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Failure to seize nuclear opportunity a national tragedy: Minchin

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Nick Minchin, the former Howard Government minister who spearheaded an ill-fated push to establish a low-level nuclear repository in his home state of South Australia more than a decade ago, says the thwarted opportunity is a “national tragedy” that has set the state back years.

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“We have lost many, many years of opportunity,” Minchin told InDaily from New York, where he has served as Australia’s Consul-General since 2014.

“If we’d been able to establish that facility with state Labor’s support – rather than them using every legal trick in the book to stop it – people would have seen the repository constructed, developed and operating without any adverse circumstances… it would have alleviated a lot of concern South Australians might have had, and would have made it easier to give you the option of going down the path of developing an international facility to take high-level waste.”

The Weatherill Government has begun a public information and consultation process, which will incorporate two citizens’ juries, to debate the findings of the Scarce Royal Commission. The commission’s final report this month urged SA to pursue the establishment of a high-level waste repository “as soon as possible”, but warned it would be possible only with broad community and bipartisan support.

It’s a far cry from Minchin’s battles as Science and Industry Minister, when the SA Senator was demonised by the media and Mike Rann’s first-term state Labor Government for advocating a low-level national waste dump in the state’s central north, having given the green light for a replacement nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in NSW.

Minchin concedes the fallout was “one of the most disappointing chapters in my political life”, saying he has followed the current debate “with considerable personal interest”.

“SA was the best place in Australia for such a repository [and] the then-Labor premier, Mr Rann, cynically and for naked political advantage chose to exploit that decision, thus robbing the nation of the ability to develop an essential facility, in the best place in Australia for it,” he said.

“And we still don’t have that facility, which is a national tragedy in many ways.”

I can only congratulate the current Premier for being mugged by the reality that SA is particularly well-placed to develop an industry around its natural advantage

Minchin could be forgiven for watching recent events unfold with some bemusement, given Labor still remains in Government in SA 14 years later. And yet the current administration reacted very differently to the Turnbull Government’s short-listing of another local site, Barndioota cattle station near Wilpena Pound, for its latest attempt to establish the national repository – with Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis praising the “rigorous process”.

Retiring senator Nick Minchin speaking during his valedictory speech in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, June 21, 2011. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt) NO ARCHIVING

Minchin delivering his valedictory speech in 2011. Photo: Alan Porritt, AAP.

“I can only congratulate the current Premier [for] being mugged by the reality that SA is particularly well-placed to develop an industry around its natural advantage of being such a safe and secure place to stage a nuclear waste facility,” Minchin said.

He said Weatherill had conducted the process thus far “maturely and carefully”.

“And I’d hope the Liberal Opposition will give him all the support this initiative needs,” he said, noting it would “only happen with bipartisan support”.

“SA does have significant economic problems, and this is an industry in which it could develop considerable expertise and world standing,” he said.

“I think the world would be grateful to SA as a stable state in a stable country with fantastic geology for just this sort of facility… it would be a crucial element of securing SA’s economic future.”

It might lead to economic advantage, but we didn’t want to overstate that

But he concedes that was not an argument the former Federal Government posited in trying to sell SA on the waste dump, before its compulsory acquisition of the site finally crashed in the High Court in 2004, after the Rann Government launched a legal challenge.

“Because there was so much antipathy from Green groups and state Labor, it had to be then put on the basis that we were talking about Australian low-level waste and the need for somewhere to safely and permanently store low-level waste,” he said.

“We didn’t want to pretend there was some great economic benefit – the point was to say a nationwide search by scientists has resolved outback SA is the safest place in Australia to put a facility managed by the federal government, and that it was clearly safe and with no adverse consequences to SA… down the path it might lead to economic advantage, but we didn’t want to overstate that.”

He said as the minister “having received independent scientific advice, I could hardly ignore it, and would have reasonably expected that the SA Government and people would have reasonably accepted that”.

“South Australians are the beneficiaries of nuclear medicine as well as everybody [else] in Australia, and [the waste] had to go somewhere,” he said.

“Really I’m just terribly disappointed that Labor whipped up such a scare campaign and didn’t use that opportunity… certainly it’s an enormous lost opportunity – but it isn’t too late.”

East Arm, Darwin, February 03, 2004. First Ghan passenger train arrives in Darwin. L-R Adrian Kloeden (Chairman Great Southern Railway), Clare Martin, Mike Rann, Nick Minchin and Chris Hyman of the Serco Group. (AAP Image/Paul Benjafield) NO ARCHIVING

Minchin with Mike Rann at the launch of the Ghan in 2004 – smiles belying an ongoing nuclear stoush. Photo: Paul Benjafield, AAP.

Ironically, the rationale of those on the Left who are now – albeit tentatively – embracing nuclear opportunities has been the threat of climate change. And yet, Minchin, who for so long fought to establish a nuclear facility, is a renowned climate sceptic.

“I must say the hypocrisy of the left on this question of nuclear power has always struck me,” he said.

“If you really believe human emissions are such a threat, then nuclear power is the obvious answer, and one that many countries employ… the world’s emissions would be much, much higher if there wasn’t as much nuclear power.”

And he emphasised that dealing with the safe storage of the spent fuel “remains a live issue” around the world, including “here in the US, where I am now”.

Former state Labor Environment Minister John Hill touched on the nuclear waste dump campaign in his recently-published book On Being A Minister.

“We had been running a campaign against the Howard Government… the issue was one of some urgency as the Commonwealth wanted to rebuild the Lucas Heights nuclear facility [and] in order to appease that local community they wanted to shift the waste stored there to a permanent facility – and they identified sites in outback SA as suitable,” he wrote.

“The only problem was that South Australians were overwhelmingly opposed, so it was a good political issue for us – especially as the state Liberals were in favour of their Federal colleagues’ proposition… We were the ones standing up for SA. There was plenty of media interest and Mike Rann ran a very strong and ultimately successful campaign – even, against expectations, gaining a Federal Court victory.”

He said there had been questions raised about what to do with locally-based radioactive medical waste that was being stored in various sites across the state, including the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

“The Opposition put the proposition that SA would be better off if our own waste was removed from current locations and stored in a permanent waste facility funded and managed by the Feds,” Hill wrote.

“Given the uncertainty of the outcome of our campaign, I was keen to leave the door open and in response to questions about whether we would use the Commonwealth facility, if it were opened, I said we probably would… this approach didn’t go down well with the premier’s office – we were running a black and white campaign and I was introducing grey.

“Mike used to say he liked to boil issues down to a headline… this approach paid huge dividends with Labor with issues like nuclear waste dumps.”

However, the Howard Government had also run into opposition from the previous Olsen Liberal Government, which passed legislation to rule SA out of contention for the repository.

At the time, ironically, John Olsen said his concern was the prospect of the low-level dump leading to bigger things, telling ABC in 2000 that “what we’re trying to do is send the clearest possible, strongest message to Canberra that we will accept and understand the need for low-level waste which is in our community now to be stored in a safe, reliable place… but as it relates to medium and high-level waste, that is a totally different matter and we do not want it in SA”.

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