Second Reading – Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Mr PITT: I’m very pleased to rise to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023. Of course the coalition will be supporting this bill; after all, the AUKUS arrangement is a coalition arrangement. It’s an agreement that we struck when in government. It is the right decision, and I’m very pleased to see that the federal Labor government continues to support what is an absolutely essential addition to our defence capability. As the Minister for Defence said in the second reading speech, Australia will now become one of only seven nations to operate nuclear powered submarines in the world—just seven. And yet we see that there are more than 32 that utilise this technology to deliver base-load electricity in their countries, and some 50 are already exploring investment in that same technology for the same purpose—but more on that as I continue this speech.

So what is it that we need to deliver these systems, these submarines, this defence capability, in our country? As the minister said, we need to develop ‘the full suite of skills, facilities and institutions along with an appropriate regulatory and legislative architecture to be nuclear stewards’. We have been nuclear stewards for decades. The Lucas Heights reactor is a critical part of this country, particularly in the production of nuclear medicine isotopes. In fact, some 12,000 to 14,000 every single week are produced and utilised in this country for the purpose of saving people’s lives—for PET scans, to identify cancers, for treatment. That use produces waste, and that waste has to be dealt with. As we all know, under nonproliferation and other treaties, each individual nation has to themselves deal with the waste from reactors, and we have done. The good people of Kimba in South Australia, in the majority, have accepted a facility to deal with that low-level radioactive waste, and it’s the right decision, the right location and the right community. It needs to be done, and I’m very pleased that it’s continuing, even though I believe it’s back before the courts again, which is a great shame.

This bill lifts the moratorium on civil nuclear power because we are building these submarines in Adelaide. And guess what, Madam Deputy Speaker Chesters? If you’re going to build a reactor, whether it’s in a submarine or otherwise, you need to avoid the existing moratoriums in this country. But it’s only for these submarines, not for anything else; apparently, it’s only for submarines! We are going to build nuclear capacity because we are going to build nuclear submarines. We’re going to build a nuclear industry, we are going to have a domestic nuclear industry in this country, because there is no other outcome. If we are going to build submarines with reactors, then we will have civilians who are trained specialists, whether they are physicists or engineers or others, who will be assisting Defence, and they will be based in this country, and we will build that capacity. Any other idea is just blatantly wrong—that nothing else will happen apart from this. The government itself has said there will be some 10,000 people required for building this capacity all around nuclear technology, all around an industry which is already well established around the world. It is incredibly safe. There are so very few incidents in nuclear reactors, it is just astounding. When you compare it to other risk environments, it is very low. As I have said, this is the right decision. If we look at what we need for the nuclear industry, we need to build nuclear capability, we have to lift the moratorium, we have to make sure we have the right people and we have to use the right technology, which of course comes as part of the AUKUS arrangements with the United States and England.

These are advanced reactors. To give those who might be listening to this broadcast some context—I am told this is not top secret; it is in the public arena already—the reactor in the Virginia class submarine, for example, is around the size of a 44-gallon drum. To give people some context if they are watching on the video, that is roughly the height of one of the chairs in the Federation Chamber. It is about the same width. It is a circular drum. That is not very big but it powers the entire submarine, makes it comfortable for submariners and it runs for 30 years before it needs to be replaced. And guess what? It will produce high-level radioactive waste which has to be dealt with by this country, in this country, by the government of the day.

So we will have an industry which is building civilian, technical and military capability and capacity. We are building reactors in Adelaide. We are dealing with high-level radioactive waste. We will utilise these facilities for many years. They will run for 30 years. Our power station will run for 80 years. In fact, it could run much longer if it is reconditioned and set again. So the idea that we can do this in Australia but we can’t develop nuclear capacity to deliver electricity, baseload power, that will run for the 80 years with the same people. The shadow of hypocrisy follows federal Labor around and around.

If we look at what has happened in recent years, I am very pleased that Labor has changed its mind. Genuinely, I am, because this is the right decision for our nation and our future. But when the energy minister at the time, former Minister Taylor, in 2019 said the coalition has an open mind, the Labor Party went ballistic. We saw that. Even the current Treasurer now in the state of Queensland, Minister Dick, said ‘How good is Queensland—beautiful one day, radioactive the next.’ This was the type of reaction that is typical for Labor. Where is it going to be—Robina, Wide Bay? Even the now Prime Minister, Prime Minister Albanese, in 2019, said, ‘If these people are serious they should be upfront with every single Australian about where they think these power plants should go.’ In 2019 the now Prime Minister said ‘Beautiful one day, nuclear the next.’ Well, guess what? We’re going to have nuclear-powered submarines and they will be in Adelaide and Brisbane and Sydney and Perth and Darwin. They will be around the country. The hypocrisy of Labor to say that you can’t utilise it for the benefit of all Australians is just ridiculous. At the same time that Minister Dick was making the sorts of silly comments—Simpsons-like comments—guess what? There was a ship called the USS Ronald Reagan parked at Brisbane port. It has more than one nuclear reactor. It has multiple nuclear reactors. It was about 10 kilometres from where Minister Dick was making these comments. If you want politics to be a circus, keep sending the clowns. That is what I say.

There is an opportunity here that Australia desperately needs. I mean, points have been made by the member for Petrie. If the federal Labor government seriously thinks that they will build 28,000 kilometres of transmission in this country with all of the easements that are required, with all of the things that will go to court, with all the native title and environmental approvals by 2030, they’re kidding yourselves. It will not happen. It simply will not happen.

The power generation that could potentially be utilised from nuclear is established around the world. The technology continues to advance whether it is small modular reactors or others, because that is what this is. It is a small modular reactor that fits in a very sophisticated tin can that will go 200 metres under the surface for the Australian submariners defending our nation, running for 30 years without being refuelled, but you can’t put one on a block of concrete in one of the most stable countries in the world to use it to generate electricity? That is just farcical, absolutely farcical.

The Leader of the Opposition has stated unequivocally that we support the nuclear industry in this country, that we support AUKUS, that we support the building of these submarines for utilisation for our nation and in our interests because it is the right decision. But you won’t utilise the same technology and the same group of people and the same issue across the country to generate electricity.

This is how simple it is: a nuclear reactor boils water to create steam; that steam runs a turbine; that turbine turns a generator to create electricity. It’s exactly the same, whether it’s coal-fired power or it’s run on chook manure or you stick in wood—whatever. You are simply boiling water to generate electricity in a traditional generator, and the big advantage of those generators compared to what’s proposed by federal Labor is that they have inherent characteristics which you have to pay for in intermittent wind and solar. They have system strength, and that is incredibly important to maintaining the network and its stability. They are in one place, so you can hook them up with big transmission lines and distribute it through transmission and out to people’s houses. If you add that on to what Labor is proposing around electric vehicles, for example, even AEMO has said you could need a 60 per cent increase in generation capacity, transmission and distribution.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker Chesters, think about your house—and I’m not picking on you; it’s everybody’s houses. You will have to upgrade every single supply point, from your switchboard. and even from your garage for the fast-charge generator, all the way back to the substation, and all the way back to the generator. It is an enormous undertaking. It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Or you can build a baseload power station using technology that federal Labor now has to deliver and has committed to. It is no different. It’s exactly the same. It can be done. The only thing that needs to be determined is where you put them.

In my view, and this is just my view, it has to go to a community that supports it. Do I think that there are communities out there that want a $10 billion facility and potentially want to get free electricity for everyone who lives in sight of that nuclear reactor and power generation plant and want a high-paying job? Absolutely, I do. They will be out there, and they will be available, and they’ll want to use it.

Look at existing coal-fired power stations. As they come to the end of their natural lives—that’s what happens with equipment if you don’t maintain it and replace it; that’s just nature—they already have enormous storages of water for their ash systems, they already have connections for transmission, they have existing easements and they already have existing approvals. They are brownfield sites. Now, clearly, there will need to be assessments of whether they are earthquake prone or pose any other risk, but those risks can be assessed. Those locations can be identified. There are communities that would welcome those types of investment with open arms.

I can tell you now that those who don’t have open arms are the people of regional Australia who are being told that literally millions of hectares of the land that they utilise, particularly to generate food, will be covered with solar panels that last 20 years, assuming they don’t get hit by a cyclone and they don’t get hit by hail. You may think that’s unlikely. There’s a facility at Gympie, in the member for Wide Bay’s electorate, that wasn’t even connected. In one hailstorm 20 per cent of the facility was lost. A hundred thousand panels were destroyed before they even got put on.

That brings me to waste. As we’ve already outlined, federal Labor has to deliver a high-level radioactive waste facility because, when these submarines come to their end of life, it is a necessity for that to be dealt with; it’s that simple. For all those people in Australia who think this isn’t going to happen, it has to, because the decision has been made: Australia is getting a nuclear industry. It is very, very straightforward.

You can look at the United States. From memory, this is on the United States Department of Energy’s website. They provide electricity from nuclear facilities to around 70 million people. Each year, to provide power to 70 million people, those facilities—keep in mind that this is older technology that has been in place for some decades—deliver approximately half an Olympic-sized swimming pool of waste. It is so dense. There is so little of it to produce so much energy. By comparison—this is from the Parliamentary Library—if we look at wind turbines, the estimate is that by 2050 there will be 43 million tonnes of wind turbine blade waste alone. That is just turbine blades. That is 43 million tonnes that can’t be recycled. They are made of a composite, which is a carbon-fibre composite combined with a pile of other things, that is stuck on very high towers. That has to be dealt with. It costs a fortune. There will be 43 million tonnes of it.

Or you can utilise technology that this nation has to have as part of this arrangement for things that have to be put in place because they are necessary to having nuclear powered submarines run by Australia, defending our country. Every single stage of the cycle will now be addressed, because they must be as part of this agreement. There are no other options. The comparisons are endless. Every single wind turbine needs about 50 acres of footprint and 600 tonnes of concrete in the base, and they are still intermittent and you still have to build another entire system which backs it up 100 per cent because a wind turbine runs roughly 33 per cent of the time and solar panel utilisation is about 22 per cent of the time. So covering this country in a tarpaulin of something which is intermittent and making it so that we will rely on the weather for the security of our country, our businesses, our homes and the things that we need at a time when we need this country to be strong is the wrong decision.

2050 is a very long way away. We need to make sure we are keeping manufacturing in this country, not having it leave and go international because companies simply cannot afford to be here. If they are not internationally competitive, they are not competitive. If they don’t have affordable gas, don’t have affordable electricity, don’t have an available workforce and can’t utilise those things in this country, they will leave. It is that simple.

I will go back to where I started. The coalition supports this legislation. The coalition supports the AUKUS agreement. It is one that we struck. It is the right decision for our nation. It is the right decision for our national security. But not using this technology for the benefit of all Australia is the wrong decision. I think we see hypocrisy from people like the minister here and what the former Prime Minister said. I reckon the South Australian Premier had it right. He got his finger slapped, but he had it right. We should be utilising this for all Australians.

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