For most Australians nuclear issues are the concern of other nations, largely because we don't, and are most unlikely to ever have, domestic nuclear reactors. But as home to one third of the world's uranium Australia is a significant player in the global nuclear game and we are playing an increasingly irresponsible hand.
Today in Canberra representatives from the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons will have a rare window of opportunity to put their case to a Parliamentary committee as to why Australia should not sell uranium to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The UAE is country with an illiberal government situated in one of the world's most insecure regions. The commercial interests of multi-national uranium producers have been prioritised over the wider national interest. Instead of industry assurances it is now time to test the claims - and examine the costs - of Australia's uranium industry.
The value of the employment and economic contribution made by the Australian uranium sector is consistently exaggerated while its risks and liabilities are routinely played down. When it comes to jobs and dollars uranium is a small contributor to Australian export revenue and employment, but when it comes to global impact and risk Australian uranium is in the major league.
From 2002 to 2011, uranium sales averaged $627 million annually and accounted for only 0.29 per cent of all national export revenue: small beer, but with a big hangover.
The industry's contribution to employment in Australia is also underwhelming. The World Nuclear Association estimates 1760 jobs in Australia's entire uranium industry. This is the highest of all estimates yet it represents just 0.015 per cent of the jobs in Australia. While small industrial sectors can play an important economic role, the unique properties and risks of uranium relative to its meagre employment and economic benefits means it requires particular scrutiny.
The Australian Conservation Foundation recently used industry data to examine the sustained gap between the promise and the performance of the Australian uranium sector. The report Yellowcake Fever: Exposing the Uranium Industry's Economic Myths highlights the urgent need for an independent cost-benefit analysis and a comprehensive and transparent assessment of Australia's uranium trade.
In relation to the proposed UAE deal, Foreign Minister Bob Carr talks of its importance in "underpinning jobs and investment in Australian uranium mines" while the Department of Foreign Affairs states there is "strong commercial interest in the long term amongst Australian uranium producers in supplying uranium to the UAE".
Supporters of the sale deal have again put the promise of dollar signs ahead of the reality of danger signs. They have shirked an opportunity to increase scrutiny of Australia's under-performing uranium sector and failed to either address the poor democratic record of the UAE or voice any criticism about crackdowns on democracy activists making modest calls for political reform in a country where the "Arab Spring" has not yet sprung.
The UAE is a collection of seven emirates including Abu Dhabi and Dubai and has one of the least participatory political systems in the world. In 2012 more than 50 human rights activists in the UAE were rounded up and detained without charge following calls for political reform. Several pro-democracy NGO's including the US-funded National Democratic Institute and the German-funded Konrad Adenauer Foundation were forced out of the country and Amnesty International expressed concerns over torture.
The planned uranium sale treaty currently before the Federal Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, states that the agreement "shall remain in force for an initial period of thirty years and upon expiry of this initial period shall be renewed automatically for successive thirty year periods", meaning Australia would be locked in to supply uranium irrespective of political changes or upheavals in the region.
Despite the federal government's repeated insistence that the uranium must and will only be used for peaceful purposes, there is clear evidence that international nuclear safeguards are stressed, under-resourced and effectively impossible to police. To simply state that Australian uranium will not be misused is naïve and lacks credibility.
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