Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 09:30 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 09:30 | SYDNEY

Maintaining our nuclear edge


Martine Letts

20 September 2010 08:45

Richard Broinowski is right when he argues that a debate on Australia's energy future should examine the hazards as well as the advantages of nuclear technology and the comparative costs of nuclear versus other low-emission technologies. None of the informed commentary on this matter suggests that nuclear is the only option for replacing fossil fuels as base-load power generation. Nuclear power can only be part of a broader energy mix for the great majority of countries, unless one is prepared to take the French route, which is not contemplated for Australia.

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is very happy with its OPAL reactor (pictured), but I think it is fair to say that ANSTO itself is highly conscious that Australia is falling behind in many aspects of nuclear technology and know-how. It is not able to engage much with global research and technology such as the international fusion project (ITAR) for the production of cleaner, safer power than nuclear fission.

On the question of our permanent seat on the Board of Governors, the IAEA Statute remains our best guide. There are 13 designated (or permanent) seats on the Board of Governors and 22 elected. The 22 elected states cannot serve consecutive terms, and have to scramble for election among a pool of 141 IAEA members. 

Article VI.1 of the IAEA Statute says that the 'outgoing Board of Governors shall designate for membership on the Board the ten members most advanced in the technology of atomic energy including the production of source materials, and the member most advanced in the technology of atomic energy including the production of source materials' in eight geographical areas (North America ; Latin America; Western Europe; Eastern Europe; Africa; Middle East and South Asia; South East Asia and the Pacific; Far East).

Australia is the only designated member for the South East Asia and Pacific region. That seat relies upon our production of source material (uranium) and our nuclear research infrastructure, and upon the fact that none of our neighbours have nuclear power. Losing our seat will not depend on the 'whim' of our South East Asian neighbours, but on the strong likelihood that we will be overtaken by one of them. 

Having a permanent seat at the table makes it much easier to pursue non-proliferation diplomacy. Not having that seat would mean we would need work that much harder with shrinking diplomatic resources, and in particular shrinking nuclear diplomacy expertise.

Finally, it would be interesting to learn from Richard which nuclear weapons programs Australian-obligated nuclear materials has ended up in, and how.

Image courtesy of ANSTO.