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Uranium sales to China just too risky

By Jim Green - posted Tuesday, 28 February 2006


An SBS-commissioned Newspoll of 1,200 Australians last September found that 53 per cent were opposed to uranium exports to China, with just 31 per cent in favour. Nevertheless, on January 17 the federal government began negotiating a bilateral uranium export agreement with a Chinese delegation and the negotiations will continue in the coming weeks and months.

The negotiations provoked a ferocious editorial in the January 21 Taipei Times:

One can almost hear the Australian government's saliva collecting in its mouth at the prospect of selling billions of dollars of uranium from its huge reserves to an eager customer for decades to come. Never mind that the customer is an unstable Third World despot with a big chip on its shoulder - and the owner of nuclear warheads and other munitions pointing in potentially inconvenient directions for Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Russia, India and Taiwan, not to mention US bases in the region.

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The Taipei Times editorial continued:

We can expect to hear a lot of highfalutin language from Australia in the weeks to come about the need to modernize China and the role “clean” nuclear energy can play in a country desperate for fuel. Such “global citizen” shtick won't wash. All of this is happening as evidence emerges of tawdry connections between DFAT and the Australian Wheat Board, which is under investigation for feeding massive bribes to Iraqi officials while former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was still in power.

Yu Jie, a Beijing-based human rights advocate with the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, wrote in the February 10 Sydney Morning Herald:

But Australian authorities blithely plan to export uranium ore to this highly dangerous regime, one side willingly believing a series of agreements ... that this uranium ore will not be used for military purposes. But when have the Communist Party authorities genuinely respected international agreements? The European Union should not lift the weapons embargo against China, and Australia should not export uranium ore to China. This shortsighted behaviour can in the short term bring a definite economic benefit. But in the long term it will inevitably endanger world peace.

According to journalist Paul Davey's feature article in the February 1 Bulletin, concerns about the uranium export negotiations are also held in Washington, albeit more discretely, while Beijing hopes to use the negotiations not only to secure uranium but also to drive a wedge between Washington and Canberra.

The proposal to export uranium to China clearly raises some difficult questions. What are the implications of selling uranium to China given that the Communist Party regime maintains a nuclear weapons program, the media is tightly censored, state repression remains harsh and consequently civil society organisations are weak, human rights abuses are common and often severe, and little is known about the health and environmental aspects of its nuclear industry?

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China's nuclear weapons program

Could we be sure, or even confident, that Australian uranium would not end up in Chinese nuclear weapons - and if it was, would we find out? China claims that it is not currently producing fissile material for its weapons program, but there is no independent verification of the claim. If the production of fissile material has indeed been suspended, there is of course no certainty that production will not be resumed.

It is generally believed that China has sufficient fissile material for a modest upgrade of its nuclear arsenal, but would need to produce more fissile material for a significant upgrade. By far the most likely driving force for a significant upgrade is China's concern about the United States' missile defence program. China has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and justifies that decision with reference to the US missile defence program.

By supporting the US missile defence program, Australia may be encouraging China to expand its nuclear arsenal while also providing the raw material through uranium exports.

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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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