Statement on the National Radioactive Waste Management Facility

I rise today to make a statement on court proceedings challenging the Commonwealth's proposed National Radioactive Waste Facility and related matters. 

In 2012, the Gillard government passed the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012, which set out a legislative framework for selecting and establishing the Commonwealth's national radioactive waste management facility.

The vast majority of Australia's radioactive waste is from nuclear medicine, which every Australian is likely to benefit from in their lifetime. It is also produced from the development of industrial and agricultural technologies and in undertaking life-saving scientific research.

Anyone in this place who knows someone who has needed cancer treatment can understand why this material exists and the need to store these materials safely.

According to the most recent national inventory conducted in 2021, Australia has 13,287 cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste, which by volume is more than five standard Olympic swimming pools; and 4,377 cubic metres of intermediate-level radioactive waste, which equates to just under two standard Olympic swimming pools.

Currently, radioactive waste is stored in over 100 locations nationwide, including hospitals, science facilities and at universities. 

Australia’s radioactive waste will grow into the future and, while safe, these facilities are not purpose-built, and long-term management of Australia's waste at these locations is unsustainable.

The site of Australia’s only nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights can safely store waste on site for some time, but we must ensure this waste has an appropriate disposal pathway. 

The Labor Party, National Party and Liberal Party have recognised through successive terms of government that responsibly managing this waste is imperative for the nation. There has been bipartisan support for the responsible management of this waste.

The current site selection process has been in train for seven years.

In November 2021, the former Minister for Resources, the Member for Hinkler, declared the former farming property known as Napandee, near the town of Kimba, in South Australia, as the proposed site for the facility. 

This followed a number of years of consultation through various processes. Despite the genuine efforts of the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency and others, many feel they weren't adequately consulted. 

The traditional landowners, the Barngarla people, have for many years pointed to deficiencies in the consultation process. Other landowners and farmers near the proposed site, but not in the district of Kimba, have made clear their concerns regarding the proposed site and their frustration at not being included in the earlier consultations. 

The Barngarla people exercised their right to seek judicial review of the former Minister's declaration of the Napandee site under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012.

On 18 July 2023, Justice Charlesworth of the Federal Court set aside the declaration made in November 2021.

Some comments have been made in this place about the reasons for her honour's decision. It has been said, quite incorrectly, that the decision to set aside the site declaration relates to the operation of native title. While the judgement does reflect briefly on native title law, this in no way was the basis of the decision of the Federal Court last month. 

The question raised in this case was about a decision-making process, not a claim of native title. The Federal Court’s decision in no way impacts on existing law regarding when, and in what circumstances, landholders are required to consult with traditional owners. To suggest that it does is misleading. 

Rather, the site declaration was set aside because the Court found apprehended bias present in the decision of the then Minister. This is founded on certain statements made by the former Minister relating to the site in question. I want to be clear that the Federal Court did not find any actual bias demonstrated by the decision maker, but Her Honour concluded that apprehended bias was sufficiently present to order that the site declaration be set aside.

Some matters remain before the courts, and I will not pre-empt the remaining judicial processes.

Today I want to make clear in regard to the principal matter that I do not intend to appeal the Judge’s finding of apprehended bias. I have reached an agreement with the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation on costs, and I hope that we will also come to an agreed approach to orders relating to the date of application of the Judge’s decision in coming days, for the court’s consideration, in due course.

The judgement was clear, and the Government is listening. 

I visited Kimba in January of this year and saw for myself, in my opinion, a town divided. I met residents supportive of Kimba hosting the facility and those that were not. There are many people in Kimba who support hosting the facility and I want to acknowledge their efforts over many years to diversify their local economy. 

I met with the traditional owners, the Barngarla people, who are no longer residents of Kimba but clearly have a deep connection to their ancestral country after being driven off it many years ago.

We have said all along that a National Radioactive Waste Facility requires broad community support. 

Broad community support which includes the whole community, including the traditional owners of the land. 

This is not the case at Kimba.

Speaker, the previous Government sought to temporarily store intermediate level radioactive waste on agricultural land and contemplated the double handling of the transport of this waste; first from Lucas Heights in NSW, to temporarily storage in SA, then on to an undetermined permanent disposal site. 

This approach has raised concerns regarding international best practice and safety standards.  

Therefore, the Albanese Labor Government does not intend to pursue Napandee as a potential site for the Facility. 

Nor is the Government pursuing the previously shortlisted Lyndhurst and Wallerberdina sites. 

I can confirm that site characterisation activities taking place at and around the site near Kimba have ceased. 

Any activities that have already been conducted were non-permanent and will be reversed or remediated. The site is currently being supervised to ensure it remains safe and cultural heritage is protected while we work through disposition of the land. 

The Government intends to honour existing contracts for Community Benefit Program Round 3 grants. 

My department has begun work on alternative proposals for the storage and disposal of the Commonwealth’s civilian low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste. 

I am deeply sorry for the uncertainty this process has created for the Kimba community, for my own department, for the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, and for the workers involved in the project at Napandee. 

I also acknowledge the profound distress this process has caused the Barngarla people, and I am sorry for that too. 

But we have to get this right.

This is long-lasting, multigenerational Government policy, for the disposal of waste that can take thousands of years to decay. This Government remains committed to the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency and its goal of safely storing and disposing radioactive waste.

We must consult widely and bring stakeholders, including First Nations people, along with us. 

We remain bipartisan in our approach and willing to work with those opposite on a resolution in the national interest. 

This is not where we wanted to be, but we have to start from where we are. 

This Government is determined to get this right.