 sittings that would be based on principles of rigorous consultation, voluntary consent, environmental credibility, and which utilises best practice models tested internationally.
Calls on the Australian government to:
i. Repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act and introduce replacement legislation as outlined in ALP policy and subsequently recommended by the Committee;
ii. Deliver a process on radioactive waste that is scientific, transparent, accountable, fair and allows access to appeal mechanisms, which is both an election promise and a stated policy position of the ALP;
iii. Update the Senate as to the government’s intended timetable for the introduction of the repeal and replacement legislation.
Scott Ludlam’s speech:
LUDLAM, Senator Scott, Western Australia (1.42 pm) —
I am almost speechless. That is such a difficult act to follow—the Nationals in spirited defence of jobs on the Titanic. I would like to briefly change the subject and talk about a matter of great public interest to Australians: the nuclear issue. It has been greatly in the media of late. I would acknowledge at the outset that nuclear issues are one of the quickest ways to polarise debate. It is a debate that has been polarised since the dawn of the nuclear age 63 years ago—64 years this year—with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a polarised debate, and that is why I would like to put a few things on the record today.
There are three reasons why nuclear issues are back in the media and why this issue bubbles along below the collective consciousness of the nation and occasionally breaks the surface. I am marking today, I suppose, in memorial, because this sitting week we were meant to see some very important legislation relating to the repeal of Prime Minister John Howard’s aggressive, regressive nuclear waste legislation. That was meant to be repealed, according to Labor Party policy, and according to the very strong and clear recommendations of a Senate committee, by this week at the latest. As yet, we have no sign of that.
Australia is the world’s second-largest miner and exporter of uranium. There are people on either side of this chamber who would like us to take first place off the Canadians.
We export uranium to all of the declared nuclear weapons states, apart from Russia, which I will return to in a moment. We are a close ally of a nuclear weapons state. We allow visits of warships armed with nuclear weapons; we host a network of foreign military bases in support of potential nuclear weapons strikes by our ally, the United States.
The third reason is that we have a very significant nuclear waste problem in this country. Australia reaps more income from the export of cheese than we do from the export of uranium. Can we mark you down for that, Senator Boswell?
I wonder why we do not hear more about cheese—about inquiries into cheese, about advocacy of cheese. Instead, it is uranium mining. We are told that it is going to deliver us from the evil of the global economy crisis but of course it will not. It will cost this country a lot of water, a lot of energy, a lot of carbon pollution and a lot of permanent environmental damage—eternal radioactive hotspots. It is just not going to be worth it. I think perhaps we should stick to the cheese.
The industry itself is starting to wake up to this fact. There was quite a high profile conference in Adelaide earlier this week during which an industry analyst, who I believe profited relatively handsomely from the rapid increase in exploration and investment in exploration companies across Australia, is now talking about the walking dead—the decline of the uranium industry companies that are basically all hype and hot air that got in during the so-called nuclear renaissance, which has since evaporated. The uranium spot price, on which about 15 per cent of world uranium is traded, crashed 70 per cent from its highs in 2007 to $43 a pound this month. Uranium mining companies have been decimated, quite literally. This particular analyst talked about dozens of walking dead companies, many of which will soon cease to exist. The uranium industry is not in a great deal of health.
On May Day, 1 May, the public is going to be given eight weeks, less time than they are given to comment on car parks and shopping centre developments, to comment on the largest document ever printed in the state of South Australia for the largest excavation on the surface of the planet. The Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs, when expanded, will become the largest mine of any kind in the world and, in the unlikely event that it is successful, it will make Australia the largest exporter of uranium in the world. BHP Billiton is proposing a five-fold expansion of the mine, which, according to early forecasts, would require the company to move a million tonnes of rock a day every day for four years just to remove the overburden to create this colossal excavation in the earth’s surface to get to this very low grade but undeniably massive ore body of uranium, gold, silver and copper. The diesel bill for that, according to one estimate in the financial review, will be around $6 billion—so much for clean, green and cheap energy. That is what it would cost to open up the Roxby excavation. It will be fascinating to see whether that estimate is borne out in EIS documents when they are finally tabled. That mine will increase South Australia’s power bill by about 40 per cent. So much for a greenhouse-free source of energy.
The company is basically exempt from Australian law. They exist under the Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act, which exempts them from Aboriginal land rights legislation, environmental protection and freedom of information—an extraordinary degree of legal protection cocooning this mine from public scrutiny, environmental protection and Aboriginal sovereignty. No other facility that I am aware of in this country exits under that degree of legal protection. It is one of the reasons that BHP Billiton is able to pay nothing for the 33 million litres of water that they are licensed to extract from the Great Artesian Basin every day.
Behind the expansion of Roxby Downs is the proposed expansion of the Ranger mine. We know that the company is buying time until they can get their hands on the Jabiluka deposit in Kakadu National Park. Then there is the continuing record of pollution and spills at the toxic Beverley uranium mine, otherwise known as the groundwater sacrifice zone, in South Australia. There are also a host of proposed uranium mining projects across Western Australia, including Lake Maitland, most recently.
It all depends, of course, on the health of the global nuclear power industry—or so they say, because Australian uranium is only going into clean and green nuclear power stations. There was another conference earlier this week calling for a debate on nuclear power in Australia. We have had this debate over a period of 30 or 40 years. The advocates of nuclear power continue losing that debate. I am honestly at a loss to understand why it keeps rearing its head, because, as we have already seen, the mining, milling and enrichment processes of uranium are incredibly carbon intensive. It is simply not a solution. It is very slow, it is very expensive and it is a very dangerous way to boil water, which is all that nuclear power stations do. At the same time, it is robbing the renewable energy sector of the investment that it desperately needs to get on its feet.
And of course the PR campaign continues. The head of a statutory authority, Ziggy Switkowski, continually promotes these activities, which are illegal under Australian law. It is not at all clear who is paying for the PR company, Field Public Relations, so that Mr Switkowski can continue to spread the gospel of nuclear power, in direct contravention of government policy. That is something I would be interested in hearing a response about.
The global nuclear industry has been at a standstill since the 1970s before the Three Mile Island near meltdown in the United States. The global nuclear power industry has actually been in a great deal of trouble and quite certainly in decline. The number of nuclear power plants operating in the world, according to one authoritative study, will most likely decline over the next two decades with a rather sharper decline to be expected after 2020. This is an industry in a great deal of trouble but the mining industry just keeps rolling on as if everything was rosy.
This morning we learnt that Russian President Medvedev, in his first address to a defence ministry meeting in his capacity as supreme commander, has announced that Russia will be increasing the combat readiness of Russia’s forces, first of all the strategic nuclear forces. This is a customer who is very interested in purchasing uranium from Australia. When a delegation visited Australia and, indeed, Parliament House earlier this week, it was widely reported that the Russian government is proposing to devote US$140 billion—AUD$200 billion—on certain priorities, the first of which is strategic nuclear weapons. For the benefit of senators, these are not the sanitised, small-scale so-called battlefield nuclear weapons; they are about destroying human civilisation. These are the weapons of Armageddon that have been ticking and on high alert since the beginning of the Cold War. That is what the Russian government is proposing to upgrade at a time when the entire planet is calling out for global nuclear disarmament so that these Cold War relics can be abolished once and for all. Instead the Russians are talking up the rhetoric of taking their country in the opposite direction at the same time as China, the United Kingdom, the French and the United States, for that matter, are contemplating or actively pursuing the upgrading of their own nuclear weapons arsenals.
What this does is remind us of the importance and common sense expressed in Report No.9 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, advising that Australia should not sell uranium to Russia unless a number of quite stringent conditions are met. At this time the Russian government would clearly be unable to provide any confidence that Australian uranium would not find its way into nuclear weapons.
The other reason that I wanted to speak on this issue this afternoon is that, in December 2008, the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts handed down its report into the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005, the other end of the nuclear fuel chain. In Australia we already have an enormous radioactive waste legacy of approximately 70 million tonnes sitting in vast tailings dams located at the Roxby Downs uranium mine. And the other is the 60-year spent fuel legacy from the Lucas Heights reactor. Since it first contemplated this issue, starting in about the 1970s, government has been looking for some way of getting that waste out of its hair and dumping it somewhere as far as possible from centres of population so that the reactor can continue to operate in Sydney—on the days when it is actually functioning.
The ECA committee inquiry received an overwhelming consensus regarding the deficiencies and the consequences of the 2005 legislation that I have sought to repeal. It was very clear in statements of ALP policy and statements from ALP spokespeople during the federal election campaign, speaking essentially to the bleeding obvious, that this legislation demands urgent repeal and replacement with a process that is deliberative, democratic and scientifically defensible. The legislation we are seeking to repeal, and which I thought the government was keen to repeal, overrides laws passed by the Northern Territory government, preventing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act from having effect during the investigation of the dumping of Australia’s most toxic and dangerous waste inventory. It excludes the Native Title Act from operating, it overrides the Northern Territory Land Title Act and it wipes out procedural fairness through the suspension of the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act. It is an appalling piece of legislation that should have been repealed in the first sittings of the new parliament under the Rudd government. We are well over a year into that government and still there is no sign of the repeal of this legislation.
The inquiry report acknowledged the degree to which a centralised, remote facility is questioned as being necessarily an appropriate option. In other words, the industry both in Australia and overseas has never made the case that remote dumping of radioactive waste is the most appropriate way of dealing with this legacy. The argument about centralised storage is still very much an open question. In fact we heard a good deal of quite compelling evidence that we are not yet ready to embark on a remote radioactive waste dump. Initiatives recently by President Obama have essentially put an end to the strategy of the United States of dumping its radioactive waste inventory on the people of Nevada. So there are some aspects of this industry which are very familiar around the world.
The committee inquiry exposed just how contested the proposed radioactive waste dump sites in the Northern Territory are. The government had been dealing with a small handful of people from one group of traditional owners. We heard from a very wide range of traditional owners, particularly from around the Tennant Creek site in the area known as Muckaty. They gave very compelling evidence about the flawed nature of the consultation process, questioning the accuracy of a secret anthropological report that designates a handful of individuals, traditional owners, who speak exclusively for ‘country’. That process was completely inadequate and flawed. The committee called for replacement legislation to be introduced into the parliament in the autumn 2009 sittings.
Well, here we are: the committee called very clearly for a process based on principles of rigorous consultation, voluntary consent, environmental credibility and looking at world best-practice models for dealing with this radioactive waste migraine left to us from 60 years of unrestrained development of the nuclear industry. So where is it? Where is the repeal of the legislation?
When does the government intend to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005, a commitment made very clearly in chapter 5 of the ALP’s National Platform and Constitution 2007? Where is the government on its promise of nearly two years ago that there would be a scientific, transparent, accountable and fair process that would allow access to appeal mechanisms?
It is still sitting on the desk of the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson. That is not a very good place for it to be. Minister, you and your staff, who are presumably monitoring the Senate or reading the transcript, have failed us today. We needed repeal legislation in the parliament at the earliest possible time, and it is not here. We are really letting down people in the Northern Territory who are under an extraordinary degree of stress. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the chair of the ECA committee, the other committee members and the hardworking staff, who did a great job in producing this report.