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Mr Rudd: nuclear safeguards?

We are often told that the nuclear safeguards system ensures Australian uranium will not be diverted to produce nuclear weapons. But there is a risk of diversion, and claims to the contrary are dishonest. Indeed there is growing recognition of the serious flaws in the safeguards system.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responsible for nuclear safeguards, and the head of the IAEA, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, is remarkably frank about their limitations. In speeches and papers in recent years he has noted that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are 'fairly limited'; that the safeguards system suffers from 'vulnerabilities' and 'clearly needs reinforcement'; that efforts to improve the system have been 'half-hearted'; and that the safeguards system operates on a 'shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department'.

Labor Party policy states that the government will 'strengthen export control regimes, and the rights and authority of the IAEA, and tighten controls on the export of nuclear material and technology'. It also states that the Labor government will 'only allow export of Australian uranium to countries which observe the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and which are committed to non-proliferation and nuclear safeguards'.

There are one or two things the Labor government can do to marginally improve safeguards without generating any adverse political reaction. The most obvious is increasing Australia's contribution to the safeguards budget of the IAEA. But if the government is serious about improving safeguards it will need to take steps likely to generate opposition from uranium mining companies and from some of the countries that purchase Australian uranium. For example, none of the nuclear weapons states are serious about their obligations under the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to seriously pursue nuclear disarmament; therefore, they ought not be eligible to purchase Australia's uranium. Yet uranium export agreements are in place with the United States, France, the United Kingdom and China.

Last year, the former Coalition government signed a uranium export agreement with Russia. The Rudd government will now have to decide whether to approve the agreement. Russia is not at all serious about its NPT disarmament obligations. Indeed Vladimir Putin said on national television in October that Russia is developing new types of nuclear weapons and expanding its delivery capabilities via missiles, submarines and strategic bombers.

Another concern is inadequate security of nuclear materials in Russia. In December 2007, New Scientist reported that there are 'gaping holes' in the arrangements meant to prevent the theft of nuclear materials in Russia. From 2001 to 2006 there were 183 reported trafficking incidents involving nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. Then there is the lack of democracy in Russia and disrespect for the rights of protesters and whistle-blowers--all factors that could adversely affect the safeguarding of Australian uranium. One notorious recent incident was the murder of dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in London with the radioactive material polonium-210. The Russian government has refused to extradite a former KGB operative suspected of involvement in the murder.

Allowing uranium sales to Russia would not only be unconscionable, it would also be a direct breach of the Labor Party's policy to allow uranium exports only to countries which are 'committed to non-proliferation'.

In addition to IAEA safeguards, countries purchasing Australian uranium must sign a bilateral agreement. The most important provisions are for prior Australian consent before Australian nuclear material is transferred to a third party, enriched beyond 20 per cent uranium- 235, or reprocessed. However, no Australian government has ever refused permission to separate plutonium from spent fuel via reprocessing. Even when reprocessing leads to the stockpiling of plutonium (which can be used directly in nuclear weapons), ongoing or 'programmatic' permission has been granted by Australian governments. Hence there are stockpiles of 'Australian-obligated' plutonium in Japan and in some European countries.

At one level there is a simple solution--the Labor government should simply ban the reprocessing of spent fuel generated from Australian uranium. After all, precious little of the uranium is recycled from reprocessing plants, the plutonium is a curse, and reprocessing is so polluting that even director of the World Nuclear Association describes it as 'environmentally dirty'. The problems with reprocessing are such that the Coalition government made it illegal to build reprocessing plants in Australia, and the Labor Party assented to this legislation.

At another level, banning reprocessing of Australian-origin nuclear materials will be difficult. The uranium mining companies will bleat, and some customer countries will insist on their 'right' to do as they please with Australian nuclear materials.

Mike Rann--then a young Labor Party researcher and now the pro-uranium Premier of South Australia--noted in his 1982 booklet on uranium mining that, 'Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first'. Let's see if Prime Minister Rudd takes a principled stand on this issue of nuclear reprocessing or if he continues the long Australian tradition of putting profits ahead of WMD proliferation risks.

Perhaps the most intractable problem with safeguards is that nuclear accounting discrepancies are commonplace and inevitable due to the difficulty of precisely measuring nuclear materials. The accounting discrepancies are known as Material Unaccounted For. This problem of imprecise measurement provides an obvious loophole for anyone wanting to divert nuclear materials for weapons production. In a large plant, even a tiny percentage of the annual through-put of nuclear material will suffice to build one or more weapons with virtually no chance of detection by IAEA inspectors.

The Coalition government refused to publicly reveal any country-specific information, or even aggregate information, concerning accounting discrepancies involving Australian uranium or its by-products, such as plutonium. It is to be hoped that the Labor government will be more transparent. Of course, releasing information about unaccounted Australian-origin nuclear materials will likely pose a problem for the government. More Australians would oppose the uranium export industry they knew the extent and frequency of nuclear accounting discrepancies.

Australians would be further disenchanted with the uranium industry if its negligible contribution to export revenue was better understood. Uranium accounts for less than one-third of 1 per cent of Australia's export revenue--significantly less than the export revenue from cheese or wines. And the industry's contribution to employment is even more underwhelming--uranium mining accounts for one-hundredth of 1 per cent of Australian jobs.

As the Labor Party explores and details its fairly vague promises to improve safeguards, perhaps it could reopen discussion on the broader question: do the meagre economic benefits from uranium mining outweigh the weapons proliferation risks associated with the industry?

Jim Green is an anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
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Author:Green, Jim
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:1105
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