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Treaties Committee rejects Russia uranium agreement

By Jim Green - posted Monday, 22 September 2008


Last Thursday, the federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties had the courage to recommend against ratification of the uranium export agreement signed by John Howard and Vladimir Putin last September.

The majority report, written by committee chair Kelvin Thompson and other Labor members, concludes that the government should not ratify the agreement until a number of onerous conditions have been met, the most important being the implementation of nuclear safeguards inspections in Russia, separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities, demonstrated compliance with disarmament obligations, demonstrated resolution of the problem of nuclear theft and smuggling, and proper consideration of the ramifications of "recent political events affecting Russia" (read: Russia's invasion of Georgia).

The claim by the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office that "strict" safeguards conditions will "ensure" that uranium remains in peaceful use has been exposed for the lie that it is. The Safeguards Office conspicuously failed to provide any information to the Joint Standing Committee on the reality of safeguards in Russia. It was left to Friends of the Earth to do the research, the conclusion being that there have been no International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections in Russia since 2001, and there is no reason to believe that this pattern of non-inspection will change in the future.

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Not unreasonably, the Joint Standing Committee concluded that: "It is essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle [Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials]. Further, the supply of uranium to Russia should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out."

Conceding that that there have been no IAEA inspections in Russia for many years, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has nevertheless claimed that the Howard/Putin agreement "meets all of Australia's long-standing safeguards requirements". That is precisely the problem, Mr Smith - Australia exports uranium with no requirement for IAEA inspections to take place. Moreover, 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 weapons arsenal and its stockpiles of fissile materials. But as Kelvin Thompson has noted, "with uranium you have to have a system which is foolproof for hundreds of years." And in the short term there is certainly a risk of theft and smuggling of Australia's uranium and its various by-products. The IAEA's Director-General, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, has recently estimated that only half of Russia's nuclear materials have been reasonably secured.

A dissenting report by the Coalition members on the Joint Standing Committee asserts that the Howard/Putin agreement provides "strict safeguards conditions" - a ridiculous assertion given that there is unanimous agreement that there have been no safeguards inspections in Russia since 2001, and unanimous agreement that the agreement does not mandate IAEA safeguards inspections in future. Coalition members also made the mystifying assertion that: "Russia has demonstrated a commitment to its disarmament and non-proliferation obligations."

If Stephen Smith and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd intend to ratify the Howard/Putin agreement, they will need to argue that Russia is complying with its disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though Russia is doing no such thing. Russia's arsenal of over 14,000 nuclear weapons has an explosive yield equivalent to 200,000 Hiroshima bombs. The reduction in the number of nuclear weapons held by Russia is no comfort since, in Putin's words, Russia plans to make its nuclear arsenal "more compact but more effective".

Putin has said that maintaining a nuclear arsenal "remains one of the top priorities of Russian Federation policy" and that Russia will develop "completely new strategic [nuclear] complexes." Once again demonstrating its contemptuous attitude towards nuclear disarmament norms and obligations, Russia threatened Poland with nuclear strikes following an August 20 agreement to host US missile defence bases in Poland.

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Ratifying a uranium export agreement with a belligerent nuclear weapons states would shred the Rudd government's credibility ahead of the formal launch of its International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament in October.

The Joint Standing Committee notes that there is no imperative for early ratification of the Howard/Putin agreement and it advises reconsideration of the agreement after the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Recently, the Bush administration withdrew from Congressional consideration a similar nuclear co-operation agreement with Russia, citing Russia's invasion of Georgia and its support for Iran's nuclear program.

Supporters of the Howard/Putin agreement have argued that it would be irresponsible to withhold energy supplies from Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia and that to do so would legitimise Russia's withholding of gas supplies from eastern Europe in recent years. That argument misses the obvious point that uranium is not only an energy source but also feedstock for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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