On August 6, 1945, a single bomb made from highly enriched uranium destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Unlike the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later, the technology was so relatively straightforward that the Hiroshima bomb had not been previously tested. Its reliability was not in doubt.
The Hiroshima bomb was a very small weapon by today’s standards, and yet an estimated 90,000 people died immediately and many tens of thousands more died slowly of burns, multiple injuries, radiation sickness or, later, cancer.
For nearly six and a half decades, the survivors’ message has been clear: Hiroshima never again. And yet not only do these worst of all weapons of terror remain, but they are now held by nine nations. One of the reasons is in our own backyard - uranium.
As our sales of uranium, the raw material for bomb fuel, appear set to increase with a massive expansion of the Olympic Dam mine, and the proposed opening of the Four Mile mine, both in South Australia, it is time to seriously examine the weapons proliferation record of the industry that our exports support.
In the 1970s, the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry found that “the nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear war”. That remains as true today as it was then. In 2008 a report of the US State Department on the proliferation implications of nuclear power, noted that “the rise in nuclear power worldwide … inevitably increases the risks of proliferation”.
The intricate web linking military and “peaceful” uses of the atom incorporates every single nuclear weapons state, some non-weapons states and non-state actors. The world’s first “civilian” nuclear power reactor, at Sellafield in the UK, produced not only electricity but also plutonium for British and American weapons. In the US, “civilian” plants are used in the production of tritium, which is used to boost the explosive yield of nuclear weapons.
India and Pakistan both conducted their first nuclear tests with material from “peaceful” reactors supplied by Canada. (India claimed that its bomb was a peaceful one.) Israel’s “research reactor” was built by France and used heavy water supplied by Britain. North Korea’s nuclear weapon test in 2006 used plutonium from its “experimental power reactor”.
In China, which now receives Australian uranium, the China National Nuclear Corporation controls all fissile material, both civilian and military. Safeguards inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency are close to non-existent in the five nuclear weapons states that are party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Russia, the US, China, France and the UK).
The example of Iran illustrates the tensions that arise in a nuclear powered world. We know that its uranium enrichment can be used either for power or weapons, and we know from Hiroshima that a uranium bomb does not even need testing. The catastrophic invasion of Iraq also should have taught us that a nuclear program, even one that no longer exists, can provide enormous potential for political spin and warmongering.
We should not forget our own history either. In the late 1960s, part of the hidden agenda for a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay was the capacity to develop nuclear weapons if such a political decision were taken. Former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, recognised the issue in 2005, when he observed that more countries were seeking to master the nuclear fuel cycle, which “essentially transforms them into what might be called a ‘virtual’ or ‘latent’ nuclear weapons state”.
The problem of nuclear power plants being attractive terrorist targets has also long been known. Despite this, 47 per cent of such facilities in the US failed to deter small, forewarned mock terrorist attacks during the 1990s. In the Congo (which provided the uranium that was dropped on Hiroshima) enriched uranium has gone missing from the country’s disused reactor, which has failed every security and safety test.
The need to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used again, as articulated by the people of Hirohima, is making a political comeback, spurred on particularly by President Obama’s commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Nuclear weapons abolition is both essential and feasible. Feasible, that is, if all existing fissile material is brought under strict international control and we stop creating more. That means leaving uranium in the ground.
Australia, with our large uranium reserves, is blessed with leverage in this issue. Even if mining and export were to continue at some level however, there is one thing at least that should be non-negotiable. No Australian uranium should go to any nation that has nuclear weapons.
That would include a number of our current customers - the US, the UK, France and China. All of them, in addition to Russia which does not (yet) receive Australian uranium, are in violation of their Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to disarm. Do we really want to supply fissile material to NPT non-compliers who continue to threaten mass destruction? That question should concern the Australian government, especially with the NPT Review coming up in early 2010.
While the nuclear industry has been plagued by a litany of major problems, its most grievous failing lies in its deliberate obfuscation regarding the civilian-military nuclear links. Its glib reassurances might help sell uranium, but at the cost of the nuclear weapons free world that has eluded us since the terror of Hiroshima.