This government has an extraordinarily inconsistent attitude toward nuclear issues.

It refuses to countenance an Australian nuclear power industry and launched the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

But when it comes to other radioactive issues, it has an altogether different approach. This week it was preparing to speed its National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 through parliament, with the aid of an unusually compliant opposition. The bill was scheduled for today but has been dropped ahead of higher priority bills. It is expected to return in June.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has been copping plenty of grief from anti-nuclear protestors over the bill, which in effect replicates the Howard Government’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005.

In a classic end-of-week drop, the Labor-controlled Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee released its report on the bill on Friday evening last week, too late for the weekend newspapers. The report made some minor, almost trivial, recommendations for amendments but supported the essence of the bill.

The bill is in many sections a cut-and-paste of the CRWMA, stripping procedural fairness from the waste dump site selection process, overriding territory laws and neutralising environmental protection requirements.

These were exactly the aspects of the CRWMA that Labor vehemently railed against in opposition when it opposed that legislation. As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam pointed out on Tuesday, they used words like “arrogant”, “heavy-handed”, “draconian”, “sorry” and “sordid”. Labor went to the last election with a commitment to repeal it. They are indeed repealing it — and replacing it with almost identical legislation.

The Greens are working on amendments to improve the procedural fairness aspects of the bill so that affected communities will have a greater say in the site selection process.

Their chances of securing Government agreement don’t look strong. Ludlam recently approached Ferguson at Alice Springs Airport to introduce himself, urge the minister to meet with traditional owners affected by the nomination of Muckaty Station and have a talk when they were both next in Canberra.

Ferguson’s response was “I don’t deal with the Greens, why would I deal with the Greens, we don’t deal with the Greens” and walked off.

This is only weeks after the government responded to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties report on the Howard-era Australia-Russia Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. We’ve been waiting to see the government’s response since September 2008, when the Committee reported. It is chaired by Kelvin Thomson and has some of the brightest young talents on both sides on it, including Simon Birmingham, Ludlam, Jamie Briggs and Melissa Parke. The committee made a number of strong recommendations about ensuring anti-proliferation safeguards were in place and concerns about stability in Russia were addressed.

The context of all this of course is that Russia is a kleptocracy riddled with corruption at the highest levels. The government’s response was to brush aside concerns about Russia’a lack of safeguards. As Jim Green recently pointed out, there aren’t even any verification and inspection visits by the International Atomic Energy Agency of Russian facilities.

The government’s response was to dismiss those concerns out of hand and assure the committee that Russia could be relied on to keep its uranium secure and used only for peaceful purposes.

Meanwhile it continues to refuse to sell uranium to India under circumstances.

It’s a bizarrely and mysteriously inconsistent approach.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey