Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:46 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:46 | SYDNEY

Russia and Australian uranium: A dangerous mix?

23 November 2009 08:40

Sandra Hajda is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She has written on Russian politics for The Seminal and covered Australian foreign policy for Pickled Politics.

Australian uranium interests are intensifying their campaign for new mines, state government support and a ratified export deal with Russia. Predictions for huge export growth and whispers about unprecedented profits for the lucky companies (very likely to be foreign) that corner the market have had an intoxicating effect.

Australia's reserves of yellowcake (the largest in the world) are ripe for the picking. Only anti-proliferation groups, environmental interests, a Labor history of opposition to new mines and a few reluctant state governments stand in the way. But these voices are at risk of being drowned out by a crescendo of demands to cede ground. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a crossroads have been reached — Labor must clarify its uranium policy and decide (among other things) whether it will ratify a uranium export deal with Russia, a potential billion dollar trade partner.

To gain perspective on Labor's present policy muddle we must go back to 2007, a huge year for Australian uranium. In September 2007, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian president to set foot on Australian soil when he signed a pivotal trade deal (with then-Prime Minister John Howard) to export Australian uranium to Russia, for use in Russian power plants. A minor media uproar ensued: the Putin Administration was regarded with suspicion and a huge chunk of the Australian public was opposed not only to exporting uranium but to the very mining of uranium.

Fast forward one month. On 16 October 2007 Putin flew to Iran to participate in the Second Caspian Summit. It was an 'informal' summit between the leaders of the Caspian sea states — Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan — and as presidential engagements go, it shouldn't even have made a blip on the radar. 

The reason it was watched by the world's media with such anticipation was uranium. Iran's spurning of UN Security Council demands that it halt uranium enrichment had left the world reeling. Many called for decisive action, certain that Tehran was harboring nuclear weapons ambitions. Putin — who attended the Caspian summit despite Russian intelligence service reports that suicide bombers might try to kill him in Tehran — had opposed the use of force and sanctions against Iran, and Russia was in the process of constructing Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

After meeting Iran's leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the summit, Putin announced that 'Iran is an important regional and global power' and that '(Caspian states) all have the right to develop peaceful nuclear programmes.' This was read as a sign of dangerous permissiveness: the Russian president was not prepared to acknowledge what much of the world perceived as Iran's 'rogue-ishness' and untrustworthiness. Could Russia, then, be trusted with Australia's uranium? Was there a possibility that it would end up in Iranian hands?

In early 2007 the Labor Party (still in opposition) abandoned its policy of blocking new uranium mines (a policy it had held since 1982). When it returned to power, Labor honoured the 'new mines' policy change. Exports to Russia are still on the agenda too.

These days, only minor parties like the Greens are on uranium watch. Greens Senator Kerry Nettle said in 2007 that 'there are a number of instances of Russia transferring nuclear fuel and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran' and that 'Russia had made clear that if they receive Australian uranium, they will be able to use their own uranium for the production of more nuclear weapons.'

In the first case Nettle was referring to the fact that Russia is building the Bushehr plant. The concern that Russia imports uranium so it can use its own stocks for dubious purposes (producing nuclear weapons, or transferring fuel to Iran) is an oft-raised one. Putin responded to it directly (and rather bizarrely) in 2007 by saying: 'If we have a need to sell uranium to other countries, our resources, our own resources, are sufficient.'

A bit like easing a salesman's concerns by saying 'you may as well sell me your weapons... if I wanted to go on a violent rampage, the rifle I have under my bed is sufficient!' It may have been a public relations gaffe, but technically Putin was correct. The World Nuclear Association figure for Russia's uranium deposits is impressive — the country is home to about 500,000 tonnes of the silvery-white metal.

Interestingly, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responds to concerns in exactly the same way. The standard line is:

  1. Russia has lots of weapons grade uranium anyway, so exporting to them won't make a difference.
  2. Russia regularly down-blends uranium from weapons-grade for use in its power plants. Clearly this is not a country scavenging for something it can make a weapon out of.
  3. Russia is only permitted to transfer Australian uranium to a third country with Australia's consent.
  4. Russia has made encouraging noises like undertaking a treaty-level commitment to use Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials for peaceful purposes and 'promising' to provide detailed nuclear accounting information to the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO).

Reservations still exist, and Labor has held back from ratifying the agreement. For all the fuss and noise, exports to Russia continue along lines established in 1990.

In 2008 Russia robbed itself of a ratification by coming down heavily on Georgia. There were whispers that a Labor-dominated committee which met in late 2008 with the aim of ratifying the agreement took the Georgia war into account when they decided to hold off. Libya and Iraq also did Russia a disservice when their nuclear programs were revealed. Jacob Saulwick reports in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

Despite ASNO's assurance that Russia was moving towards separating its civilian and military nuclear operations, and would allow inspectors in to monitor the civilian sites, the committee remained uncomfortable. ''While the committee notes ASNO's assurances, the committee also notes that … IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards failed to discover the efforts of Iraq and Libya to develop nuclear weapons,'' the committee's report said. For ASNO's critics in the nuclear non-proliferation movement, the report vindicated their view that Australia had little control over what happened to uranium once it leaves the country. Against Russian threats of an economic backlash, the Government has been sitting on the treaty since.

Last month the same committee met yet again and 'deliberately chose to focus on non-proliferation, at the expense of uranium exports, to secure a unanimous viewpoint.'

But Labor will eventually be forced to answer for its indecisiveness as nuclear interests up the pressure. The mining sector will encounter opposition from the press, from reluctant state governments and because of good old-fashioned policy inertia. Anti-nuclear activists are bound to up their campaigning too, as uranium interests begin to make aggressive moves. Then there is the big X factor of climate change, which has proven so influential in this area of policy. Iran's next move could have a big an impact too, just because of the paranoia it will encourage.

For now, the Australia-Russia uranium coin is flipping in the air.