Bill: Radiation protection and control

Today Mark spoke to this Government Bill which is the first comprehensive revision of current laws in nearly 40 years. He noted that the bill falls short of the regulatory standard South Australians have a right to expect and outlined the amendments he has filed on behalf of the Greens, to ensure that South Australia's regulatory regime for the licence of radioactive materials is the best in the world. 

Radiation Protection and Control Bill 2020

In 1904, 116 years ago, Clarence Dally was the first person recorded to have died of radiation exposure. Clarence was an assistant to the famous inventor Thomas Edison. Radiation had been discovered only a decade earlier and, by the time Madame Marie Curie died in 1934, the dangers of radiation were becoming better known. That is why radioactive material and ionising radiation have been regulated in this country and globally for many decades. It is dangerous and it can be deadly.

In South Australia the current law was last comprehensively revised nearly 40 years ago in 1982, so it is certainly timely to bring these laws into the modern era. In that respect the current bill is welcome; however, the devil is always in the detail, and this bill falls short of the regulatory standard South Australians have a right to expect.

I will start with the elephant in the room. The Olympic Dam mine near Roxby Downs in northern South Australia is South Australia's largest mine. It is the fourth largest copper deposit in the world and the largest known uranium deposit. Copper is the main product, but around 25 per cent of its revenue comes from uranium, so it would not be unreasonable to expect that, when laws relating to the regulation and licensing of dangerous radioactive material are being revised, the safety of workers and the general community in relation to the Olympic Dam operations would be front and centre. In fact, the minister alluded to this in his second reading explanation, when he said:

South Australia is one of only two jurisdictions in Australia where uranium mining takes place and uranium is an essential contributor to the state economy. It is, therefore, essential that modern and effective legislation covers mining and all other aspects of radiation use.

However, that is not the case. The Olympic Dam mine and its operators, first Western Mining and now BHP Billiton, have negotiated with previous state governments to effectively be exempted from the vast bulk of South Australian laws. To quote from section 7 of the Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act:

The law of the state is so far modified as is necessary to give full effect to the indenture and the provisions of any law of the state shall accordingly be construed subject to the modifications that take effect under this act.

The section goes on to list a range of specific acts that do not apply to the Olympic Dam mine, and then the act goes on to remove any discretion in relation to the issue of a radiation licence. The law says that BHP Billiton must be given a licence. So aside from the objectionable fact that this project is effectively above the law in this state, what does that mean for the workers who are potentially exposed to radiation?

The first thing to note is that worker radiation exposure limits in South Australia are governed by outdated 1991-era standards set out in national codes. With BHP Billiton set to expand the Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine soon, this bill is our best opportunity to require a safer worker radiation exposure standard, one that is fit for the 2020s.

However, under this bill limits of exposure to ionising radiation cannot be more stringent than limits fixed under certain external codes. In other words, the bill seeks to prohibit any safer or more stringent radiation exposure limit being applied to mining and mineral processing in South Australia than set out in national codes.

These national codes are unlikely to be reformed, and mirror an international regime that was set back in 1991 when the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) reduced its occupational exposure limit to 20 millisieverts (mSv) per annum. This exposure was to be averaged over five years, within which up to 50 mSv in a single year was permitted.

This outdated occupational regulatory limit still applies in South Australia. The Greens believe that worker exposure standards in South Australia must not be constrained by an international failure to reform these standards. By 2021, South Australia will be the only jurisdiction in Australia where uranium mining takes place, and that means that if we do not fix exposure standards for workers in our state, no other state will care enough to come to our aid.

This bill specifically sets out that the minister is prohibited from setting licensing conditions for worker radiation protection at Olympic Dam from being 'more stringent' than requirements of codes listed in the 1982 Roxby Downs (Indenture Ratification) Act. The 1982 indenture act grants unique legal privileges to BHP Billiton which apply through to the year 2036.

So what is wrong with the current standards and what harm will be done by South Australia being a follower rather than a leader on worker safety? For starters, there is clear evidence that the current standard of 20 mSv per annum is not sufficient to protect workers. For instance, the United States National Academy of Science back in 2006 said:

…there is a linear dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of solid cancers in humans. It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced…

The fact that the current standards are low and easily achievable was not lost on BHP Billiton, which 10 years ago gave a commitment to limit workforce radiation exposure doses to less than half the limits that were set in the international, national and South Australian codes. To quote BHP:

BHP would comply with internationally accepted radiation limits for workers and the public and would set a goal of maintaining doses at less than 50% of the internationally acceptable limits for workers.

In other words, 10 years ago, BHP realised that they could exceed the standard, by double if you like, yet this bill seeks to enshrine ancient worker protection standards and entrench a situation where those standards cannot be changed by this state regardless of the best available medical or scientific evidence. That, in my view, is an appalling abrogation of the responsibility of this parliament to let that bill go through unamended.

As we know, the Olympic Dam expansion 10 years ago never went ahead. Members might recall that was going to be the biggest hole in the ground on the face of the earth. It never went ahead and South Australia did not end up taking up the key opportunity that we had back then to legislate a safer, lower radiation exposure limit for workers. A decade on, it is reasonable to expect a safer standard in the 2020s than previously put forward by BHP. It is certainly within the capacity of this parliament and this minister to set a maximum exposure level of 10 mSv per annum. After all, BHP said they could meet that standard a decade ago. But even that is not best practice.

For example, a total maximum ionising radiation permissible dose of five mSv a year for nuclear industry workers was a key recommendation of the Independent European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), and that was way back in 2003. In 2010, that same committee recommended that annual exposure limits for nuclear workers should be two mSv a year. That compares with 20. So back in 2010, that committee was proposing a standard that was one-tenth the current standard in South Australia.

Whilst it is not necessary or appropriate for me to footnote this with every one of the scientific references that I refer to, I would refer members to that ECRR publication entitled, 'ECCR 2010 Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk: The Health Effects of Exposure to Low Doses of Ionizing Radiation', for protection purposes, 'Regulators' Edition: Brussels 2010.'

Similar to other forms of exposure to dangerous substances, the more studies that are done, the more we realise that health risks have been underestimated. Just a few months ago, the Medical Association for Prevention of War told a Victorian Government inquiry that recent epidemiological studies have estimated greater radiation-related health risks than had been previously thought. Under the heading, 'Cancer risks for nuclear industry workers', the MAPW said:

Updated results of large long-term studies of hundreds of thousands of nuclear industry workers, coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, on risks for leukaemia and solid cancers were reported in 2015. The studies included 308,000 workers from France, the UK and the US, followed up to an average age of 58 years. The cumulative doses were well within the current most widely recommended dose limit for nuclear industry workers of an average of no more than 20 millisieverts per year. Rates of both leukaemia and solid cancers were elevated…and will continue to rise as the subjects age…

These large and powerful studies show risks even at very low dose rates, and total doses well within recommended occupational limits.

Together the above studies conclusively demonstrate the absence of a threshold for ionising radiation-related cancer risks. In other words, any exposure can do harm, and the amount of harm is increased with increased exposure.

That was back in February this year: the Medical Association for the Prevention of War to the Victorian Government.

I have filed a number of amendments to this bill. The most significant of these amendments relates to the issues to which I have been referring; that is, the ability of the state to impose more protective standards of radiation exposure for workers and removal of the special exemption in this bill in relation to the Olympic Dam mine. In other words, I want this bill to do what the Minister said it did: apply to uranium mining, including our biggest uranium mine. The other amendments I have filed are mostly administrative, and I will explain those in detail when we get into the committee stage of this debate.

In summary, the Greens want to ensure that South Australia's regulatory regime for the licence of radioactive materials is the best in the world. We owe this to our workers and to our environment. The current bill is an improvement on the 1982 bill, but unless it tackles the issue of updating exposure standards it will be regarded as a failure and a missed opportunity.