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New Risks from Australia Russia Uranium Deal

By James Norman - posted Friday, 19 November 2010

Late last week on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in South Korea, Prime Minister Julia Gillard ratified a deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that should send shockwaves through the Australian electorate.

The ratification of the Australia Russia nuclear cooperation agreement will see Australia opening new uranium markets to a country with the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and largest stockpile of weapons-usable material, much of it inadequately secured. For the Gillard Labor government, it seems to be just another case of "business as usual" in Australian politics, in which our country's resources are sold off to the highest bidder, regardless of the dangerous impacts such sales add to geo-regional security.

While the Australian government and the Australian Uranium Association will insist that such sales will be limited to civilian nuclear power programs, we know that Russia has the world's worst record of nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination of the global environment. Moreover, we know that Russia, currently the worlds biggest nuclear weapons holder, continues to develop new nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and continues to fail in its legal obligations to disarm.


The hypocrisy of the Labor Party over these sales is evident for all to see, as is the secrecy surrounding a deal that is done on the sidelines of the G20 rather than in the proper light of Australian public scrutiny. The Australian public has a right to ask why we would be choosing to sell Australian uranium to a country that falls outside of reasonable expectations for democratic transparency and due process in dealing with the most potentially lethal substance on earth.

The fact is that Russian nuclear facilities remain effectively off-limits to international inspectors meaning Australians have no transparent means of ensuring Australian uranium is not being directed toward military purposes. We know for example that there have been no inspections by the global regulatory body the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Russian nuclear facilities since before 2001.

In 2008 the Rudd governments Joint Standing Committee of Treaties (JSCOT) pointed out that uranium sales to Russia should not proceed unless significant security measures were addressed. Few if any of these measures have been addressed since then. The JSCOT argued against ratification of the Howard-Putin uranium agreement until "IAEA inspections are implemented for Russian facilities that will handle Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials". This seems a reasonable recommendation to make, but it was rejected by the Labor Government.

With regard to Russia, the Committee's recommendation was that Australia should not go ahead with exporting uranium until "Russia's reform process to clearly separate its civilian nuclear and military nuclear facilities is clearly and independently verified." It seems like a reasonable minimum requirement, but this has not happened - yet Gillard still gave the uranium sales the big tick from Australia last week in South Korea.

As far as global terrorism and the specter of uranium falling into the hands of international crime gangs, as recently as last week reports emerged of smuggled nuclear materials surfacing in the region where these sales will be directed. The Guardian reported evidence of highly enriched, untraceable uranium on sale on the black market along the former fringes of the Soviet Union.

A trial in Geogia last week revealed how an international police sting netted the highly enriched uranium being smuggled on a train from Yerevan to Tbilisi inside a lead-lined cigarette package. The shocking case revealed how the critical ingredient for making a nuclear warhead is reasonably easy to smuggle past a ring of US-funded radiation detectors along the border of the Soviet Union.


There is another factor that should be front-and-centre of our minds as Australia charts this pernicious new course. When Kevin Rudd was elected to office he stated clearly his shared a vision with Barack Obama that now was the best chance we have ever had to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all. Unfortunately, as things stand, we cannot be absolutely confident that Australia's uranium exported to Russia will not end up in a Russian or a terrorist nuclear weapon.

With an arsenal of around 12000 nuclear weapons (worryingly the exact number is not attainable), Russia remains a block to global expectations for nuclear disarmament, and Australia's uranium sales to this nuclear rogue nation will be unwelcome news to peace loving people all over the world.

James Norman is communications coordinator for ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

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About the Author

James Norman is communications coordinator for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. He is a contributor to The Age, The Australian and the Herald Sun. He also wrote Bob Brown's biography for Allen & Unwin.

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