Yellowcake under Mr Howard has become just another trade commodity - no more special than bananas. With a federal election around the corner which is likely to oust an increasingly unpopular government, just how reasonable is it for the Prime Minister to be striking a deal this week that will utterly and finally reverse Australia’s once-cautionary approach to who gets our uranium?
After India and China, Russia is the next customer, even though it still has a stockpile of 10,000 nuclear weapons and an appalling record on nuclear safety and human rights. This nuclear colossus hasn’t yet ratified the International Atomic Energy Agency additional protocol, meaning it would be subject to even less stringent verification procedures than those that apply to China.
Russia cannot seem to break with KGB-style assassinations as the nasty death by radioactive poisoning of dissident Alexander Litvinenko shows. Neither does it take criticism lightly as 14 journalists already killed under the Putin regime would indicate. The Kremlin has, according to Russian pro-democracy leader Garry Kasparov, “zero obedience to the rule of law”.
Let’s be clear. Russia is a regime riddled with corruption that's not going to take Australia's namby-pamby safeguards agreement too seriously.
Russia doesn’t need our uranium for its power generation. Even if it were to build 30 new reactors in the next 30 years, none will be using our uranium for at least 15 years. More likely, our uranium will be used to downgrade the 700 tonnes of highly enriched uranium stockpiled from the early round of dismantling for on-selling to the United States where most of it has gone so far, or to Syria or Iran.
Since there is no way of guaranteeing that our uranium would be used for peaceful purposes, our test of fitness to receive it should be based on disarmament and proliferation. On both counts Russia fails. Like all other nuclear weapon states, Russia is actively engaged in nuclear re-armament. “Modernisation” is the euphemism it prefers.
In the post-Cold War world order, Russia’s nuclear weapons program still generates a great degree of international instability. President Putin recently announced that his long-range bombers would resume, for the first time since the 80s, their routine flights around the globe. And plans are afoot to double combat aircraft production by 2025, with more nuclear missiles.
There is a build-up of nuclear weaponry around the world and Russia’s dismantling of a few thousand obsolete nukes in favour of newer, nastier but fewer bombs is no comfort to the rest of the world. Russia, like all other nuclear weapons states, flouts the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty every day.
Russia is either unwilling or unable to stop nuclear material getting into the wrong hands. From 2001 to 2006, there were 183 reported trafficking incidents involving nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union.
Most discussion about a nexus between nuclear trafficking, organised crime and terrorism has focused on the former Soviet Union, particularly Central Asia and the Caucasus. According to the US-based Arms Control Association, these regions house a large number of “insufficiently secured” nuclear facilities in close proximity to trafficking routes for drugs and small arms.
Most trafficking is in low-grade nuclear material from medical and industrial facilities abandoned by the military. However, 10 of the known trafficking incidents from 2001 to 2006 involved highly enriched uranium. On three occasions, the uranium had an enrichment level greater than 80 per cent - suitable for making a nuclear bomb.
In 2002, Chechen rebels stole nuclear material from a Russian nuclear power plant, and in 2003 two individuals attempted to acquire 15kg of uranium allegedly for use in a radioactive bomb to be detonated in St Petersburg.
Admittedly, proliferation-significant cases - where kilogram-level quantities of weapons-grade materials are trafficked - have dropped off since the 1990s. But the absence of evidence of more recent cases is not evidence of absence.
Investigations of trafficking incidents usually focus on the seller of the uranium with no attempt to uncover wider networks. Communication among governments in the region is poor, and many borders are unprotected because of internal disputes. Most customs officials aren’t trained to realise the significance of trafficking in nuclear materials.
These realities are well known to our Government. It cannot claim ignorance. The deal to Russia carries grave risks that no responsible government should find acceptable. Mr Howard seems mystified that the polls show him losing the next election. Perhaps the gay abandon with which he hands out favours to mining companies and untrustworthy governments has something to do with it.