Few people either in Australia or around the world realise that nuclear power is legally prohibited in Australia, despite us being the largest exporter of uranium in the world. This is how it happened.
Not that long ago while undertaking a little research for a presentation to some students, I came across the section of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that describes the prohibition of nuclear power in Australia. I threw it up on the blog as a quick post without thinking too much of it. It generated quite a response and discussion. Clearly, this warranted closer investigation.
Since the prohibition of nuclear power, while nuclear build has taken off around the world, Australia has put into operation 2.5 GW more coal, is constructing another 3.2 GW, and has extended the life of the 1.6 GW of brown coal generation at Hazelwood in Victoria. We have put 4.6 GW of new gas into operation, with another 550 MW under construction. It appears our prohibition of nuclear in 1998 simply further reinforced our dependence on fossil fuels. This dependence has driven greenhouse emissions from electricity production 18% higher since 1998 (Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System).
Just how was this prohibition achieved? My thanks to Dayne Eckermann for this guest post which shines a light on the process that led Australia to this curious policy position.
Readers should note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author alone, unless directly specified otherwise. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editor or any other contributing authors, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the authors’ employers or any other organisations.
South Australia has been called the Saudi Arabia of uranium. This State of 1.65 million people contains approximately 27% of economically demonstrated uranium in the world. In comparison, Canada and Kazakhstan each have 10% of economically demonstrated Uranium. In SA there are four mines (Olympic Dam, Beverley, Beverley North, and Honeymoon) that extract and refine the uranium ore into yellowcake for export to the world. The State Resources and Energy department (DMITRE) lists a further four uranium mines in development.
Every pound of yellowcake is exported to civilian Nuclear reactors in the United States, Russia, China, Europe, South Korea, and Japan. Not one bit remains in South Australia for further value adding, or to provide zero-carbon electricity. We have a large reserve of fuel that, per unit of mass, produces more energy than gas, coal, oil and biomass ever will, and during production of energy produces zero CO2 emissions. In a climate change and pollution conscious world, nuclear power seems a no-brainer.
But even if we wanted to do those things, right now we can’t. It’s against the law, and has been since 1998.
You might imagine that a decision with such profound consequences was a dramatic, hard fought, drawn out affair. If so, the truth will surely surprise you.
Why a prohibition on nuclear power reactors in Australia?
The answer lies in the historical context of electricity production in Australia and the anti-nuclear movement within the Senate during the 1990’s.
During the nuclear reactor boom in the 1960’s and 1970’s Australia was a relatively small country of between 10 and 14 million people and our energy needs could be met by developing abundant coal and gas deposits in each State for electricity generation. There was a proposal to build one reactor at Jervis Bay but with a changing government this plan was scrapped based on the cheap sources of coal and gas in the region and fiscal constraints.
In 1998 the Australian parliament debated, and voted on legislation to centralise the task of radiation protection and safety to an independent regulatory body. Before this legislation there were two regulatory agencies, the Australian Radiation Laboratory and the Nuclear Safety Bureau, which upon the passing of the Bills would become the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) governed by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (Cth) . It is in this piece of legislation intended to create a regulatory environment where radioactive materials and devices are safely managed that the outright prohibition of nuclear power occurs.
Section 10 of the ARPANS Act 1998 states:
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 facility mentioned in subsection (1)
A similar section arises in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act) under section 140A(1)(a)-(d), that was copied over when the EPBC Act was created.
How did we get to this absolute prohibition?
It all begins during the process of the ARPANS Bill moving through the Federal Parliament in 1998. First two key contextual elements must be noted about this time and space:
1) There is a strong undercurrent of anti-nuclear activity in Australia and as such to utter the slightest hint of supporting the “N word” brings out every anti-nuclear man, woman and their dogs into the fray. Thus it is perceived to be a poison chalice in Australian politics.
2) During the 1990’s Australia was taking note of the French Nuclear testing in the Pacific, the Rainbow Warrior incident, the process of siting a nuclear waste repository for our localised medical and industrial nuclear waste, and the leaking of a project to site spent fuel and disposed nuclear weapon material in Australia by Pangea Resources. A detailed history can be found here.
The ARPANS Bill entered parliament on the 8th of April 1998 with the intention to amalgamate the Austrlaian Radiation Laboratory (ARL) and the Nuclear Safety Bureau (NSB) into one body, now known as the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), and to introduce regulatory controls for all radiation and nuclear safety activities.
The Bill passed through the House of Representatives on the 12th of November 1998 after a break in sitting occurred due to a Federal election in October. The debate in the House of Representatives mainly focused on the replacement of the Lucas Heights reactor and its perceived implications.
The Senate at this time was in the same situation it is presently in where a minority party has the balance of power in issues of partisanship. The Australian Democrats and Greens parties had this balance of power and both shared anti-nuclear policies. It is this balance of power and policy that facilitated the introduction of an amendment by the Greens party to outright prohibit nuclear power. Before amendments were made the Bill was sent to committee to hear from stakeholders and experts with an interest in the Bill.
The discussion and questioning of experts in the Senate committee was a short half day hearing with submissions and testimony from stakeholders in the nuclear industry, in the council where Lucas Heights is located, and anti-nuclear advocates.
After two days a report was tabled from this committee outlining that amendments be made to the definition of a nuclear Installation and that the report from the minority parties outlined that it also should include a prohibition of nuclear power.
The Greens amendment was voted on with no formal division (a record of ayes and noes) and was passed on voice vote alone. In other words, no Senator put their name on record for, or against, the amendment. However amendments made to Bills in the Senate sent the Bill back to the House of Representatives to be voted on a final time. The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives without division.
After a three-and-a-half hour committee meeting, a several-page report drafted over two days, one hour and 36 minutes of debate post-prohibition recommendation, and six minutes of considering the amendments (see detailed chronology below) it was decided that Australia should not go down the nuclear path.
Australia prohibited nuclear power based on the ideological position of a minority and a misperceived stigma.
[A more detailed summary of the process can be found below following the conclusion of this article, in chronological order with reference links to the readings, committee, and debate in Hansard]
On the other hand, just eight years later in 2006 nuclear power came back into the political landscape before the 2007 election. In November of 2006 the Australian government published the following report from the Standing Committee on Industry and Resources:
This is a 729 page report outlining the entire nuclear fuel cycle, radiation, and issues therein with input from 87 witnesses and experts over 11 days in differing capital cities, and 93 submissions. It is worthy of a read and another blog post. It is especially heavy on common sense, pragmatism, and objectivity through weighing up all the submissions and witness testimonies to derive recommendations for the establishment of a nuclear industry in Australia.
If only we had this level of detail on that day in December.
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The following is what occurred in chronological order. Dates are hyperlinked.
The ARPANS Bill was read for a first and second time in the House of Representatives, a fairly procedural matter. An outline of the Bill was given indicating:
“This Bill introduces regulatory controls for all Commonwealth radiation and nuclear safety activities for the first time in Australia. It is designed to protect the health and safety of persons and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation practices undertaken under the auspices of the Commonwealth.”
– Hon. Trish Worth
The debate on the Bill continues with main focus residing around the Lucas Heights reactor and its future replacement. Debate is adjourned.
After a federal election on the 3rd of October the debate is resumed, where members of parliament make their second reading speeches.
The ARPANS Bill was read for a third time and passed onto the Senate for further consideration. It is important to note the House of Representatives is comprised of members from federal electorates over Australia, whereas Senators represent their respective States.
The Bill is read a first and second time in the Senate, under procedural matters. A brief overview of what the Bill entails was published in Hansard.
Upon the movement of Sen. Dee Margetts (WA Greens) and affirmed by Sen. Sue Knowles (Liberal Party) the Bill is sent to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee to hear from witnesses with an interest in the Bill on the 30th November 1998.
The Senate committee comprised of 7 Senators and heard from 12 witnesses:
Two Liberal Party, two Labor Party, two Democrats, and one Greens Party Senators;
five representatives from ARPANSA (interim body), Nuclear Safety Bureau, Australian Radiation Laboratory and ANSTO; four councillors from the Sutherland Shire council (location of Lucas Heights reactor); and three anti-nuclear advocates, Dr. Jim Green (FoE), Ms. Jean McSorley (Greenpeace), and Mr. Larry O’Loughlin (ACF).
The transcripts of their questioning can be read in the Hansard records. Needless to say a detailed and robust discussion of Nuclear Power is clearly absent.
The Committee’s final report was tabled in the Senate. In this report it recommends that:
Amend the definition of “nuclear installation” to delete the references to nuclear power reactors and to reprocessing facilities, and to add references to the following:
- a spent fuel conditioning plant
- a nuclear isotope production facility
- a nuclear waste storage facility
- a nuclear waste disposal facility.
This recommendation did not clarify for what reason, however paragraphs from the opposition (Labor Party) and minority parties (Democrats and Greens) are the first indication that there will be an amendment to the Bill prohibiting particular facilities, specifically from the Democrats and Greens:
“The recommendation to exclude nuclear power reactors from the legislation is an improvement in accountability. The Greens and Australian Democrats, however, are concerned that licenses for `a nuclear fuel fabrication plant’, `an enrichment facility’ `a fuel storage facility’ and `a reprocessing facility’ remain possible under this legislation, albeit with the approval of the CEO. These activities should either be specifically prohibited under this legislation, or at the least, should not be able to take place without full and separate Parliamentary scrutiny.”
Thus, Prohibition was decided at the Committee stage after three and a half hours of witness testimony. Regardless, the amendment still has to be voted on in the Senate, and then passed back into the House of Representatives for a final vote before being declared an Act.
The debate in Senate resumed on the ARPANS Bill, with the main focus being on the controversy surrounding the Pangea Resources leaked promotional video declaring Australia to be the best place in the world to host a high-level nuclear waste site. After this discussion it turned to the amendments, first one considered was Greens (WA) amendment No. 1, the prohibition section outlined above. The reasoning for this is outlined in Sen. Dee Margetts 2nd reading speech and comments in committee debate.
After two sessions discussing the Bill the Greens (WA) amendments were up for vote. The following is how it played out:
Sen. Margetts (Greens WA) restated and introduced her amendments where upon Sen. Forshaw (ALP) indicated that the opposition would support Greens amendment No. 1 (prohibition) as “We understand that there is no either medium-term or long-term intention on the part of the government to proceed to construct such facilities”. There was a technicality brought up with respect to the Greens and Labor party amendments clashing on the definition of a “nuclear installation”, however this was resolved.
At 12.39pm on the 10th of December 1998 the Senate voted on Greens (WA) amendments No.1:
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Watson)—The question before the chair is that the Greens amendment which concerns clause 9A subclauses (1)(a), (b), (c), (d) and (2) be agreed to.
Amendment agreed to.
That was that. Note that it was referred to clause 9A but was published as section 10 in the Act.
The party breakdown of the Senate on that day was; 31 Liberal Party, 29 Labor Party, 7 Democrats, 2 Greens, 5 Nationals, 1 Country Liberal Party, and 1 Independent. The federal election on the 3rd of October that year didn’t affect the Senate at this time as Senators who were retiring do so on the following year; Sen. Dee Margetts was one of those retiring, a last hurrah.
The Labor Party, Greens and Democrats all have anti-nuclear policies in some form or another, that’s 38 anti-nuclear votes. The Country Liberal Party candidate indicated that he could “…accept the balance of the amendment” proposed by the Greens and ALP, hence 39 votes and at a minimum the amendments passed. Even if it had been decided in the following year the Democrats gained two more Senators, and thus the anti-nuclear majority would have been retained.
This vote is also peculiar as votes that are this close tend to go to a division to sort out the ‘ayes’ from the ‘noes’, putting Senators names down in Hansard indicating their vote on the matter. However this didn’t occur. This was a case of the poison chalice perception.
After a three-and-a-half hour committee meeting, a several-page report drafted over two days, one hour and 36 minutes of debate post-prohibition recommendation, and six minutes of considering the amendments it was decided that Australia should not go down the nuclear path.
As stated previously amended Bills from the Senate move back to the House of Representatives to be voted on again. Unfortunately due to the poison chalice perception, and the waste dump issues energising the anti-nuclear base the following occurred.
Dr WOOLDRIDGE (Health and Aged Care) (11:38 PM) —I move:
That the amendments be agreed to.
And they were, no division