Australian yellowcake fuels Ukrainian fires

Dave Sweeney

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

As the deeply disturbing events unfolding in the Ukraine highlight, troop mobilisations, sabre-rattling and suppression of civilian critics are becoming the hallmarks of President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Australia, along with most Western nations, has condemned the Russian escalation and called for restraint and dialogue. Such a call is important but needs to be accompanied by action to ensure it penetrates the thick walls of the Kremlin.

One clear and potent action that Australia could take to amplify our diplomatic dissent would be to halt our fledgling yellowcake trade with Russia. Uranium is a dual use fuel: it provides the power fuel for nuclear reactors and the bomb fuel for nuclear weapons − and the distinction between the two sectors is more one of political convenience than practical effect.

Russia's arsenal of over 14,000 nuclear weapons has an explosive yield equivalent to 200,000 Hiroshima bombs and President Putin has stated that any reduction in these numbers would only serve make its nuclear arsenal "more compact but more effective". Putin has declared that a nuclear arsenal "remains one of the top priorities of Russian Federation policy" and that Russia will develop "completely new strategic [nuclear] complexes."

In both 2007 and 2008 Russia threatened Poland with nuclear strikes from missiles it would base at its enclave of Kaliningrad following Polish approval for US missile defence bases in Poland.

Australia's connection with the Russian nuclear industry escalated in 2007 when Prime Minister John Howard and President Putin inked a uranium supply agreement at the APEC summit in Sydney.

The deal was widely criticised by environment, proliferation and human rights groups, delayed by the political fallout from Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia and subject to detailed assessment from the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), the Federal Parliament's watchdog of Australian treaty deals and international agreements.

JSCOT heard evidence highlighting concerns and deficiencies within the Russian nuclear industry, including an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimate that only half of Russia's nuclear materials have been reasonably secured. Informed by these real world concerns and evidence, JSCOT recommended a mix of caution and action in relation to planned Australian uranium sales.

The majority JSCOT report argued that the government should not advance any sales until a series of essential pre-conditions were met. These included a detailed analysis of Russia's nuclear non-proliferation status, the complete separation of Russia's civil and military nuclear sectors, reductions in industry secrecy, independent safety and security assessments of Russian nuclear facilities and action on nuclear theft and smuggling concerns.

Importantly JSCOT urged that "actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs" at any Russian sites that may handle Australian uranium and recommended that "the supply of uranium to Russia should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out."

Despite these concerns successive Australian governments have furthered the fiction that the Russian nuclear sector is secure and safe. And put undue and unproven confidence in the myth that nuclear safeguards − meant to stop the cross-pollination of the military and civil nuclear sectors − actually work. International inspections and scrutiny are limited or absent and perceived commercial interests have been given precedence over proven safety and security concerns.

In late December 2010 the first shipment of Australian uranium, sourced from Energy Resources of Australia's troubled Ranger mine in Kakadu − itself the site of a spectacular and severe contamination event last December − arrived in Russia.

The former Chair of JSCOT, Labor MP Kelvin Thompson, has made an urgent called for the uranium sales deal to be reviewed in the light of current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. And it would appear most Australians agree with this common sense proposition. A 2008 survey found 62% of Australians opposed uranium exports to nuclear weapons states compared to 31% in favour. An International Atomic Energy Agency survey of 1,000 Australians in 2005 found 56% believed the IAEA safeguards system was ineffective − nearly double the 29% who considered it effective.

Putting the promises of an under-performing resource sector ahead of evidence-based assessment has seen Australia squander a real chance to advance nuclear non-proliferation − however, we still have the ability and the responsibility to make a difference. Foreign Minister Bishop must stop wringing hands and act decisively to halt any chance of fuelling arms.

President Putin's civil atomic aspirations exceed the capacity of Russia's nuclear sector while his military ones have no place on a habitable planet. Neither should be fuelled by Australian uranium.

Dave Sweeney is nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation