Speech on Bill – Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Amendment Bill

NOTE: Senator Day is speaking at Committee stage of the Bill, where he sought to remove this section of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act:

10  Prohibition on certain nuclear installations

             (1)  Nothing in this Act is to be taken to authorise the construction or operation of any of the following nuclear installations:

                     (a)  a nuclear fuel fabrication plant;

                     (b)  a nuclear power plant;

                     (c)  an enrichment plant;

                     (d)  a reprocessing facility.

             (2)  The CEO must not issue a licence under section 32 in respect of any of the facilities mentioned in subsection (1).


My home state of South Australia—I like starting a speech with ‘My home state of South Australia’; it just gets me off on the right foot—amongst other things, is blessed with significant uranium deposits. On a per capita basis we have, perhaps, the most in the world.

Let me mention a former state Labor MP, the late Mr Norm Foster. He was one of the members in the other place for the electorate of Sturt. He then became a member of the South Australian Legislative Council. In 1982 Norm Foster crossed the floor in the state parliament to get uranium mining underway at Olympic Dam, in South Australia. In expressing his conscience in support of that state, Norm Foster resigned from the Labor Party, to perhaps avoid being expelled for going against party policy. Thankfully, history and the Labor Party were kinder to him in later years and he is now hailed as a hero in South Australia. It just goes to show, though, that sometimes groupthink has to be taken head-on, no matter what the cost.

When this legislation was created in 1998, a provision was inserted by the Greens, to automatically ban certain types of nuclear activity and installations.

Senator Ludlam interjecting—

I thank Senator Ludlam for his interjection; he still holds to that view 20 years later.

I want to highlight that this is not the end of the debate, if the amendment is defeated. It is not even the beginning of the end. I accept that the government was perhaps housekeeping in this particular legislative area and then along I came, opportunistically, with an amendment about nuclear installations. And when you come from South Australia you take every opportunity that you can. I get that. I also want colleagues to get that, when it comes to a nuclear future for South Australia—and my South Australian colleague Senator Edwards and indeed a number of other coalition senators have offered encouraging words to me in support of this amendment—I and others from South Australia and no doubt other senators from other states support that, and breaking down the barriers to get on with the nuclear fuel cycle and industry for South Australia.

A royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle has been instituted in South Australia and, to its great credit, state Labor got this underway. My party, the Family First Party, has welcomed and supported that.

I note that it has been reported that the South Australian government’s Attorney-General’s Department is already preparing tenders for consultants to bid for the work in preparing business cases for the very things that are described and banned outright in section 10 of the Act. This move is designed to clear and improve the business case for South Australia participating more broadly in the nuclear fuel cycle.

I want to also make it clear that a nuclear spent fuel facility is already permissible at law, although the Greens also tried to stop that in 1998. We need and already have low-level facilities, but these are presently licensed by the authority.

I also want to talk about nuclear submarines. I want to emphasise, again, that I support nuclear-powered submarines, not nuclear-armed submarines. Some of our major allies have nuclear-powered submarines, not least of which are the UK and the United States. The generation of submarines currently under the competitive evaluation process will of course be conventional submarines. But I hope that the next generation after that will be nuclear, because there is no doubt that these provide the tactical superiority and particular range that a large and relatively remote nation such as Australia needs. Informed opinion tells us that Australia’s defence needs are for 12 submarines, six conventional and six nuclear powered.

Having a nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear industry will greatly improve the prospects of us establishing a nuclear submarine industry and, indeed, developing local talent. We could work, for example, in partnership with, say, the United Kingdom or the United States and progress towards having our own nuclear industry, supporting nuclear-powered submarines.

With respect to international comparisons, let me just outline for the benefit of senators where Australia presently sits in comparison with its major trading partners when it comes to the types of facilities described in section 10 of the act. Thirty-three nations have nuclear power and 19 of those nations have nuclear fuel fabrication. Eleven nations have nuclear enrichment plants.

There are seven nations with reprocessing facilities. Australia is one of just four out the 20 G20 nations that does not have nuclear power. Eighteen of the 34 OECD nations have nuclear power, and Australia of course is not one of them. So nuclear energy and its fuel cycle is not an international pariah as some might suggest; in fact, far from it.

I want to move on to consider small, modular reactors, which Senator Leyonhjelm mentioned a short time ago. I have learnt a little bit about this aspect of nuclear energy. Let me tell you about small modular reactors, SMRs for short. In brief, they are small, economically efficient, reliable nuclear energy sources—

Senator Ludlam:  They don’t exist.

Senator DAY:  They do exist—

Senator Ludlam:  Nobody has built one.

[NOTE: for more information see this page from the World Nuclear Association]

Senator DAY:  They are assembled in-house and then shipped to the desired locations. They are often destined for remote locations as they require few staff and have fewer containment issues. They employ inherent—

Senator Ludlam:  Where are they operating?

Senator DAY:  I will get to that, Senator Ludlam—

Senator Ludlam:  I’ll stop.

Senator DAY:  If you don’t mind. We have talked about courteous—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Senator Day, address your questions through the chair. And those on my left, order.

Senator DAY:  Senator Ludlam is very close to me here. It is irritating me in my ear as I go along through this, Mr Chair.

There is no need for long transmission powerlines with these small modular reactors in remote locations, and South Australia of course has abundant remote locations. There is a smaller power output relative to the larger power plants, and the initial construction costs are much lower by comparison. SMRs produce between 10 and 300 megawatts, compared to 1,000 megawatts for a typically large reactor. SMRs have load-following designs so that when electricity demands are low they produce a lower amount of electricity. They are fast reactors and are designed to have higher fuel burn-up rates, reducing the amount of spent fuel produced. And, importantly, they use low enriched uranium, which is non-weapons-grade uranium. This makes the fuel less desirable for weapons production, supporting nonproliferation.

Let me talk about the knowledge economy in South Australia. We are hearing much these days about improving our international competitiveness and giving our own young people reason to stay in Australia, in South Australia in particular. It is a worthwhile debate to have, and that mentality was a driving force behind the Medical Research Future Fund debate, with scientists writing to us, urging us, that our best and brightest were going overseas to pursue research opportunities.

I ask my colleagues today in this debate: where will the next Albert Einstein come from? Will they be Australian? Where will the next Ernest Rutherford come from? He was a New Zealander. South Australia has produced a Howard Florey. Will we one day develop the equivalent of a hadron collider in South Australia?

I have somewhat of a background in science and I have to say it is very discouraging when you have a law saying that some science is completely off-limits, even though you have other nations in the world delivering significant benefits to their citizens.

Will we one day celebrate a huge leap forward in scientific technology? Lockheed Martin are saying they are close to doing that with nuclear fusion – will it involve a former Australian citizen who went to Britain, somewhere friendlier, to do nuclear science? What a shame that would be. We embrace nuclear medicine and its benefits to our health, and we ought to be embracing the nuclear fuel cycle also.

I moved this amendment because it is simply illogical to have a law saying that you simply will not entertain certain technologies. By all means, if you want to impose strict licence conditions so be it; do so. We know that regulation rules out a host of other things already because it makes it uneconomic to proceed, yet it is regulatory extremism to statutorily ban certain things from ever being considered. The 1998 provision was not opposed by the major parties because they were not looking this far into the future. My amendment is designed to get the parliament to reconsider the future, and to vote in favour of the future, by supporting this amendment.

SUMMING UP SPEECH (after responses from other parties):

In summing up, I thank my colleagues for their contributions on my amendment. I would particularly like to thank my colleague Senator Leyonhjelm for his support.

In response to Senator McLucas [ALp]  suggesting that my amendment would fundamentally change energy policy, I was not suggesting that but rather just removing a ban on even considering these things at the first hurdle. Whether my amendment represented a fundamental change in energy policy, I thank Senator McLucas for her compliment.

In response to Senator Ludlam’s [GRN] comments, he makes my point exactly. He says that there is no nuclear fuel cycle. What have the last hundred years of brilliant discoveries and inventions been all about? We used to burn off gas from oil refineries and now it is recycled. Methane used to leak out of rubbish dumps and now it is harnessed and used for fuel. And there are all the medical breakthroughs. I think Senator Ludlam’s short-sighted approach, saying, ‘We can’t allow it because we haven’t done anything yet,’ is my whole point. The whole point is where might the next big medical or scientific come from? If we keep on blindly with a ‘Ludlam-ite’ approach—excuse the pun, Senator Ludlam—it will get us nowhere.

It would appear that I do not have the numbers for this to succeed today. I accept that. This amendment has come at relatively late notice. I do thank senators for their contribution. It has triggered an interesting discussion. I will read Senator Ludlam’s discussion paper on this because it really is very, very important for my home state of South Australia. Nonetheless, I move my amendment.

Image: IAEA Imagebank, Nuclear Forensics Workshop