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Australia's bargain basement Boxing Day special on uranium

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 9 December 2011

How low can Australia go with uranium export policy? Can we match the bargain-basement Boxing Day specials? You bet we can. We now have uranium export agreements with all of the 'declared' nuclear weapons states – the U.S., U.K., China, France, Russia – although not one of them takes seriously its obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue disarmament in good faith. That weakness, among others, is now being used to justify disregarding the NPT altogether with sales to India. Selling uranium to countries in breach of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms violates Australian government policy and binding Labor platform policy. That's pretty low.

We claim to have championed the adoption of 'Additional Protocols', agreements that provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with somewhat greater powers to uncover covert weapons programs. But we waited until all of our customer countries had an Additional Protocol in place before making it a condition of uranium sales, that's not leveraging improvements in the safeguards regime, it's low-brow PR.

We claim to be working to discourage countries from producing fissile (explosive) material for nuclear bombs, yet we export uranium to countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. And we give Japan permission to separate and stockpile plutonium although that stockpiling has fanned regional proliferation risks and tensions in North-East Asia for many years.


In 1993, cables from the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"

Australia's response? We have weakened the previous policy of requiring case-by-case permission to separate and stockpile plutonium, and we now give Japan open-ended permission. That's pretty low. In theory, Australia has a relatively 'strict' policy of requiring Australian consent to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium. In practice we have failed when put to the test and permission to separate plutonium has never once been refused.

We sell uranium to countries with a recent history of weapons-related research. In 2004, South Korea disclosed information about a range of weapons-related R&D over the preceding 20 years. Australia has supplied South Korea with uranium since 1986. We don't know whether Australian uranium or its by-products were used in any of the illicit research in South Korea. The attitude from the Howard government and its safeguards office was 'see no evil, hear no evil'.

The 2006 approval to sell uranium to China set another new low: uranium sales to an undemocratic, secretive state with an appalling human rights record (such as jailing nuclear whistle-blowers). That precedent was reinforced with the subsequent approval of uranium sales to Russia (another undemocratic nuclear weapons state, though Russia prefers to deal with dissidents by poisoning them with radioactive polonium).

The Russian agreement set a new low: uranium sales to a country that is very rarely visited by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspectors - just two inspections over the past decade. Federal parliament's treaties committee recommended against uranium sales to Russia until some sort of safeguards system was put in place, only to have its recommendation ignored.

Another new low with the Russian agreement: we granted permission to Russia to process Australian uranium at a nuclear plant that is entirely beyond the scope of IAEA inspections. The IAEA has no authority to inspect the plant even if it had the resources and the inclination to do so.


The decision to sell to India sets a new low: uranium sales to a country which is outside the NPT altogether and is not subject to the requirement of the 'declared' weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. As former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt recently said: "The discrimination is in India's favour, not against it."

And another low: India would be the only one of Australia's uranium customers that is definitely continuing to produce fissile material for weapons (China may also be doing so).

And another low: we take pride in Australia's 'leadership' role in the development of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty yet we sell uranium to countries that have signed but not ratified the CTBT (the U.S and China) and the government now plans to sell uranium to India, which has neither signed nor ratified the CTBT. The CTBT remains in limbo because those three countries, and a few others, refuse to ratify it.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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