Matters of Public Importance - Nuclear Energy
Senator John Faulkner
21 September 2011
Senator FAULKNER ( New South Wales ) ( 16:45 ): The Tohoku Pacific earthquake struck in the western Pacific Ocean, 72 kilometres north-east of the Tohoku peninsula in Japan, at 2.46 pm on 11 March this year. It registered a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it the most powerful known earthquake to hit Japan since records began. The earthquake triggered very destructive tsunami waves of up to 40 metres high that in some cases travelled 10 kilometres inland. In addition to the extraordinarily tragic loss of over 15,000 lives, with thousands still missing, and the destruction of vital infrastructure, the tsunami breached the six-metre high seawall protecting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, badly damaging the site.
The inundation of the site resulted in the automatic shutdown of three reactors; three other reactors were already shutdown due to maintenance at the time of the earthquake. Back-up diesel generators started emergency operation when power was lost but soon failed due to the damage that was caused by the tsunami. Back-up battery power with a limited life of eight to 24 hours was expended. That left the plant without vital power to operate the cooling pumps of the reactors. Of course, all senators know what happened next: three reactors had a partial meltdown, resulting in explosions and the release of harmful radiation.
The Fukushima accident, triggered by a natural disaster of such great magnitude, reaffirms the importance of continually reviewing and improving the level of nuclear safety internationally. It also highlights the importance of the work of organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency—it has the difficult acronym of IAEA; try saying that quickly!—as well as, here in Australia, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. As far as Australia goes, there is no choice. We must continue to work closely with other countries to strengthen nuclear safety and security and to promote international best practice. Simply put, the international community must work collaboratively to improve nuclear safety.
Since the Fukushima accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Secretary-General have been coordinating improvements in nuclear safety internationally. The Secretary-General's high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security, as we have heard from Senator Ludlam, is scheduled for tomorrow in New York. I think that is during the UN General Assembly leaders week. Also this week, the IAEA is holding its annual general conference in Vienna, where nuclear safety is a central theme.
In May this year, Australia's foreign minister, Mr Rudd, outlined a number of ways to increase international action on nuclear safety. He explained the need for greater international oversight of nuclear safety under IAEA auspices through countries operating nuclear power plants and other facilities concluding bilateral safety agreements with the IAEA and through expansion of the IAEA's inspection role to encompass nuclear safety auditing. Mr Rudd has also proposed: augmented cooperation on emergency response and consequence management, including through the IAEA appointing an independent panel of international experts who could analyse incidents and provide advice on dealing with them; encouraging industry to share in-house compliance techniques; and cooperation by Australia with potential new nuclear energy entrants in our region. Elaborating on that vision of the foreign minister's, Australia presented a nonpaper to the June IAEA ministerial conference articulating actions the international community could take to address gaps in the current safety arrangements. Those actions include: IAEA coordinated independent fact-finding and review missions into nuclear incidents, and IAEA coordinated nuclear safety missions, as well as better national reporting through the Convention on Nuclear Safety national reports.
I am pleased that Australia has contributed $100,000 to the IAEA for a study on marine impacts of radiation from the Fukushima power plant. I note that the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, of which the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, ARPANSA, Dr Carl-Magnus Larsson, is Australia's representative and vice-chair, is undertaking a program of work to address the source term, dispersion, deposition, health effects and environmental effects of the Fukushima accident, with a view to having an interim report produced in 2012—next year—and a final report available by 2013. I do think that it is beneficial to Australia that representatives of ARPANSA, ANSTO and ASNO are active members of the IAEA committees covering safety and security standards.
If the story of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant tells us anything, it is to reinforce in the most stark and tragic way how important nuclear safety is for all countries. The international community must continue to improve nuclear safety. It must learn the terrible lessons of the Fukushima accident and its aftermath. The High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Safety taking place tomorrow in New York is critical and I hope it will play a critical role in this important work. It is expected to endorse the Action Plan on Nuclear Safety that was conceived by the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety as the basis for important future work in this area.
I do remain confident that the current Australian government will continue to play a leading role in promoting tangible measures to improve nuclear safety around the world.