EnergyScience Coalition Submission to the Australia 2020 Summit
Uranium and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation
We, the undersigned members of the EnergyScience Coalition, call on the Australia 2020 Summit to recommend that the federal Government initiate a wide-ranging, independent public inquiry into the Australia's uranium export industry, in particular the contribution of the industry to nuclear weapons proliferation risks.
The uranium industry and its supporters routinely claim that the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 'ensures' that Australian uranium (and derivatives such as plutonium) will not be used in nuclear weapons. However, only a fraction of safeguards-eligible nuclear facilities and stockpiles are actually inspected by the IAEA. The Director-General of the IAEA, Dr Mohamed El Baradei, is remarkably frank about the limitations of safeguards. In speeches and papers in recent years, Dr El Baradei has noted that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities", "clearly needs reinforcement", and runs on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to a local police department" (statements posted at: <www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/index.html>.)
The problems with - and limitations of - safeguards are many and various and are detailed in the papers listed below. Suffice it here to mention one intractable problem. Nuclear accounting discrepancies are commonplace and inevitable due to the difficulty of precisely measuring nuclear materials. The accounting discrepancies are known as Material Unaccounted For. This problem of imprecise measurement provides an obvious loophole for diversion of nuclear materials for weapons production. In a large plant, even a tiny percentage of the annual through-put of nuclear material will suffice to build one or more weapons with virtually no chance of detection by IAEA inspectors. Australia's uranium has resulted in the production of over 103 tonnes of plutonium. If just 0.1% of this plutonium is written off as Material Unaccounted For, that is sufficient for 10 plutonium bombs similar to that which destroyed Nagasaki. Government agencies refuse to release MUF figures; for plutonium, it may well be significantly greater than 0.1%.
In addition to IAEA safeguards, countries purchasing Australian uranium must sign a bilateral agreement. However there are no Australian inspections of nuclear materials stockpiles or facilities using Australian uranium – Australia is entirely reliant on the partial and underfunded inspection system of the IAEA.
The most important provisions in bilateral agreements are for prior Australian consent before Australian nuclear material is transferred to a third party, enriched beyond 20% uranium-235, or reprocessed. However no Australian government has ever refused permission to separate plutonium from spent fuel via reprocessing (and there has never been a request to enrich beyond 20% U-235). Even when reprocessing leads to the stockpiling of plutonium (which can be used directly in nuclear weapons), ongoing or 'programmatic' permission has been granted by Australian governments. Hence there are stockpiles of 'Australian-obligated' separated plutonium in Japan and in some European countries.
As for the alleged benefits of the industry:
* Uranium accounts for just one-third of 1% of Australia's export revenue (0.32% in 2005, 0.25% in 2006, and an estimated 0.35% in 2007). The industry makes an even smaller contribution to employment in Australia.
* Claims about the greenhouse 'benefits' of nuclear power typically ignore more greenhouse-friendly renewable energy sources and the use of several types of renewables to supply reliable base-load power (e.g. geothermal, bioenergy, solar thermal with storage, and sometimes hydro). Furthermore, as the limited reserves of high-grade uranium ore are used up and low-grade ore has to be used, greenhouse emissions from mining and milling uranium will become substantial. Nuclear power, based on existing technology, is not a long-term solution to global warming.
We call on the Australia 2020 Summit to recommend a wide-ranging, independent public inquiry to reassess the risks and benefits of the uranium export industry. The inquiry should also consider the role of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO). ASNO makes any number of absurd and demonstrably false claims about the uranium industry and nuclear power. For example, ASNO claims 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 meet their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty), with states with a history of covert nuclear weapons research based on their "civil" nuclear programs (such as South Korea and Taiwan), and states (including the USA) blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.
Other claims by ASNO that are demonstrably false include the assertion that safeguards "ensure" that Australian uranium will not contribute to weapons proliferation, that all nuclear materials derived from Australia's uranium exports are "fully accounted for", and that nuclear power does not present a weapons proliferation risk.
At best, ASNO 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, ASNO 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.
EnergyScience Coalition Signatories:
* Prof. Richard Broinowski
* Genevieve Kelly
* Dr Bill Williams
* Prof. Jim Falk
* Dr Sue Wareham
* Prof. Brian Martin
* Dr Mark Diesendorf
* Dr Peter Christoff
* Dr Alan Roberts
* Assoc. Prof. Tilman Ruff
* Dr Jim Green
* Dr Gavin Mudd
The EnergyScience Coalition comprises scientists, engineers, doctors and policy experts. The Coalition is supported as a community service by the Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Melbourne. <www.energyscience.org.au>
More information on safeguards and proliferation issues:
*** Medical Association for Prevention of War & Australian Conservation Foundation, "An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards",
*** Professor Richard Broinowski, "Fact or Fission? The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions", Melbourne: Scribe, 2003.
*** Nuclear Safeguards and Australia's Uranium Exports <www.foe.org.au/campaigns/anti-nuclear/issues/mining/UraniumSafeguards.do....
*** EnergyScience Briefing Paper #19, "Who's Watching the Nuclear Watchdog? A Critique of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office", <www.energyscience.org.au>.