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).

GHG trajectory from Australian electricity, post nuclear prohibition

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:

Australia’s uranium – Greenhouse friendly fuel for an energy hungry world

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.

8th April 1998 

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

14th May 1998

The debate on the Bill continues with main focus residing around the Lucas Heights reactor and its future replacement. Debate is adjourned.

11th November 1998

After a federal election on the 3rd of October the debate is resumed, where members of parliament make their second reading speeches.

12th November 1998 

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.

23rd November 1998 

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.

26th November 1998 

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.

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.

2nd December 1998

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.

9th December 1998 

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.

10th December 1998  

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


19 comments

  1. The signs are that Australia is not mature enough yet for serious consideration of nuclear. The supertrawler debacle shows how Greens and minor backbenchers will use emotion to overrule due process. Others will use the legal system and trendy judges to stop things they don’t like.

    Having said that I see nothing else on the horizon to help the SA economy nor to replace brown coal In Victoria. The day will come for SA when gas is over $10/GJ, the Pt Stanvac desal is flat out because the dams are dry, air conditioning is rationed in the near 50C summer temperatures, Canberra has grown weary of subsidising Holden and there is a lull in defence contracts. With such high energy and water prices no new industries will set up in SA. Young people will leave SA because there aren’t enough jobs, except perhaps aged care for the post WW2 immigrants. The State will have to come up with some kind of natural advantage.

    Step One should be to build a CANDU or SMR complex to initially replace expensive gas and boost output to enable the Olympic Dam expansion to go ahead. Later that build can be replicated at several sites. Uranium enrichment should be considered if there is a domestic demand. Make the decision now and let the Greens get over it.

  2. I’m not going to diss your post, well written and researched as always, but this barrier is technical and largely irrelevant. Laws follow public opinion and policy they do not make it. The EPBC Act restrictions did not introduce a new position, they merely codified an existing one. If and when there is a majority view in Federal Parliament that nuclear power should be allowed in Australia, these laws could be quickly overturned. But until that day, even without the technical restrictions of the law, nuclear power would never happen as a partisan minority position. It can only succeed if the people ask for it.

    There is one aspect that would be worth railing against, and that is that this Federal law overrules any State desire for nuclear power. Presumably the Commonwealth would rely on international treaties or on corporations law to ensure this is constitutional – but I suspect they’re on pretty strong ground. Again though, it doesn’t matter – do we really want SA to have it’s own nuclear regulatory commission, it’s own autarkic nuclear power industry? I don’t think so.

    1. I think in the last week we have all learned just how quickly decisions can be overturned and legislations can be amended when people want it.

      I don’t agree that it is largely irrelevant.

      It’s a highly relevant talking point that this arbitrary restriction exists.

      It’s relevant because it is used as a hook to hang a general anti-nuclear position from, “…and anyway it’s against the law”. Laws can certainly reinforce public opinion. Anyone who is anti-nuclear without ever having really though about it, which is most of them, can hear over and over that in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the one and only type of industrial facility, energy or otherwise, to be expressly prohibited is a nuclear facility.

      It means no potential vendor of this technology would so much as both knocking on Australia’s door to promote the benefits of a NPP.

      It sort of blows people’s minds when I explain the situation to them in presentations

      It’s relevant.

      1. Developers and whatnot knock on doors all the time in the knowledge that there is a legal impediment to what they propose. But they know that with political support this can be overcome. In this case however, they know that for the time being, there’s not the political support so it’s not worthwhile.

        A $5 to $10bn project for one large power plant, if it was majority agreed that this was supportable, the EPBC Act restrictions could be removed in about three months tops.

        Or, shorter version, we agree to disagree, but it’s not exactly fundamental stuff.

        1. I think we can agree to agree on one point: once the effort begins in earnest, it would not take long to overturn. But building awareness of this situation is going to help in precipitating that effort, help in getting that majority support you refer to.

  3. The concluding remarks of my speech to Adelaide and Gawler Rotary clubs on 17th and 19th September are as follows: So, should we develop nuclear in Australia? If we’re concerned about CO2 emissions, nuclear is the only option available to replace carbon for base load. But at present, there is much misinformation, perceived political risk and no serious discussion since the Howard Government’s reports. But the question must surely be: Why are 31 countries using it and another 17 countries proposing to do so? And there seems to be strong growth ahead. Brazil has 2 reactors and is building 5, Canada 17 – 9, China 15-197, Indonesia, 0 – 6, South Korea, 23 – 9, UK 16 -13. USA 104 -31. World total currently 433, will be 552 within a few years. We should add Australia to that list of nuclear countries and we urgently need bipartisan support from Labor and the Coalition. They have to stop using the issue to wedge each other and do something good for the nation, TOGETHER. Once we’ve declared for nuclear we must expedite the following: 1. Remove all legal prohibitions. 2. Establish a regulatory framework. 3. Master the technology. 4. Plan at least one unit.If we don’t plan a reactor in the next 10 years,Australia will rightly be regarded as technologically backward and irrelevant.

  4. Ben good save on the radio talkback show
    [audio src="http://blogs.abc.net.au/files/sa-power-plant-for-web.mp3" /]
    Points noted include the fact SA seems to have uranium everywhere and the tendency to make nuclear a scapegoat for any kind of setback. The host did seem relatively switched on however.

    I’ve been arguing with others that defence contracting is not a balanced or sustainable way to secure the SA economy long term. An observation that seems to stick is that it may not offer job prospects to young people who may prefer to work in other industries.

    1. yeah that was a poor interview until you jumped on. Hopefully the producer now knows to never call that woman and to always call you.

      Oh and BTW an extensive google search found nothing more than the most trivial amounts of cesium detected in Finland.

  5. Nuclear’s problem in Australia is primarily weakness of support, not strength of opposition. As long as one of our two major mainstream parties chooses denial of the climate problem it will not be a genuine and active supporter of nuclear.

    The LNP have made their position clear – unequivocal support for fossil fuels. (Whilst Labor offers expedient greenwash and compromise over their own version of unequivocal support for fossil fuels.) LNP failure to push for nuclear is not because of a bunch of anti-nuclear activists – they are grownups who need to take full responsibility for their own choices.

    Until the LNP drop the BS climate science denial on behalf of fossil fuels they are an impediment to adoption of nuclear – and they have far more influence than a small minority of anti-nuclear activists. If they drop the denial of the climate problem the LNP may become genuine proponents of nuclear but until then, whenever they focus attention on the anti-nuclear position of a minority of extremists it is to divert attention from their own dangerously irrational position on climate and energy … it’s pure political rhetoric without substance.

    1. “Nuclear’s problem in Australia is primarily weakness of support, not strength of opposition. “. Well put, interesting. On balance I think that is correct. Building the support is largely what this site is all about.

      And yes, if only the LNP would behave like their British Tory siblings and view climate change as a largely straightforward matter of science and risk management, with science well and truly in on the big questions.

      1. Getting the LNP to drop their denialist position is an absolute prerequisite to real policies that are genuinely intended to tackle the climate problem. The Greens only stand tall and get heard because the ‘big boys’ have been hunkered down hoping it will actually turn out to be the overhyped beat up from the loonie fringe that they – very unwisely – chose to frame it as.

        How the banning of nuclear in Australia happened is interesting but it occurred when neither climate nor energy security were a serious issue; Australia’s energy producers were, as they remain, quite comfortable without nuclear and, with French nuclear weapons testing high in people’s minds it had populist appeal. Much more important to my mind is what happened later, when the science on climate solidified and the GHG problem was clearly recognised. No surprises from The Greens but the LNP’s decision to frame it as driven by a loonie fringe rather than mainstream science was very regrettable; that it’s borne electoral fruit only makes it harder to get them to change. But it also put The Greens into the spotlight and, with the science on climate showing the problem is very real and very serious, that has lent cache to the Greens.

        I consider the Coalition’s tolerance, support and active endorsement of climate science denial in the face of a global problem of unprecedented magnitude a far more dangerously irrational idiocy than The Greens opposition to nuclear. It’s having a more profound impact on our energy policies and choices than anything the Greens have done. Without unequivocal acceptance of the problem
        from the conservative Right in Australia they will never push for nuclear like it really matters.

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