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Safeguarding uranium exports

By Jim Green - posted Thursday, 23 October 2014


Responding to my On Line Opinion article about inadequate safeguards provisions in the Australia−India uranium sales agreement, Geoff Russell begins: "Jim Green's recent On Line Opinion piece about Australia's export of uranium to India reports on concerns about "safeguards" by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ANSO). This Government office is concerned with nuclear safety."

In fact, the safeguards office is concerned with safeguards − preventing the diversion of nuclear materials for weapons production − not safety. And it isn't ASNO raising concerns about inadequate safeguards, but the former Director-General of ASNO, John Carlson. Carlson is a nuclear advocate who oversaw the weakening of Australia's uranium safeguards requirements for 21 years. So if Carlson's complaining, you can be sure that the Australia−India uranium agreement is an absolute stinker.

Russell claims to be looking at the "whole picture". But his blinkered, dystopian view of renewable energy contrasts sharply with serious analyses of India's renewable energy potential.

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And his comments on nuclear power ignore a very important part of the "whole picture" − the repeatedly-demonstrated pattern of peaceful nuclear programs repeatedly paving the way for WMD proliferation. He is silent about the fact that India's nuclear weapons program was a product of its peaceful nuclear industry. He talks up nuclear power in France without noting the French nuclear industry's contribution to France's nuclear weapons program and to weapons programs in Israel and elsewhere. He talks about what a wonderful world it would be if Australia had developed nuclear power − without mentioning that Australia's one and only serious push for nuclear power, driven by Prime Minister John Gorton in the late 1960s, was underpinned by a hidden weapons agenda as Gorton later acknowledged.

Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summed up the WMD dilemma: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

Russell revisits his views on Fukushima in his latest article. The consensus view is that the death and suffering from the Fukushima disaster was a result of the profound corruption of TEPCO and Japan's 'nuclear village'. Thus Japan's Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission − established by an Act of Parliament − concluded in its July 2012 report that the accident was "a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented" if not for "a multitude of errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11".

The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission notes that evacuees (over 150,000 people are still displaced) "continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment." The best estimate is that the long-term cancer death toll will be around 5,000, and the Fukushima disaster is also responsible for nearly half of the estimated 1,632 indirect deaths associated with the evacuation from the March 2011 triple-disaster.

But for Russell, the death and suffering from Fukushima is "a consequence not of radiation or the Fukushima meltdown, but of fear mongering by the anti-nuclear movement." I've untangled most of the threads of that tortured logic elsewhere. In his latest article, Russell adds another thread to the argument: "A radiation expert from Imperial College in London recently described the Fukushima evacuation as "stark raving mad". I think he was being excessively polite." So did Russell say the evacuation was stark raving mad in March 2011 as reactor buildings were exploding and burning and reactor cores melting down? Of course not.

Russell claims the performance of the Fukushima nuclear power plants in the face of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami was "a spectacular success and one of the biggest unreported good news stories of the decade." And it was indeed a spectacular success − except for the explosions, the meltdowns, the fires, the radioactive contamination of vast areas of the environment, the 150,000+ nuclear refugees, the profound suffering, the deaths, and the direct and indirect economics costs which will amount to several hundred billion dollars.

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Russell's attacks on environmentalists are harmless fun but there's nothing funny about his distinction between the easily-preventable Fukushima nuclear disaster and "real problems", or his distinction between the suffering of Fukushima evacuees and "actual suffering", or his description of the Fukushima disaster as "benign".

The profound corruption of Japan's nuclear industry wasn't ordained, it wasn't inevitable. It was the result of the myriad of factors including the unwillingness of nuclear advocates to acknowledge or to do anything about serious problems in the industry they support.

Likewise, grossly inadequate nuclear safety standards in India, and grossly inadequate regulation, aren't inevitable. But that's the reality we're confronted with. India's Public Accounts Committee said in a report last year that the country's nuclear safety regime is "fraught with grave risks" and that the nuclear regulator is weak and under-resourced. In 2012, India's Auditor-General found that 60% of safety inspections for operating nuclear power plants were either delayed or not undertaken at all.

Likewise, the inadequate international nuclear safeguards system isn't set in stone, it isn't inevitable. But that's the reality we're confronted with. The former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Dr Mohamed El Baradei, says the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", that efforts to tighten the system have been "half hearted" and that the safeguards system runs on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department."

Attacking environmentalists might be good theatre but it doesn't solve the problems. By refusing to acknowledge or to do anything about the serious problems of inadequate nuclear safeguards and the multi-headed hydra of nuclear corruption, or other problems such as the nuclear industry's crude racism, nuclear advocates are their own worst enemies.

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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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