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Time to rethink uranium safeguards

By Jim Green - posted Monday, 3 May 2010


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 last Thursday.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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