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By Tilman Ruff - posted Friday, 17 November 2006


The Howard Government has spoken repeatedly of the strength of international safeguards when it comes to exporting Australian uranium to other nations. The government has insisted that these safeguards are strong enough to ensure Australian uranium is not used in nuclear weapons, even by those trading partners that have existing nuclear weapons programs. But is this true? Can Australian uranium be safely secured from nuclear weapons production? Or is there a more sinister reality?

On Sunday, November 2, a major new Australian report was released entitled Illusion of Protection: the unavoidable limitations of safeguards on nuclear materials and the export of uranium to China.

This report, prepared for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) (MAPW), addresses the flaws and limitations of the international nuclear safeguards system with particular reference to the proposed sale of Australian uranium to China, a declared nuclear weapons state. The report highlights the limitations of the global nuclear safeguards regime, an issue of particular importance in the context of current moves to dramatically expand the Australian uranium industry.

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The report finds there is a serious and unavoidable risk that Australian uranium exports to China will directly or indirectly support Chinese nuclear weapons manufacture, and potentially nuclear weapons proliferation in other countries.

There is much that could and needs to be done to improve the international safeguards system, however its fundamental flaws and the pervasive interconnections between the civil and military applications of nuclear technologies and materials mean that the most prudent and responsible position is to phase out the mining and export of uranium.

Supporters of Australia's uranium export industry claim that the safeguards applied to Australia's uranium exports are the equal of, or better than, safeguards applied by other uranium exporting nations. This claim ignores the problem that all uranium-exporting nations are reliant on the inadequate and under-resourced safeguards system of the IAEA, and it cannot be credibly advanced to justify Australian uranium exports.

Australia’s Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) has no substantive verification capacity to add to limited IAEA safeguards. The government’s Regulation Impact Statement for the nuclear agreement with China foreshadows annual visits to reconcile nuclear material transfer reports. This is essentially an arms-length book-keeping exercise that relies on the importing state’s adherence to materials accountancy standards. Little is known or verifiable about the veracity of China’s nuclear materials accountancy, but available information is concerning.

Claims that Australia would have no leverage in relation to international nuclear safeguards in the absence of a uranium export industry are false. Australia’s moral and political authority to actively pursue a strengthened non-proliferation and safeguards regime would be enhanced by such an approach. Furthermore, non-nuclear and non-uranium exporting states can and do influence international safeguards through the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and by engagement with a range of other international fora and mechanisms.

Although the Illusion of Protection report makes a case specifically against sales of Australian uranium to China, the lessons and problems outlined are applicable generally, and particularly to any plans to sell uranium to India or any other state with nuclear weapons programs or ambitions.

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The unique physical and medical realities of nuclear materials and technology have powerful implications. The assurances of safety and safeguards needed are way higher than for any other materials. At issue are materials which can be used to make nuclear weapons. Just 100 - 0.4 per cent - of the 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world, if targeted on major cities, could end human civilisation and drastically compromise the earth’s ability to support life in the space of a few hours.

Uranium, nuclear fuel, and extracted plutonium will still be toxic and usable for nuclear weapons in hundreds of thousands of years, much longer than any human institution has survived.

The timeframes of political leaders, governments and political systems represent just the blink of an eye in these geological timeframes. Policies, governments and political systems can change rapidly. Only three decades ago, former foreign minister Andrew Peacock was advocating sale of Australian uranium to Iran. The half-life of plutonium is 24,400 years, after which its radioactivity will have declined by half. The half-life of uranium-235, the isotope enriched for reactors and weapons, is 713 million years.

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Both the executive summary and the full report are available online from the ACF and MAPW websites.



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About the Author

Tilman Ruff is Associate Professor in the Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne and Australian chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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