Critique of the Uranium Information Centre

Jim Green

National nuclear campaigner - Friends of the Earth, Australia

jim.green@foe.org.au

2007

NUCLEAR WEAPONS

The industry-funded Uranium Information Centre (UIC) claims that "No nuclear materials such as uranium from the civil nuclear fuel cycle have ever been diverted to make weapons." <www.uic.com.au/introduction.htm> In fact, 'civil' nuclear facilities and materials have been used for nuclear weapons research in over 20 countries. Civil nuclear programs (all involving imported technology, facilities and materials to a greater or lesser degree) laid the foundation for full-scale nuclear weapons production in Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa and North Korea. Five countries have formally been found to have breached their NPT/IAEA commitments, others have failed to fulfill their reporting requirements without being formally breached, and the five 'declared' nuclear weapons states are arguably all in breach of their NPT disarmament commitments.

The UIC states: "The international safeguards system has since 1970 successfully prevented the diversion of fissile materials into weapons." <www.uic.com.au/nip05.htm>. Yes, but by facilitating nuclear technology transfer the International Atomic Energy Agency has also inadvertently facilitated a number of weapons programs. IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei has described the IAEA's basic inspection rights as "fairly limited", complained about "half-hearted" efforts to improve the system, and expressed concern that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department".  <www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/index.html>

The UIC states: "In fact the worldwide application of those safeguards and the substantial world trade in uranium for nuclear electricity make the proliferation of nuclear weapons much less likely. <www.uic.com.au/nip05.htm> Huh? Spreading the facilities and materials required to produce nuclear weapons makes proliferation much less likely? Have we missed something?!

The UIC states: "All documentation relating to [Australian Obligated Nuclear Material] is carefully monitored and any apparent discrepancies are taken up with the country concerned. There have been no unreconciled differences in accounting for AONM." <www.uic.com.au/nip05.htm> But there have been incidents of large-scale discrepancies - called 'Material Unaccounted For' (MUF) - in Australia's customer countries such as Japan. It's impossible to be sure whether MUF is the result of unavoidable accounting errors or diversion. Information on accounting discrepancies is kept confidential by the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office so the UIC has no more idea than the rest of us about the volumes involved, the countries involved, the plausibility of the various explanations given to explain discrepancies, etc. Lastly, the documentation that is "carefully monitored" is provided by uranium customer countries not by independent monitors, and customer countries are hardly likely to send Australia official notification that our uranium has been diverted for WMD production.

The UIC states: "Weapons-grade plutonium is not produced in commercial power reactors but in a "production" reactor operated with frequent fuel changes to produce low-burnup material with a high proportion of Pu-239." <www.uic.com.au/nip05.htm> However, the US government successfully tested a weapon using below-weapon-grade plutonium in 1962 (it is not publicly known whether it used reactor-grade plutonium or the intermediary category of fuel-grade plutonium). Further, the overwhelming weight of expert opinion holds that reactor-grade plutonium can be used in weapons, albeit the case that the process may be more dangerous and difficult, and the weapons may have a lower yield compared to those using weapon-grade plutonium. Two important points are not in dispute:
* Below-weapon-grade plutonium (reactor-grade or fuel-grade) can be and has been used in nuclear weapons.
* Using a power reactor to produce weapon-grade plutonium could hardly be simpler - all that needs to be done is to shorten the irradiation time, thereby maximising the production of plutonium-239 relative to other, unwanted plutonium isotopes. Indeed low burn-up, weapon-grade plutonium is produced in the normal course of operation of a power reactor, although in the normal course of operation it becomes fuel-grade then reactor-grade plutonium.

The UIC states that the Iraqis "were clearly in violation of their NPT and safeguards obligations, and the IAEA Board of Governors ruled to that effect." The IAEA gave Iraq the tick of approval every single year despite its massive nuclear weapons program. The program was uncovered and destroyed after the 1991 war and it was only then that the IAEA determined that Iraq was in violation of its obligations. Contrary to claims from the UIC and other such bodies, the Iraqi weapons program used IAEA-safeguarded facilities as well as separate, clandestine facilities.

WASTE

The UIC claims that "nuclear power is the only energy-producing industry which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and fully costs this into the product." <www.world-nuclear.org/education /ne/ne5.htm#5.2> Oh really! That will be news to BHP Billiton, which has a radioactive tailings stockpile of 100 million tonnes at Roxby Downs, growing at 10 million tonnes annually and with no long-term plans for its management. And to the privatised nuclear utility British Energy which has received bail-outs of many hundreds of millions of dollars to address waste, decommissioning and other issues. And to British Nuclear Fuels, whose radioactive discharges pollute the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the Norwegian coast and the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. And to countless other nuclear organisations around the world.

The UIC states: "In all countries using nuclear energy there are well established procedures for storing, managing and transporting such wastes, funded from electricity users. Wastes are contained and managed, not released. Storage is safe and secure, plans are well in hand for eventual disposal." <www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm> The US, Sweden and Finland are said to be the most advanced countries in relation to high-level waste disposal, but the US Yucca Mountain project has been a $10 billion fiasco which is 19 years behind schedule; Sweden has yet to decide on a location for a permanent repository; and Finland will begin studies in 2007 on a site which may or may not prove to be suitable for a permanent repository.

SAFETY / ACCIDENTS

The UIC purports to demonstrate that nuclear power is far safer than alternative energy sources including hydro. <www.uic.com.au/nip14.htm> How does it come to this conclusion? By considering only immediate deaths rather than long-term deaths from routine emissions or fallout from Chernobyl. Using dose estimates and risk factors from the 'official' bodies (IAEA, UNSCEAR, ICRP): routine emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are responsible for about 80,000 fatal cancers (two million person-Sieverts / 0.04 fatal cancers per person-Sievert) and Chernobyl is responsible for 24,000 deaths (600,000 person-Sieverts). Of course, applying risk estimates (with their uncertainties) to dose estimates (with their margin of error) is less than precise. But the nuclear industry's solution - to pretend that its emissions have no impact whatsoever - is disingenuous.

The UIC states that: "The risks from any conceivable nuclear plant (advanced reactor type) in Australia would be even less than those from other Western plants operating worldwide since the 1960s, which have not caused any loss of life in almost 12,000 reactor years of operation." <www.uic.com.au/nip44.htm> That ignores cancer deaths from routine nuclear fuel cycle emissions.

The UIC states: "Low levels of radiation comparable to those received naturally in some places (up to 50 mSv/yr) are not harmful." <www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm> In fact, epidemiological studies simply cannot resolve the question, so the basis for radiation protection standards around the world is the 'linear no threshold' (LNT) hypothesis which assumes that the risk is proportional to the radiation dose and that there is no threshold below which radiation is safe. An important recent study by the US National Research Council has added significant weight to the LNT model and the associated risk estimates. Chair of the Council's research panel, Professor Richard Monson, concluded: "The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial." <www.nap.edu/books/030909156X/html>.

The UIC states: "According to authoritative UN figures, the Chernobyl death toll is 56 (31 workers at the time, more since and 9 from thyroid cancer)." <www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm> In fact, a 2005 UN report estimates the total death toll at about 9,000, and there are credible scientific studies estimating a far greater death toll.

OTHER ISSUES

The UIC falsely claims that: "Nowhere in the world is nuclear power subsidised." <www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm> Twaddle. See the paper on nuclear subsidies at <www10.antenna.nl/wise/630-31/main.php>.

The UIC questions a US study which found that energy conservation is seven times more cost-effective than nuclear power in reducing greenhouse emissions. <www.uic.com.au/nip43.htm> Numerous studies support the general finding that energy efficiency is far more cost effective than nuclear power - see section 8 of the report at: <www.panda.org/downloads/climate_ change/fullnuclearreprotwwf.pdf>.

The UIC states: "In the US, a new public coalition for Clean and Safe Energy announced last week is being headed by Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore ... to promote nuclear energy." (Courier Mail, 4/5/06.) It is dishonest for the UIC to fail to acknowledge that Moore and the 'Clean and Safe Energy' coalition are funded by the nuclear industry - specifically, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The 'coalition' is a corporate front group (as is the UIC).

The UIC states: "Doubling the world's nuclear contribution would eliminate at least one quarter of the CO2 emissions from power generation." (Courier Mail, 4/5/06.) But if considering all emissions (not just the power sector, which accounts for about 30%), and allowing for a period of some decades to build hundreds more reactors, the greenhouse reduction is just 4-5% - a modest reduction given that the reactors would cost several trillion dollars to build and would produce over one million tonnes of spent nuclear fuel and enough plutonium to build over one million nuclear weapons. And that modest reduction assumes that coal is the reference point. Nuclear is more greenhouse-intensive per unit of energy produced or saved than most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures.