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Nuclear security and Australia's uranium exports

By Jim Green - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2014


The March 24−25 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in the Netherlands was attended by representatives from over 50 countries. The NSS issued a banal communiqué, almost all of which was decided in advance.

The closest the communiqué comes to substance is to identify a range of "voluntary measures" which states "may consider taking" such as publishing information about national laws, exchanging good practices, and further developing training of personnel involved in nuclear security. Elsewhere the communiqué is beyond parody: "Sharing good practices, without detriment to the protection of sensitive information, might also be beneficial."

To be fair, useful work is being done in some countries to tighten nuclear security. But it's too little and too slow, and the concept of nuclear security is too narrowly defined. The very first dot-point in the NSS communiqué insists that "measures to strengthen nuclear security will not hamper the rights of States to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes".

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Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted in 2009 that "even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals ..." That mentality was in evidence at the NSS. Gilinsky advocates a reversal of priorities: "Security should come first − not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow."

Nuclear security architecture

The NSS website says that Summit participants "laid the basis for an efficient and sustainable nuclear security architecture, consisting of treaties, guidelines and international organisations."

But there was no discussion, and no outcomes, regarding vital architecture such as the flawed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The security threats posed by nuclear weapons arsenals were beyond the scope of the NSS, and the discussion on nuclear weapons was vacuous and steered well away from the failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations. US President Barack Obama's ultra-lite contribution to the NSS went no further than a reworking of the old saying that a single nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day: "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city ... would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life."

Nor did the NSS produce any outcomes regarding another vital piece of nuclear architecture: the flawed safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A recent report about the safeguarding of nuclear fuel cycle facilities, by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas, concludes:

Theoretical solutions to improve IAEA safeguards have been discussed for decades. However, proprietary, economic, and sovereignty concerns have limited the extent to which countries and private companies have implemented these theoretical solutions. Even in states that cooperate with the IAEA and apply sophisticated accounting mechanisms, such as Japan, safeguards at fuel-cycle facilities currently cannot come close to achieving their explicit goal of providing timely warning of a suspected diversion of one bomb's worth of fissile material. The prospects are even worse in states that resist cooperation and may wish to keep open their weapons option, such as Iran, and at facilities that employ first-generation safeguards.

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Yet the NSS did not even consider the safeguards system. The broad problem was succinctly explained by former South Australian Premier Mike Rann many years ago, before he decided that his political ambitions were more important than speaking truth to power: "Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first."

Australia's uranium customers

Nuclear security standards are demonstrably inadequate in a number of Australia's uranium customer countries. Nuclear security risk factors in Russia include political instability, ineffective governance, pervasive corruption, and the presence of groups determined to obtain nuclear materials. A March 2014 report by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs notes that Russia has the world's largest nuclear stock­piles stored in the world's largest number of buildings and bunkers, and that underfunding raises serious questions about whether effective nuclear security and accounting systems can be sustained."

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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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