Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 02:23 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 02:23 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Russia and our uranium


Rory Medcalf


17 September 2008 17:24

Jim Green from Friends of the Earth had this to say about my post on Australian uranium sales to Russia:

Medcalf says that the issue turns fundamentally on the issue of  safeguards...[yet] safeguards are all but non-existent in Russia. Evidence from a number of sources (and presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties) indicates that the only IAEA safeguards  inspections in Russia took place in 1991, 1994 and 2001, and there  certainly weren't any inspections from 2002-07. I'd like to think  Medcalf will now oppose the Howard/Putin deal on the strength of that  information, but I doubt he will. He also fails to make the point that  Russia is a belligerent nuclear weapons state which could not credibly  be said to  be honouring its NPT disarmament obligations — which alone  is reason enough to oppose the deal.

Steady on there, Jim. Nowhere did my post say that the issue 'turns fundamentally on the issue of safeguards'. Rather, the point of my piece was twofold: to refute the suggestion that Russia would have a motive to divert Australian uranium for weapons; and to identify the policy considerations that will have to go into any final Australian decision about uranium exports to Russia.

This was meant not as pro-Putin advocacy but rather as an aid to policy analysis. In that spirit, it is only fair to point out that the suggestion that safeguards are 'all but non-existent in Russia' should be read alongside this background material, which notes an Australian expectation that inspections would increase in tandem with Russia's use of foreign-sourced nuclear materials.

As to the rest of Jim's riposte, one wonders precisely how meaningful or helpful the term 'belligerent nuclear weapons state' might be. Is it a nuclear-armed state that is involved in a non-nuclear war (in which case we might as well define, say, the UK as one for as long as its soldiers are returning fire at the Taliban)?

As for the suggestion that Australia should not export uranium to NPT states that 'could not credibly be said to be honouring' their NPT disarmament obligations, that is a whole different debate, which opens up its own much wider set of questions — including whether Australia should break off uranium deals with the US, UK, France and China. Certainly Australia should put pressure on the NPT nuclear-weapon states to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, and to get serious about disarmament, but an instant freeze on nuclear trade with them is not a credible option. 

Australia's approach to uranium sales should take into account safeguards, proliferation concerns, an assessment of the reliability and motives of the country in question, judgments about the geopolitical importance of that country as a partner for Australia, and a sense of the likely net effect of the decision on Australia's reputation, security and economy. If Russia ends up falling foul of such a composite test, then Jim and I just might find ourselves in agreement. In the meantime, I certainly continue to accept that the Russia uranium deal was something Australia could have done without.