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Who's watching the nuclear watchdog?

By Richard Broinowski and Tilman Ruff - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

Australia has been poorly served by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, the Commonwealth agency tasked with preventing nuclear proliferation dangers associated with Australia's uranium exports. Its failures are so numerous and significant that, along with other members of the EnergyScience Coalition, we have written a comprehensive critique of the Office and call on the federal government to establish an independent public inquiry.

The Safeguards Office makes the absurd claim that Australia only sells uranium to countries with "impeccable" non-proliferation credentials. In fact, Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapon states (all of which are failing to fulfill their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) as well as with states with a history of covert nuclear weapons research based on their "civil" nuclear programs (such as South Korea and Taiwan).

The government also permits - and the Safeguards Office supports - uranium sales to countries (including the United States) which are blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.


Now the government proposes allowing uranium sales to India, not even a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a serious blow to the international non-proliferation regime yet has been met with silence from the Safeguards Office.

Last year's debate on uranium sales to China showed the Safeguards Office at its worst. In testimony to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, the Office did not know the number of nuclear facilities in China, nor how many or which of these would process uranium and its by-products. Nor did it know how the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) selected nuclear facilities for inspection. The Safeguards Office was dismissive of China having the worst record of exports of proliferation-sensitive materials and know-how of any of the nuclear weapon states.

The Safeguards Office routinely misleads us when it asserts that nuclear safeguards "ensure" or "provide assurances" that Australian uranium will not contribute to weapons proliferation. These assurances contrast with the frankness of Dr Mohamed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, who acknowledges that the international safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", not least because it runs on a "shoe string budget", and that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted".

The Safeguards Office claims that all nuclear materials derived from Australia's uranium exports are "fully accounted for". That claim is false. There are frequent accounting discrepancies involving Australia's nuclear exports. What the Safeguards Office means when it says that nuclear material is "fully accounted for" is that it has accepted all the explanations provided by uranium customer countries for accounting discrepancies, however fanciful those explanations may be. Secrecy is another feature of the Safeguards Office - it refuses to provide specific or even aggregate data on nuclear accounting discrepancies.

Perhaps the most misleading of the claims made by the Safeguards Office is its repeated assertion that nuclear power does not present a weapons proliferation risk. In fact, power reactors have been used directly in weapons programs. Some examples include India, which is reserving eight out of 22 power reactors for weapons production; the use of a power reactor in the United States to produce tritium, used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons; and North Korea's use of an "Experimental Power Reactor" to produce plutonium for weapons.

Nuclear power programs also indirectly facilitate weapons programs by providing a rationale for acquiring proliferative technologies such as research reactors, uranium enrichment plants and reprocessing plants.


The IAEA, the US Department of Energy and other authorities consider almost all plutonium to be weapons-usable, yet the Safeguards Office continues to claim that plutonium derived from power reactors is not suitable for weapons. This is not only wrong; it is dangerous.

The inevitable conclusion arising from our detailed critique of the Safeguards Office (posted at is that, at best, it is ineffectual, providing an illusion that an independent agency is protecting the interests of the Australian people when it comes to the vital matter of preventing nuclear proliferation. At worst, the Safeguards Office serves the commercial interests of the nuclear industry and the political interests of those who promote it, and contributes more to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation than to the solutions.

We call on the federal government to establish an independent public inquiry to review all aspects of the Safeguards Office - its performance; scientific and technical expertise; whether its current management, organisation and relationships best serve its mandate; any conflicts of interest; whether it has sufficient independence; and options for reform. The inquiry should be adequately resourced, and should have powers similar to those of a Royal Commission to access witnesses, documents and other evidence.

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First published in the Herald Sun on September 3, 2007.

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About the Authors

A writer and Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney, Richard Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat. He was Ambassador to Vietnam (1984-87), the Republic of Korea (1987-89) and Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba (1994-97). He was General Manager of Radio Australia from 1990-91.

Richard's latest book is Fact or Fission - the Truth about Australia's Nuclear Ambitions, which was published by Scribe in 2003.

Tilman Ruff is Associate Professor in the Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne and Australian chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Richard Broinowski
All articles by Tilman Ruff

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