ABC Radio National - Nuclear Waste Management Bill

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

FRAN KELLY:

Well more than twenty years after the search started for a nuclear waste dump Labor’s Radioactive Waste Management Bill is listed for debate in the Senate today.  The Bill has already gone through the House of Reps, and with Coalition support it will also pass in the upper house, giving the green light to development of Australia’s low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste facility at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory.  This is despite bitter opposition from various Indigenous and environmental groups and from the Northern Territory Government itself.  West Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlum will try to delay a vote on the Bill, and the Country Liberal Party Senator for the Northern Territory, Nigel Scullion, wants an extra $10 million for the Territory.  Both join me from Canberra this morning.  Senators, good morning.  Welcome to breakfast.

SENATOR LUDLUM:

Good morning.

NIGEL SCULLION:

Yes, good morning.

FRAN KELLY:

Senator Scullion, let’s begin with you.  You once bitterly opposed a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory.  In fact back in 2005 you said, “there’s not going to be a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. The people of the Northern Territory don’t want anybody else’s nuclear waste.  I represent them, so not on my watch.”  What’s changed your mind?

NIGEL SCULLION:

Well a lot of things have changed since then.  We’ve actually had the Coalition formulated the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill, the original bill.  And as a part of a suite of amendments we ensured that other States and Territories who had refused to be able to locate it, particularly South Australia.  The recommendation twenty years ago was that Section 52, which is effectively in South Australian desert, was the ideal place and [we spent] an awful lot of money in identifying that.  And of course South Australia, the Labor Party, Mike Rann, said that during an election process that no it wasn’t going to be here after all.  And it ended up that if it wasn’t going in the Northern Territory then we’ll be putting at risk the capacity of this country to be able to produce radioactive pharmaceuticals.  I would prefer it to go in South Australia, because scientifically it’s the best place.  South Australia refused, as a Territory we didn’t have the capacity to refuse, but on balance the capacity to produce radioactive pharmaceuticals, to detect and cure and treat cancer was more important than the fundamentals of the sovereignty of the Northern Territory. We have ensured that other States and Territories that have refused couldn’t store the material there.  I understand now that they are simply “gift” that material to the Commonwealth.   It’s then Commonwealth material to be able to go to the radioactive repository.  And hence we’ve now simply said that if you’re going to store it here, you’re going to have pay for it.  This is the mechanism to do so.  The $10 million simply starts the capital contribution fund, and any State or Territory material that is stored there over years, they’re going to have to pay to store their material in the Northern Territory.  That’s going to go to a fund that is effectively going to fund things like scholarships to ensure that we can continue to have nuclear medicine equipment in the Northern Territory and we can have the same level of health care as enjoyed in plenty of other places around Australia.

FRAN KELLY:

So this capital contribution fund, this $10 million, this is an amendment you’re adding to the Bill.  Do you have an agreement with Labor that this extra $10 million will be delivered?  Is it a done deal?

NIGEL SCULLION:

Well, first of all, the fund stands in credit of at least $10 million when it starts. But as States and Territories continue to have to pay for the storage that fund will rise.  But yes, the Labor Party have in fact agreed that capital contribution fund will be established.

FRAN KELLY:

And do you think the Northern Territorians will think that $10 million is enough of a pay off for getting a nuclear waste dump?

NIGEL SCULLION:

Well I think that they already understand that the $32 million to build an oncology unit in the Northern Territory that was provided by the previous Government as a sort of part of that deal.  I think they’re very grateful that no longer families and people who are suffering from cancer no longer have to travel to Adelaide to seek treatment.  I think they’re very grateful for that.  But in any event Territorians generally feel that this should not have gone in the Northern Territory, it should have gone in the exact spot scientifically we all agreed it should go, which was in South Australia.  It was simply because of the reticence of the South Australian Government in politicising this during an election process that it’s now ended up the only place that the Commonwealth can put it – I don’t like it going in the Territory, it’s simply not the best place.  But given that the balance is not standing in the way of Australia’s production of radio-pharmaceuticals then that’s where it has to go and this is something that the other States and Territories that refuse to have it in their backyard are now going to have to pay.

FRAN KELLY:

Scott Ludlum, you’re opposed to the nuclear waste dump Bill going through.  Are you opposed to it outright, or are you just opposed to in the short-term because it’s actually still being challenged in the courts?

SENATOR LUDLUM:

Well, both really.  I think it’s totally inappropriate that the Bill is before the Senate while the Government doesn’t yet know whose land they are dealing with.  There’s a very serious challenge by the traditional owners of the Barkly region.  A challenge to the Federal Government and the Northern Land Council.  They’re basically saying they had no right to give up the land in the first place.  So I find it offensive that in the middle of that court action the Senate’s going to be debating a bill that explicitly names and targets that site.  But you’re right to point out the bigger picture.  I’m sick of the twenty-year conversation in Australia that says which remote Aboriginal community should get a radioactive waste dump.  We need to back up a little bit and ask ourselves why are we trying to dump this stuff as far as from the capital cities as we possibly can?

FRAN KELLY:

Well isn’t that answer self-evident?  Isn’t it safer to put it in remote areas not near the middle of cities?

SENATOR LUDLUM:

Well, yeah, but when you unpack that argument the reason that the reason that the Government and industry wants this stuff at a remote site with appropriate geology and so on, is that there’s no form of engineered containment that will actually hold this material for hundreds of thousands of years.  And the nuclear industry in Australia and overseas is on the record as saying the reason that you want a high isolation site is that this stuff will leak.  I think that’s why the people in the Barkly find this proposal so offensive.   It’s like we’re shifting this out of Sydney because it’s not safe there, but they’re telling local people in the Territory that it’ll be perfectly safe on their cattle station.

FRAN KELLY:

But you are mentioning the world.  The world has looked on and said Australia is one of the most stable geological, this area and parts of Australia is the most stable geological formation anywhere in the world and they’re remote from high population therefore they are the best place to store radioactive waste.  In a sense that’s true isn’t it?  If we are going to produce this radio-pharmaceuticals as Nigel Scullion says then, you know, we’ve got to do something with the waste.

SENATOR LUDLUM:

The first place to stop is with the doctors and the medical professionals over the last couple of months who’ve come out and said please stop using medical technology as an excuse for producing this waste, because there are other ways of providing for radio-pharmaceuticals that don’t result in these long-lived carcinogenic wastes.  But can you understand why people in Tennant Creek might find it offensive to hear that the world wants our stable geology to dump high-level spent fuel from reactors because when this facility leaks it will be a long way from people.  Now that is a really hard thing to sell in the Northern Territory and frankly I’m amazed Senator Scullion in 2005 said he’d crossed the floor.  Well he’s about to get his opportunity because $10 million over 300 years, which is the life of the short-lived isotopes – amounts to about $30,000 a year.  It’s not really something I’d be jumping up and down and celebrating.

FRAN KELLY:

Senator Scullion as we were just discussing there with Senator Ludlum, there is a court challenge over this still going on.  If the court upholds the appeal and the Muckaty Station as a site falls over would you support the Minister, Martin Ferguson, visiting the other proposed sites in the Northern Territory?  Three Commonwealth Defence sites?

NIGEL SCULLION:

Well first of all, just factually, the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill of 2010 that we’ll be considering today doesn’t anywhere in there specific a site.  Specifically it talks about the relevant State of Territory, in fact this contribution fund can be a State or Territory wherever it goes.  So this doesn’t actually dictate the process and has in fact nothing to do with the High Court challenge.  Now the High Court –

FRAN KELLY:

Can I just interrupt, there Senator … hasn’t the Minister said on the record that Muckaty is the only site being considered?

NIGEL SCULLION:

Well that’s correct.  But what I say that this Radioactive Waste Management Bill is all about facilitation, the conditionality of the repository, it doesn’t specifically say, “this is going to go on Muckaty Station.”  Otherwise this would not be considered during the High Challenge.  Now that High Court challenge will go along its’ way, but one of the imperatives that we have to deal with in this in the timing is that we are already well behind the date that the agreement under which we can use fuel, and we buy fuel under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to go to Lucas Heights which is very close to Sydney and in Sydney where we produce radio-pharmaceuticals.  It’s a research reactor that only produces medicine.  And as a conditionality of producing that medicine, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have to send that away where plutonium and other material gets taken out.  It gets transferred to an intermediate-level waste material, and we as signatories to get that, and get access to that, we have to store the waste.  Now that was conditional to us actually being able to produce radio-pharmaceuticals in Australia and to actually have the capacity to have this wonderful nuclear medicine and all its benefits.  Now, you can’t say we’re going to take the benefits and then change our mind.  We are signatory to a conditionality of ensuring that material comes back to Australia and in time.  Now both Dounreay and Kajima where this material has been stored have run out of time to store it.  They’re not allowed to store it any further and they’re saying, “Australia, you must take it back. We’re running out of time.”  I understand the Government’s position in ensuring that we can continue to maintain the conditionality and we can meet our side of the bargain by ensuring the material, after it’s been treated, to become intermediate level waste, comes back to Australia.  That’s all we’re doing, and I think that’s why we have to move along with this.  This has very little, this has nothing to do with the High Court case.  If the High Court case comes out and says you can’t keep it it at Muckaty well the Government have got another real challenge on their hands about finding out where this will go.  Wherever it goes, other States and Territories will pay the capital contribution fund and it will be managed under this Act.

FRAN KELLY:

So Senator Ludlum just finally to you, do you agree with Nigel Scullion there.  If the High Court challenge and the Government’s going to have to find somewhere else, and there is some urgency to this, you’re proposing a new independent commission on radioactive waste.  What would that do, how would that help?

SENATOR LUDLUM:

Yeah, it’s about backing away from this disastrous idea that a remote Aboriginal community always has to host this stuff.  We really have to throw off that notion that this stuff has to go in a shed on a cattle station somewhere as far from Sydney as possible.  It’s a Federal Court challenge not a High Court challenge, and Senator Scullion well knows this Bill names Muckaty.  It names and targets a single site, and that is the only one that they’re looking at.  I’ve had Government Department officials confirm that for me over and over again.  They’ve nailed this site and sidelined environmental protection and planning laws to nail it.  It’s not good enough to say that the Bill doesn’t target Muckaty.  If it turns out, as we suspect, that the Federal Court finds in favour of the Aboriginal people who are contesting it, it means we’ve wasted two years of Parliament’s time.  We’ve already got the material that Senator Scullion says quite rightly needs to return to Australia, and we’re contracted to get it back reasonably soon.  There’s fifteen times that amount of that material already parked in Sydney under secure observation and storage at Lucas Heights.  So the stuff that comes back from Europe will be going there.  We believe for the time being it should stay there, while we have a more intelligent conversation than which remote Aboriginal community should look after this stuff for a tiny amount of money.

FRAN KELLY:

Senator Ludlum, Senator Scullion, thankyou very much for joining us on Breakfast.

NIGEL SCULLION:

Good morning, Fran.

SENATOR LUDLUM:

Thankyou.

FRAN KELLY:

Scott Ludlum is the Senator with the West Australian Greens and Senator Nigel Scullion is the Senator with the CLP in the Northern Territory.  And just to make it clear, even if this Labor’s National Waste Management Bill is passed by the Senate, that won’t be the final word on the nuclear dump at Muckaty Station because there is still that case before the Federal Court.

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