I thought I might take the opportunity to put in context some of the comments of Senator Ludlam. He made a couple of observations that I would agree with: it is a difficult process; it is difficult for cattlemen and those traditional owners of country to understand what is happening. But, Senator Ludlam, with respect, it makes it a lot more difficult if we are not actually dealing with the facts.
This legislation does not prescribe Muckaty at all. What we are dealing with today has nothing to do with the location; it simply prescribes the circumstances around where it can be located and a whole suite of issues around that. The real reason that, first of all, it is currently in the Northern Territory is that there was a decision many, many years ago. There are very few in this place who can still remember when this started. I suspect there is no-one in the Senate who was around when that process started.
That was an agreement by all states and territories, paid for by the Parliament of Australia, that they would investigate the best site—not the best available site but the most suitable site. That site was to be found in the Officer Basin in South Australia. Millions of dollars were invested by the Australian parliament to do that. Mike Rann decided that political expediency was far more important to him and his party than the health and welfare of Australians. The states and territories would not take that so, of course, they have chucked it to the dear old Northern Territory—and those in this place would know my views on that.
But as for why it is on Aboriginal land, we now need to look at the Northern Territory. It was open for the then Chief Minister in the Northern Territory, Clare Martin, to nominate anywhere in the Northern Territory because of all of the pastoral leases in the Northern Territory. She could have considered not the most available site but the most suitable site. But on the very same day that she had that capacity—so it can hardly be seen to be a considered process—she decided that she would tell everybody that we were not considering any places.
That left only one group of people, the Northern Land Council, who you would have to have a deal of respect for because they were an independent group who decided they would have a process that would go through a selection period. Firstly, they had a meeting of all Northern Land Council members simply to consider whether or not their body would be a body under which nominations could occur. It was a three-day meeting simply to see if they were going to have anything to do with it. We have a process which is subject to a High Court decision at the moment, which is a very robust process. As I said, what we are talking about today has nothing to do with that. But at least they dealt with it with some independence and not with the same political self-interest that the Labor Party in the Northern Territory did. That is the reason why the site is now both in the Northern Territory and only on Indigenous communities. It is simply because of the political self-interest of the Labor Party, both in South Australia and in the Northern Territory.
There were a number of remarks from the senator in regard to why we locate these in remote areas. Whilst it was fairly dry, I would recommend to you the references by the minister in that regard. It is not about keeping things away from people; it is about finding a site that is unlikely to be disturbed in the near future—in geological terms, the next 100 years. It is a site that would certainly need to meet those specifications. But remember that, in terms of saying, ‘Let’s take all this material and hide it away somewhere,’ this is only intermediate level waste. Remember, the high-level material is at Lucas Heights—right in the middle of Sydney. That is the only high-level waste we have in Australia—right in the middle of Sydney. So nobody is hiding it anywhere. This is simply the best place to keep it. And it meets those standards.
We have had remarks from the senator—and this is what makes me nervous—about things ‘leaking out’ and ‘running out’. I can remember some of the local people from Muckaty being concerned because they had been told that, when the 44 gallon drums rubbed through, the material would simply run out into the sand and run out into the rivers and would hurt marlu and other things. I was pretty disturbed, and I asked them where they got that information. It was provided to them by a third party, apparently—no doubt, without mischief. But I went on to tell them that we are not allowed to keep, nor do we keep, either liquid matter or particulate matter at the facility. So the notion of ‘leaking’ can be misinterpreted—and I am not verballing the senator—as a radioactive leak if there is a crack or something and it comes out. As for the notion of something ‘running out’ and getting into water sources no liquid, particulate matter or dust is stored there.
One of the most difficult things about this material is that in storage it is actually difficult to measure how much radiation is coming out of a drum, on the surface, or whether it is coming out of the material that is stored, because, in fact, the concrete, with the granite in it, has more radioactivity coming out of it than the container. So it is very difficult to measure all those things. But it is important in terms of safety to put that in the proper context. Firstly, there are no leaks and nothing is running anywhere or blowing around or running into rivers, or, in two ice ages’ time, doing something. It is also important to note that this is all recoverable—in other words, the intermediate level waste will be in a warehouse on a large concrete floor, which somebody hoovers, and there will be these big lumps of things sitting on concrete blocks. As I have said, there is more radioactivity coming out of the concrete than out of the container for that material.
It is also important to note that, as the senator indicated, there is no deep burial, no ‘leave it and forget it’. All this material—and some of the low-level material is actually soil, much of which, in fact, is not actually radioactive anymore, though we do not have time for that story—being stored there is entirely recoverable. When I say ‘recoverable’ I mean that, if we need to move it or do something with it, we simply pull the gravel out, blow the gravel away, lift the containers and move them. So to say that somehow the level of amenity provided for safety and security is not adequate is simply not true.
I recall that earlier you said that we do go on about the health system. I have to say that this is one of the most important elements of our health system. As I have said in this place before, there are numerous uses for these medicines, and the only reason we produce this material is that we cannot have those medicines in this country without this material. It is as simple as that.
One of the most important medicines we have in this country is a product called technetium. The fact that we have technetium available in this country ensures that the very bad old days, particularly for things like breast cancer, are gone. A full mastectomy, and the trauma and cosmetic loss that go with that, can now be completely avoided through forensic surgery, with a great deal of confidence that the technetium will identify not only the tumour in the breast but also the lymph nodes that it drains to.
There are those who would say, ‘There are always options; we can always import it.’ Well, I would very much recommend to them the words of the former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr ElBaradei. Dr ElBaradei was very clear about the future of access to radioactive pharmaceuticals. Radiopharmaceuticals will not necessarily be available unless every airport, wherever a plane lands, has stringent controls about fire safety mechanisms, because, if we have an aeroplane crash, then they need to have a level of amenity that will deal with radiation as well as a fire in those other materials. So the single message was: in the future, you will need to have some independence if you still want to keep a fantastic health system, which has to hinge on radiopharmaceuticals and radiology and oncology.
Cancer is still one of the greatest killers in this country and sadly we still do not have a magic wand or any unique solutions for treating or curing cancer. But, without doubt, anybody who is a commentator in this area knows that radiopharmacology and oncology pretty much depend on the production of these medicines and the capacity for us to have a research reactor which only provides medicines—only provides good things for all Australians. And, if the downside is this, this country accepted that it would take both the benefits of radiopharmaceuticals as well as the responsibilities. We have signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that, because we can use nuclear fuel rods to produce medicine, we have the responsibility to accept that the rods, after they have been processed and had the plutonium taken from them, will be returned to Australia where they can be stored safely. And they can be stored safely. This is intermediate level waste. There is no particulate matter and there is no liquid matter. And, on any balance, this is something that Australia has to have. I am always saddened by the continual politicisation of an issue that is so central to the lives of Australians right across this country. And, as a Territorian, I am saddened that we have again been forced to do something, rather than having put our hands up and made our contribution to ensuring that this country has the same level of amenity, in terms of health, that other countries enjoy.
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110616 In Committee – National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010.pdf