Thursday, 16 August 2012
Treaties Committee; Report
In rising to speak on the motion to take note of the reports of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, I would like to follow up on some of Senator Birmingham's comments from the point of view of the Australian Greens. I will focus mostly on the Fifth Agreement to Extend the 1987 Regional Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology, which was signed up to by Australia on 15 April 2011.
Senator Birmingham pulled out one of the quotes, and I want to highlight it. It is extremely interesting that this was one that he chose to highlight. I have a great regard for Senator Birmingham and also for the work of the Treaties Committee and its secretariat. This is a diligent committee that performs an extraordinarily important role. Given that so much of treaty making between Australia and other countries is done by the executive and the parliament gets to find out about it after it is done, the role of the Treaties Committee in assessing and providing recommendations to the government and to the parliament before they are rubber stamped—if indeed they are—is tremendously important.
This is an opportunity missed. In recent times the Treaties Committee has done extremely important work, for example, on the proposal to sell uranium to Russia, which is presently assisting Iran in creating a domestic nuclear power capacity and potentially other things. In this report the committee noted, 'There may have been an opportunity missed to upgrade the agreement rather than simply rolling it over.' But, of course, that is precisely what the committee enables and facilitates. We give it the rubber stamp and we say, 'Yes, this should simply be rolled over for another couple of years'—and miss an enormous opportunity to assess what has just happened in the nuclear industry.
One of the things that I hope to speak about in a bit more detail some time later in this session is the visit that I was very fortunate to take over the break to Tokyo and Fukushima. I spent some days in the areas surrounding the destroyed reactor complex that was wrecked after the earthquake and then the tsunami last 11 March, which depopulated a large stretch of not only the Fukishima Prefecture but also areas a long way to the north and the west of the reactor plant—which actually caused the Prime Minister of Japan to briefed by officials on the evacuation of Tokyo, which has a population of roughly 30 million people. If Tepco had walked away from that reactor complex and they had gone into full meltdown and had lost all four of the plants plus the spent fuel ponds they would have had to evacuate the northern half of Japan, including greater Tokyo. That was from one accident at one power station.
It is remarkable then to return from that trip—which I will speak of at greater length when I have the opportunity—to see the tabling of this report that says: 'This is fine; she's right. We can just carry this on and roll it over.' Everything has changed in this particular industry. In fact, everything changed after Chernobyl. The industry simply went into a flat line in many countries, apart from China. And let us not dismiss their extremely ambitious nuclear build—and this is a country that does what it says it is going to do in this kind of area. Apart from that, all of the news is negative for the nuclear sector; all of the indicators are backwards.
Since the disaster, three countries—Germany, Belgium and Switzerland—have announced a nuclear phase-out. Only two units are currently online in Japan, and the mood in that country at the moment is strongly against the restarts. So Japan are now scrambling for alternate sources of supply, including gas from Australia, and they are on quite an aggressive energy efficiency mechanism. People in Japan are saying: 'You sold us out and betrayed us twice. Firstly, you told us that these plants were safe and that this could never happen and, secondly, you told us that these plants were essential and that we needed them all. Neither of those things is true.' Trust on behalf of the Japanese people in a government that led them into this extraordinary disaster is gone, patience has snapped and the situation has turned. For the Australian government to then document its total ignorance of that fact is, I think, something more than an 'opportunity missed'.
It is having consequences in the industry. So maybe this reality has not yet washed through the parliament, where this strange kind of pro-nuclear delusion that everything is great and will continue to be great still prevails. In industry, the mood has changed as well. BHP Billiton appears to have put off its decision about the expansion of the Olympic Dam project for two years. Obviously that is a big copper venture as well. It would also be the world's largest uranium mine and the world's largest excavation—hole in the ground—if it goes ahead. They have parked it for the time being. The proponents of the Kintyre uranium mine in the western desert of Western Australia, Cameco and Mitsubishi—not niche players but the largest uranium miner in the world and one of the largest industrial combines in the world—have backed away from Kintyre. BHP has also backed away from the O'Leary project in Western Australia. Toro, who really are a two-bit player, who have this nasty little project in the Lake Way Basin, not too far from Wiluna in Western Australia, have not told the market yet but they are going to need to back away from that project as well because it is utterly sub-economic.
One of the reasons it is sub-economic is that the world uranium price will not be recovering because customer countries do not want what we are selling any more. Yes, it will take time to back out of some of the disastrous investment decisions that have been made, not just in Japan but in all the countries that took up this technology—and thank goodness we never took the bait here in Australia—but the market for this poisonous product that we insist on selling is disappearing fast. It would have been nice to have seen some recognition of that fact in this report.
The balance sheet of Tepco, the utility that operated the Fukishima plant, has been annihilated. It is worth much less than nothing. It is now a colossal uncapped, unknown liability on the taxpayers of Japan. It has lost 90 per cent of its share value since 2007. The French state utility—where there have not been any catastrophic accidents in the last year or two, that we know of—lost 82 per cent of its value. The share price of the French state company AREVA—which we are in the process of kicking out of Kakadu, which is superb news, and I applaud the government for that—has fallen by 88 per cent. Siemens, the big German industrial group, has announced that it will entirely withdraw from the nuclear industry because that would free up funds that Siemens can redeploy in businesses with better visibility. What better visibility could you ask for than an industrial accident that depopulates a region, destroys a fishing industry, destroys agriculture and horticulture, forces the evacuation of 150,000 people and laces an entire region with iodine and radiocesium? That is the kind of visibility that Siemens has decided it can do without.
In Fukushima—and I will speak about this at greater length—36 per cent of children screened were found to have abnormal growth—cysts or nodules—on their thyroid glands. Radioiodine has quite a short half-life. It is an aggressive isotope and the body reads it as normal iodine and parks it in the thyroid gland. Thirty-six per cent of kids in the contaminated zone were found to be affected, post-evacuation. This is a trade that Australia can do without. They can certainly do without it in Tohoku and in the regions that were showered with radiocesium—radiocesium that originated in Kakadu and central South Australia.
The Australian Prime Minister said some time ago—it was some time ago so perhaps she would consider rethinking this—that Fukushima 'doesn't have any impact on my thinking about uranium exports.' It has had an impact on thinking in Japan, one of our biggest customer countries. It has had an impact in Germany. It has had an impact in China, where they have put some of their proposed reactors on ice and they have backed away from the really aggressive expansion plans. They are still building those plants; I will not pretend that they will not complete some of them. But I find baffling the idea that it does not have any impact on the Prime Minister's thinking about uranium exports. Prime Minister Gillard paid the Japanese Prime Minister the courtesy of visiting some of the areas shattered by the tsunami, as I was able to do 16 or 17 months on. So she has seen the destruction. She knows of the areas that have been evacuated, but I invite her to spend a couple of days in and around the contaminated area, where the farmers are now being told that their food is poisonous and the fishing industry has collapsed. There is nobody in the chamber from the National Party, but for people representing agricultural communities, farming communities, and all of us in this chamber, for a farmer to be told that the food they produce will cause cancer is shattering. But when you read the JSCOT report, there is simply no reflection; there is blissful ignorance. It is as if this has not happened.
Industry is starting to wake up. The Japanese people and the people of other countries—client countries, of this toxic, unnecessary and obsolete trade—are waking up. I call on the Australian government to take another look at this one. This is an industry that we can do without.
Question agreed to.