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New Risks from Australia Russia Uranium Deal
By James Norman, 19 November 2010, Online Opinion
Late last week on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in South Korea, Prime Minister Julia Gillard ratified a deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that should send shockwaves through the Australian electorate.
The ratification of the Australia Russia nuclear cooperation agreement will see Australia opening new uranium markets to a country with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and largest stockpile of weapons-usable material, much of it inadequately secured. For the Gillard Labor government, it seems to be just another case of “business as usual” in Australian politics, in which our country’s resources are sold off to the highest bidder, regardless of the dangerous impacts such sales add to geo-regional security.
While the Australian government and the Australian Uranium Association will insist that such sales will be limited to civilian nuclear power programs, we know that Russia has the world’s worst record of nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination of the global environment. Moreover, we know that Russia, currently the worlds biggest nuclear weapons holder, continues to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and continues to fail in its legal obligations to disarm.
The hypocrisy of the Labor Party over these sales is evident for all to see, as is the secrecy surrounding a deal that is done on the sidelines of the G20 rather than in the proper light of Australian public scrutiny. The Australian public has a right to ask why we would be choosing to sell Australian uranium to a country that falls outside of reasonable expectations for democratic transparency and due process in dealing with the most potentially lethal substance known of earth.
The fact is that Russian nuclear facilities remain effectively off-limits to international inspectors meaning Australians have no transparent means of ensuring Australian uranium is not being directed toward military purposes. We know for example that there have been no inspections by the global regulatory body the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Russian nuclear facilities since before 2001.
In 2008 the Rudd governments Joint Standing Committee of Treaties (JSCOT) pointed out that uranium sales to Russia should not proceed unless significant security measures were addressed. Few if any of these measures have been addressed since then. The JSCOT argued against ratification of the Howard-Putin uranium agreement until “IAEA inspections are implemented for Russian facilities that will handle Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials”. This seems a reasonable recommendation to make, but it was rejected by the Labor Government.
With regard to Russia, the Committee’s recommendation was that Australia should not go ahead with exporting uranium until “Russia’s reform process to clearly separate its civilian nuclear and military nuclear facilities is clearly and independently verified.” It seems like a reasonable minimum requirement, but this has not happened – yet Gillard still gave the uranium sales the big tick from Australia last week in South Korea.
As far as global terrorism and the specter of uranium falling into the hands of international crime gangs, as recently as last week reports emerged of smuggled nuclear materials surfacing in the region where these sales will be directed. The Guardian reported evidence of highly enriched, untraceable uranium on sale on the black market along the former fringes of the Soviet Union.
A trial in Geogia last week revealed how an international police sting netted the highly enriched uranium being smuggled on a train from Yerevan to Tbilisi inside a lead-lined cigarette package. The shocking case revealed how the critical ingredient for making a nuclear warhead is reasonably easy to smuggle past a ring of US-funded radiation detectors along the border of the Soviet Union.
There is another factor that should be front-and-centre of our minds as Australia charts this pernicious new course. When Kevin Rudd was elected to office he stated clearly his shared a vision with Barack Obama that now was the best chance we have ever had to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all. Unfortunately, as things stand, we cannot be absolutely confident that Australia’s uranium exported to Russia will not end up in a Russian or a terrorist nuclear weapon.
With an arsenal of around 12000 nuclear weapons (worryingly the exact number is not attainable), Russia remains a block to global expectations for nuclear disarmament, and Australia’s uranium sales to this nuclear rogue nation will be unwelcome news to peace loving people all over the world.
James Norman is communications coordinator for ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Joint Standing Committee on Treaties:
Time to rethink uranium safeguards
Jim Green, 3 May 2010, Online Opinion
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith’s decision to permit uranium sales to Russia in the absence of any meaningful safeguards arrangements is spineless and irresponsible. He had an excellent opportunity to restore some integrity and transparency to safeguards arrangements but chose instead to set a new low with his announcement in Moscow on April 22.
In 2008, the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was asked to assess the Howard-Putin uranium agreement signed the previous year. The treaties committee refused to endorse the agreement. One of the reasons was the failure of the agreement to specify meaningful safeguards arrangements to provide confidence that Australian uranium will remain in peaceful use.
The treaties committee was unmoved by the claim of the so-called Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office that “strict” safeguards conditions would “ensure” that uranium remains in peaceful use in Russia. All the more so after it was revealed that there hasn’t been a single International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspection of any nuclear facilities in Russia since 2001 – information which the safeguards office and Mr Smith’s Department of Foreign Affairs conspicuously failed to provide to the committee.
But instead of revisiting the Howard-Putin agreement and ensuring that meaningful safeguards are applied, Mr Smith prefers tired old lies. He asserts that the Howard-Putin agreement “would ensure that any uranium supplied could only be used for peaceful purposes”. It does no such thing – the agreement does not require any safeguards inspections whatsoever.
Responding to the treaties committee’s recommendation that IAEA inspections are implemented for Russian facilities that will handle Australian uranium, the federal government responded that it “has no scope to implement this recommendation” and that Australia has asked the IAEA to consider additional inspections in Russia but “the IAEA has shown no inclination to do so”. Are we meant to take comfort from such statements?
Worse still, the Howard-Putin agreement makes no provision for independent, Australian inspection and verification and we are therefore totally dependent on IAEA safeguards – which are non-existent!
In the short term, diversion of Australian uranium for weapons production is unlikely given the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its stockpiles of fissile materials. But as Kelvin Thomson, chair of the treaties committee, noted in 2008, “with uranium you have to have a system which is foolproof for hundreds of years.” In the short term there is certainly a risk of theft and smuggling of Australia’s uranium and its by-products.
So what needs to be done to fix the safeguards system? Firstly, the IAEA safeguards department is seriously underfunded. The problem is widely acknowledged yet it persists year after year, decade after decade.
Secondly, at best, safeguards involve periodic inspections of some nuclear facilities; at worst, safeguards are tokenistic (as in China) or non-existent (Russia). A minimum requirement ought to be that all nuclear facilities of any proliferation significance have IAEA inspectors permanently stationed on-site. Nuclear facilities typically employ hundreds of people so the additional costs associated with this proposal would not be prohibitive.
Thirdly, important information about safeguards is kept secret by the Australian government and there is a compelling case for greater transparency. Examples of unwarranted secrecy include the refusal to publicly release: country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of plutonium; Administrative Arrangements, which contain important information about safeguards arrangements; information on nuclear accounting discrepancies; and the quantities of Australian uranium and its by-products held in each country.
Fourthly, something needs to be done about the stockpiling of ever-growing amounts of weapons-useable plutonium as plutonium separation at reprocessing plants continually exceeds its limited use as reactor fuel. The problem could easily be addressed by suspending or reducing the rate of reprocessing such that stockpiles of separated plutonium are drawn down rather than continuing to expand. Failing that, one modest reform would be for the Australian government to revert to the previous policy of requiring permission to separate plutonium on a case-by-case basis rather than providing open-ended permission. The Labor Party’s binding policy platform includes a commitment to “limiting the processing of weapon usable material (separation of plutonium and high enriched uranium in civilian programs)”. Yet Mr Smith continues to provide open-ended permission to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium.
There is more that needs to be done to strengthen safeguards. For the moment, Mr Smith would do well to address at least some of the problems unless he wishes to be remembered as a foreign minister who was too spineless to stand up to Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and the uranium mining companies and to insist on meaningful nuclear safeguards.
Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth.