History of Australia's Nuclear Prohibition - That day in December
Twenty years ago to this day, Australia prohibited the construction and operation of nuclear power stations. In 1998 during the amalgamation of nuclear safety and radiation protection laws the Greens Party and Australian Democrats worked together to insert a prohibition. This prohibition still stands and is also a feature in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth).
In that twenty years Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 81 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases have a cumulative impact on the environment, so while this increase appears small, the wider impact is greater. The graph below shows greater yearly emissions for the years in this period. It all adds up.
In this time there have been five coal fired power plants constructed in Australia. Callide C, Kogan Creek, Millmerran, Tarong North, and Bluewaters. This is 3.3GW of coal fired generation that in a single year emits 15.5 million tonnes of CO2.
Kogan Creek and Bluewaters were the last of these five to be built, in 2007 and 2009 respectively. If these were competitively tendered nuclear plants, as the UAE contracted in 2007, we could have avoided 5.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Twenty years may not seem like a long time, but in 15 years the UAE will have built 5.6GW of new nuclear. That is 5.6GW of avoided coal, oil and gas plant emissions.
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 Australian 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 in New South Wales 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) (hereafter ARPANS Act).
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. It also occurs in section 140A of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) that was enacted the following year.
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)
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 in Australian political history:
There is a strong undercurrent of anti-nuclear activity in Australia and as such to pronounce support for nuclear matters attracts unwarranted negativity. Thus it is perceived to be a poison chalice in Australian politics.
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 Australian 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 of that year. 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 parties have the balance of power. 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, 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 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. Usually this occurs when all the political parties have agreed not to divide on certain matters, and there isn’t two voice votes in opposition to trigger a division. If you wanted to know what the Senate looked like when Australia prohibited nuclear power this is it:
Just 10 Senators out of 76 were present. Three were there to vote for the prohibition (Greens and Australian Democrats; lower left of image), and the rest just accepted it without any opposition.
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.
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.
In 2015, since the first edition of this article, the South Australian Government undertook a Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. A Royal Commission in Australia is the highest form of inquiry, above that of a Parliamentary committee, and has powers similar to that of a Supreme Court.
The Royal Commission was a longer process than the above committee, involved far reaching testimonies from 132 expert witnesses over 37 days, visited international nuclear projects and countries, received 250 submissions, commissioned technical reports on economics and safety, and informed a larger set of work to educate the public on Nuclear matters. The Royal Commission recommended (No. 8):
pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required.
If only we had this level of detail on that day in December.
It’s time to repeal the prohibitions. #repeal140A
The following is what occurred in chronological order. Dates are hyperlinked to the offical Australian Parliament Hansard record. Hansard will have more detailed debate that is accessible in the menu on the left hand side of the linked webpage. The relevant menu section will automatically be expanded.
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.
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.
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, the prohibition was decided at the Committee stage after three and a half hours of witness testimony. Parliamentary procedure is the amendment requires a vote 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. Notably (emphasis added):
I suspect that if you were totally honest with yourselves you would acknowledge that these are facilities so objectionable to the vast majority of Australians that you would have to answer `no' to those questions.
Next, let us look at a nuclear power plant. I am pleased to see the government proposes taking nuclear power plants out of the definition of nuclear installations in this bill. This amendment strengthens the position by explicitly prohibiting nuclear power stations from being licensed by ARPANSA. There is virtual unanimity in Australia in opposing nuclear power.
After two sessions discussing the Bill the Greens (WA) amendments were up for vote. The following is how it played out:
“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 12.09pm 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.
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.
As no two senators opposed the voice vote a division was no possible under the rules of the Australian Parliament. To cause a division there has to be at least two voices to call out a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
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:
That the amendments be agreed to.
And they were, no division. Australia prohibited the construction of nuclear power.