Legislative Council

GREENS MOTION: National Day of Action on Nuclear Against Nuclear Waste Dumps

October 19th, 2016

On 19th October, Mark moved a motion regarding the National Day of Action Against Nuclear Waste Dumps.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL : I move:

That this council— 

1 . Notes the National Day of Action Against Nuclear Waste Dumps held on 15 October 2016; and 

2 . Acknowledges the opposition expressed by thousands of South Australia's to proposals to create high, intermediate and low level nuclear waste dumps in South Australia. 

The National Day of Action Against Nuclear Waste Dumps was held over the weekend, on Saturday, and it was a remarkable event. It was remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only its size, and the police estimate more than 3,000 people were there, but it was also remarkable for the breadth of those who attended. I should say at the outset that, as a national day, there were other events in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Perth, but the Adelaide event was the focus of the day.

There were many groups that were represented—and that is to be expected—but the vast bulk of the people in attendance were ordinary South Australians who are very worried about these proposals. When I say these proposals, I am referring to both the commonwealth government's intermediate and low level nuclear waste facility, the one that has been shortlisted for the Flinders Ranges, and also the state government's royal commission proposal for an international commercial high-level nuclear waste dump. These concerns cross over many issues, from public and environmental health and safety, through to the economic implications of constructing the world's largest nuclear waste facility.

However, one overriding theme of the day was the implications that both these nuclear waste dumps have for Aboriginal South Australians, and that was no accident. In fact, the significance of the date, 15 October, is that it marks the 63rd anniversary of the first atomic test explosion at Emu Field in the far west of our state, and that started a decade of secret British nuclear tests, including the better known explosions at Maralinga.

The ambassador for an organisation known as the No Dump Alliance is Yami Lester. He is a Yankunytjatjara elder and an atomic test survivor. Yami says:

In 1953 I was just 10 years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga. I didn't know anything about nuclear issues back then, none of us knew what was happening. I got sick and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout from those tests, and lots of our people got sick and died also. 

I think it was great that Karina Lester, one of Yami Lester's daughters, was one of the MCs or compares of the rally on the steps of Parliament House on Saturday. We all know that nuclear waste is a very different proposition to atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, but it certainly is not without significant risk, and we have to recognise the deep suspicion that Aboriginal communities have in relation to the nuclear industry. That suspicion is born out of experience and the platitudes of government and industry that it is safe just do not cut it with many in those communities.

So, the national day of action was about both the proposals. Whilst it does cause some confusion in the community, I think it is important to recognise that there are two plans on the table for nuclear waste dumps in South Australia. I will start with the federal process. This is the process designed to find a location for intermediate and low-level nuclear waste, and that is nuclear waste that is already in Australia.

The federal government process involved calling for nominations; it involved a short list, and they now have got down to one preferred site, and that has been discussed in this place over a few months. The land that has been identified by the commonwealth government as its preferred site for its nuclear waste dump is, in fact, publicly-owned land, it is crown land under the Crown Lands Management Act.

As the Minister for Sustainability, Conservation and Environment confirmed today, his telephone is not exactly ringing off the hook with calls from the commonwealth government—they are not consulting the owner of the land. What a remarkable situation! That process is underway and certainly it has attracted a lot of opposition from the local Adnyamathanha people and others in the community.

I say at the outset about that project that nobody is denying that nuclear waste generated in Australia, that exists in Australia, is not Australia's responsibility: it absolutely is, and that is a major point of difference between the commonwealth's search for a nuclear waste dump and the idea that we might have a commercial international facility.

I think the commonwealth's process has failed on a number of levels: first, I do not think they have made out the case for a need for a central repository for this waste; and, secondly, they certainly have not made the case for Aboriginal land being the right location. The Greens' position is that a long-term waste management solution needs to take a considered and evidence-based approach, and this would be best achieved by holding an independent inquiry into national radioactive waste production and management, and it would need input from civil society stakeholders, as well as people with expertise in engineering, social science, environmental science, community consultation, radiation and medicine.

That inquiry would include an audit of all sites where radioactive waste is produced or stored, and there are about 100 places around Australia. The review would also need to investigate all possible options for managing radioactive waste, including but not limited to a single remote collocated facility.

In fact, one of the great frustrations that we find in this debate is that when you talk in social media or in the community about the international, commercial, high-level nuclear waste dump proposed by the royal commission, often the first thing people ask is, 'But what do we do with medical waste?' The two issues are entirely separate. The process that the commonwealth has undertaken will involve medical waste but it is also reasonable to say that most of these 100 or so locations where waste is currently held will not be closing.

Think about it: unless every time a surgeon, a medico, a nurse or whatever disposes of an item of low-level contaminated gear, whether it is protective clothing or equipment or whatever, unless they put that into a taxi and send it up instantly to the Flinders Ranges, I can tell you what, it is going to stay at the hospital. It is going to stay there

The Hon. T.A. Franks interjecting: 

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: As my colleague interrupts, with the $1 levy on the taxis it will become an expensive proposition. The point to make is that the best that a centralised, national, remote facility might do is to allow for some clean-out every so often, but it is not going to close these facilities. Hospitals will continue to store this waste at their facility. There is really no alternative unless you put it in a taxi and send it up to the Flinders Ranges on a daily basis. It is something to remember: there is this assumption out there that we are going to be closing all of these disperse locations and replacing them with a single, outback repository. That is not going to happen.

The commonwealth proposal is flawed on a number of levels but I want to move on to the royal commission process because that really is a folly of our own making. I have been critical of the royal commission process. It was biased, and I say that in light of the fact that it refused to hear from some of the important critics of the nuclear industry, and that includes the major national environmental organisations. They were not given face-to-face time with the royal commission but the commission seemed to have plenty of time to hear from the nuclear cheer squad. That was a very disappointing aspect of the royal commission.

It was also disappointing that they based their conclusions on a single analysis of a business case. When you bear in mind that the only reason—the single, solitary reason—for embarking on this international nuclear waste dump is that it might make money, to have a single business case prepared by nuclear consultants really does not stack up. The government has now engaged in its own consultation with the community in relation to the royal commission's findings.

We see the organisation with the acronym CARA, the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency. I think that their approach to this has not been even-handed either. When you look at the material that they have prepared, there are some glaring omissions, and I will come to them shortly. They are glossing over a number of inconvenient truths that are part of the nuclear waste industry.

Then we have the citizens' jury. I think the citizens' jury is doing better in terms of balance and they are certainly giving their critics a say, not necessarily as prominently as the nuclear cheer squad, but we will wait and see at the end of the day how the evidence turns out and what witnesses they had and how much time they had. Certainly, the citizens' jury is not ignoring critics of the nuclear industry like the royal commission did, and that is to their credit. I will just say that I am not one of those opposed to citizens' juries. I think they are a very useful tool but we have to remember that they are a useful tool for finding out what the people in that room happen to think; they are not decision-making forums. I think the main flaw of that process is that they are asking the wrong question.

It is not about determining what the circumstances might be that make a nuclear waste dump viable. The real question is: what is the economic future for our state and how do we get there? We all know that asking the right question is critical. We could also ask questions along the following lines: do you agree that spending up to $600 million or more on pursuing a nuclear waste dump before deciding whether to proceed is the best use of taxpayers' money? Or we could ask the question: do you trust the nuclear industry to deliver a nuclear waste dump on time and on budget? Asking questions like that elicits different answers to the ones that we might get given the question that was asked.

As I have said, there are many inconvenient truths that the royal commission ignored and that the government's own response agency glosses over. I am happy to provide members with a short document entitled 'Ten inconvenient facts about nuclear waste and South Australia'. I will just go through a couple of those quickly. The first thing I would say is that the much-heralded Finnish underground nuclear waste facility that was visited by the Premier recently, and also by the select committee, does not yet have a licence to accept any nuclear waste, it will not open for at least six years, and it has been three decades in the planning.

It is also 20 times smaller than the facility that is proposed for South Australia by the royal commission. That is why it is disappointing to see the government's response agency prominently featuring this as a success story—a success story that is not yet open and will not be open for years. Certainly, we hope it is successful, but to actually put it on a pedestal—'We could do that, and we could do it 20 times bigger'—I think really is glossing over the truth of the matter.

Another inconvenient fact is that the nuclear industry is without peer when it comes to cost blowouts and time overruns. One of the things that the Premier did recently was the same thing that the joint committee of this parliament did. He went to the visitor centre at the nuclear facility at Olkiluoto and he would have seen from the visitor centre, just across the water, a nuclear power plant that is under construction. When you explore the history of that plant, you find that it is nine years late and 300 per cent over cost. It is not even over the budget: it is over the contracted price.

As a result, the people building it and the people who have commissioned it are arguing about who is going to pay this cost. Sure, that is a nuclear power plant, and we are talking about a nuclear waste facility, but what you have to remember is that there are hundreds of nuclear power plants. That is not the first of a kind. They have been building these things for centuries. The nuclear waste facility that is being proposed is the first of its kind in the world, and the question we have to ask is: what confidence can we have in assurances that we know how much it will cost and we know what the revenue will be, and therefore confidence in that prediction that South Australians will make $5 billion a year profit?

Another inconvenient truth is that, as the royal commission's own consultants pointed out, it could cost South Australians more than $600 million before we even know whether the project is viable. Another truth that no-one is talking about is that the main client countries that were anticipated to send nuclear waste to South Australia have already embarked on their own domestic solutions. The question then is: will they want to talk to a jurisdiction like South Australia when they are already committed to local solutions with their local population?

One of the great omissions from all of the literature, whether it is produced by the royal commission or produced by the government's response agency, is they fail to acknowledge that there is only one operating underground nuclear waste dump in the world, and that dump has been closed for two years because of an explosion. It is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to reopen, and it will reopen as a contaminated facility. The nuclear industry love to say that you cannot use the waste isolation pilot project in New Mexico as an example, because it takes a different type of nuclear waste.

Sure, it is taking transuranic waste, which is transported differently and stored differently, but it is still, I think, a telling case study because it is closed as the result of an accident. The accident was the result of human error. I have talked about it in this place before. Just Google 'kitty litter' and 'nuclear waste' and you will get the whole sorry story. There was one thing that struck me. When the joint committee went to the nuclear waste conference in Nevada, one of the managers of that facility gave a presentation. He did not quite have tears in his eyes, but he was despondent, and he was despondent because he says, and I am paraphrasing, 'People don't seem to realise that we had 15 good years. We had 15 years of operating this facility without any accidents.'

My reaction to that was one of astonishment. We are talking about facilities that need to remain safe, that will operate actively for a century or so and need to remain safe forever, and this chap was despondent that people were ignoring their 15 good years before they had their first major accident? I think that was just a remarkable statement to make. There is more but I will leave it there for now, in terms of those inconvenient truths. Where is this debate going next? According to the government's own website, they say the following:

During November, the Government will carefully consider the Jury's report — 

that is, the citizens' jury's report—

along with the views of the broader community. The Government will consider the Royal Commission's recommendations and the community's views in deciding the next steps. 

Interestingly, there is no mention in that that the government is planning on considering the joint parliamentary committee's work. This committee, I have to say, is one of the most active, I think, in this parliament. It has met up to three times a week to take evidence. It has one regular meeting day, and it is slotting in other meetings as it can. It is not dragging its feet, and it is doing its best to come up with a conclusion. Yet, it is remarkable that I am yet to see any statement from the government that their plan is, first of all, to wait, and secondly, to take into account what that committee comes up with.

That is all the more disappointing, because the committee has done a lot of work. It has travelled the world, it has taken dozens of submissions, it has heard from many witnesses, and it is making progress. However, the government's unrealistic deadline—that they want to have all the evidence in by the end of October so that they can make their decision in November—is really unfortunate, at best. At worst, I think it is insulting to the parliament.

One of the things that that committee is doing is trying to get a second economic opinion, and that is absolutely critical because, as I have said, the only reason to advance this project is economics. If the economics do not stack up, neither does the project. Ultimately, as we look in our crystal ball, my view is that this project will fall over on economic grounds.

The only question, really, is how much money will have been wasted in the meantime? How much money will we have spent pursuing this fool's gold? That is why I have described this folly as potentially the government's own State Bank moment. What we do not want is for future generations—who are faced with rising costs, disappearing profits and liabilities that last forever—to look back on what is happening today and to ask of this generation: what on earth were they thinking?

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