Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 08:23 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 08:23 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Australian atoms

22 September 2010 17:21

Richard Broinowski writes:

Martine Letts is right – ANSTO is apparently happy with its Argentine-designed OPAL research reactor, but only for the last 12 months or so. From its hot commissioning in 2006 until last year, it was out of action because of persistent problems with fuel plates and leaks.

I have seen nothing to suggest that such 'teething' problems are over, or that Australian public health has suffered as a result of the reactor not being able to produce radio pharmaceuticals, as proponents of a new research reactor claimed would be the case.

Australia gained its regional seat on the IAEA Board in 1957, when we had plenty of uranium, but before we had any research reactors – we acquired HIFAR in 1958 and MOATA in 1961. Other countries in our region were also given research reactors courtesy of Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, but we continued to have the lead in nuclear expertise.

I argue that we could lose our seat at the whim of our neighbours because my understanding is that they, not the IAEA, decide who represents them on the Board. If, for example, Vietnam or Indonesia acquire a power reactor on a turn-key basis from Korea or Japan or France, our neighbours could switch allegiance.

Not that this would matter. Martine talks about the vital need for Australia to have an IAEA Board seat to strengthen our 'nuclear diplomacy'. We did have a vigorous program under Hawke and Keating, especially when Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister. But since the Howard Government, our nuclear diplomacy has been timid and our Board seat a wasted opportunity.

The IAEA is underfunded and yet Australia has done little or nothing to lobby effectively for more money. We have been afraid of joining any neutral group in the UN, such as the Middle Powers initiative, which lobbies for genuine nuclear reforms. We claim to support nuclear disarmament, but have done next to nothing to get the Nuclear Weapons States to begin a program of genuine disarmament as they are required to do according to Article VI of the NPT.

The motivation in such a pusillanimous policy seems to be fear of upsetting the US. Meanwhile, the Japan-Australia initiative has lacked conviction and guts, especially since both countries are so dependent on the American nuclear umbrella.

Finally, Martine asks me to say which nuclear weapons states have used Australian uranium in their weapons. It was specifically used in American and British weapons throughout much of the Cold War period. And before comprehensive IAEA safeguards were imposed on the international uranium trade, Australia sold several tonnes of unsafeguarded uranium to France, India and Japan in the 1960s. Uranium sold to Finland ended up being re-processed in the Soviet Union, which disposed of the radioactive tailings at its own discretion, possibly re-enriching them for nuclear weapons. 

At least twice in her post, Martine refers to 'strict Australian safeguards', yet such safeguards, tabled in parliament by Malcolm Fraser in 1977, have been attenuated ever since by commercial considerations until they mean very little. Breaking a most important safeguards principle, we now sell through the US to at least one non-signatory to the NPT, Taiwan, and will probably also soon sell to another, India. We no longer tell customer countries they have to seek our case-by-case approval before they can enrich, transfer or re-process our uranium.

We rely on the dodgy doctrine of 'equivalence', a book-keeping attempt to trace fungible Australian-obligated nuclear material (AONM) as it disappears into an increasingly complex international nuclear industry. We have adopted the equally dodgy practice of book transfers and 'flag-swapping', dictated by commercial convenience, by which the origin of uranium changes as it passes from one country to another. We seem unconcerned that, even where we can be certain that AONM is only used for peaceful purposes, its availability frees up the probability of other atoms being clandestinely used in nuclear weapons programs.

My point is that our safeguards represent a less and less watertight system in an increasingly volatile and commercially competitive world. Rather than putting the onus on me to prove that Australian uranium is not being diverted to nuclear weapons programs, I suggest to Martine that her question should more properly be directed to the Australian Safeguards Office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It claims certainty that Australian uranium is completely safe from diversion to weapons. But as our uranium continues to find new markets, this claim looks increasingly unconvincing.