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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy inquiry: the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia

Historically, Australia has abstained from developing nuclear technology, either as a weapon of warfare or as a ‘clean’ source of energy. Comprehensive Government inquiries undertaken in 2006[1] and 2016[2] into the possibilities, opportunities, risks and challenges from the nuclear cycle in Australia saw little progress into the field. Presently, there is a nationwide moratorium on the development of nuclear facilities.

The 2006 Taskforce Report noted, amongst other things, skill shortages, government policies, legal and regulatory prohibitions and complexities, high commercial and technology barriers and restrictions on uranium transport as significant barriers to Australia’s investment in nuclear energy.[3] It critiqued the immense cost and extremely slow turnaround from construction to production of nuclear energy, of at least 15 years, as major impediments to advancing this method of power generation.[4]

The 2016 Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, culminating in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report, focused particularly on South Australia, revisiting many of the issues raised in 2006. The Report concluded that, whilst South Australia could safely increase its participation in nuclear activities, such activity would, unsurprisingly, be accompanied by increased social, environmental, safety and financial risks.[5] The report also perused the potential development in South Australia of a nuclear waste disposal facility, to be utilised for the disposal of international used fuel and intermediate level waste, foreseeing it as ‘a significant and enduring economic benefit to the South Australian community.’[6]

The outcome of the 2016 Royal Commission is accessible here: http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/

Both Reports provided extensive recommendations to pre-date any further exploration into the area, within both state and federal policy, environmental considerations and public and stakeholder participation and knowledge building.

Australia’s central environmental legislation, the Environmental and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), prohibits the Minister from approving the construction or operation of various nuclear installations, including nuclear power plants.[8] That legislation is also currently under review.

However, the nuclear energy prohibition is reflective of and further reinforced by its inclusion in the Australian Radiation Production and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (Cth).[9]

Image Source: https://theconversation.com/small-nuclear-power-reactors-future-or-folly-81252

Following a referral from the Minister of Energy and Emissions Reduction, on 6 August 2019, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Energy resolved to conduct a further inquiry and report on the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia (including small modular reactor technologies), calling for submissions to the same.

The Law Council’s submission highlighted the need for serious consideration as to the actual, potential and perceived risks to the environment from the development of any nuclear energy industry, and the need for such consideration to occur as early, and be assigned the same weight as economic, government and public policy considerations. Environmental issues should not, and cannot, be regarded as issues to be managed after a decision to proceed is made.

The Law Council’s submission (submission 267), along with all 306 other submissions to the inquiry, is accessible online here

Dr Kelleher OAM at Parliament House, Canberra

The Law Council was invited to attend a House of Representatives round table discussion. On 18 October 2019, Ms Glindemann and Dr Kelleher addressed members questions as to legal risks, potential liability nationally and internationally, inability to insure against nuclear-related loss and the required regulatory framework.

The transcript of that discussion, alongside the transcripts of all the round table sessions, is available online here

Submissions to the enquiry are now closed, and public hearings concluded. We await the Committee’s final report.

Samantha Thorogood

Kellehers Australia

[1] Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy —Opportunities for Australia? –A report to the Prime Minister by the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce in 2006, (Commonwealth of Australia) accessible here: http://environmentvictoria.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/nuclear_report.pdf

[2] Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Report –A report prepared by Rear Admiral the Honourable Kevin Scarce AC CSC RAN (Rtd) for the South Australian Government in May 2016.

[3] Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy —Opportunities for Australia? –A report to the Prime Minister by the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce in 2006, 3.

[4] Ibid, 2.

[5] n2, xiii.

[6] Ibid.

[8] S140A Environment Protection and Biodiversity conservation Act 1999 (Cth).

[9] S10 Australian Radiation Production and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 (Cth).

[10] https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/Bills_Search_Results/Result?bId=s1098