Uranium Policy a Hypocrisy

Published on
by
The Age (Australia)

Uranium Policy a Hypocrisy

by
David Noonan

Australia mouths non-nuclear platitudes on the world stage while quietly adding to the problem with exports to China.

AS CHINA celebrates the 60th anniversary of communist rule with a slickly orchestrated march down the Avenue of Eternal Peace to Tiananmen Square that featured new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is a fitting moment to question Australia's role as uranium supplier to the crouching tiger of our region.

After the United Nations Security Council, with a push from US President Barack Obama, agreed to a historic resolution last month to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Australia needs to consider whether we see our future as supplying China's uranium market. We also need to assess the broader effects of Australia's uranium exports on nuclear non-proliferation, regional security and China's human rights record.

One of Kevin Rudd's early initiatives as prime minister was to establish the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, co-chaired by former foreign minister Gareth Evans, saying this would be ''our gift to the world''.

Unfortunately, Australia can never credibly lead on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament while spreading nuclear risks as one of the world's largest uranium suppliers. The mismatch between Australia's rhetoric and the illusion of protection provided by nuclear safeguards is stark in the case of China.

As a uranium exporter, Australia has a responsibility to strengthen nuclear safeguards and to act decisively to disqualify any state that does not fully observe its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. China is modernising - rather than eliminating - its nuclear arsenal and has so far failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China is one country that does not meet its non-proliferation treaty obligations.

BHP Billiton's plan to expand the Roxby Downs (Olympic Dam) copper and uranium mine is being considered by the federal and South Australian governments. BHP proposes the world's largest open pit mine as a uranium quarry to fuel the global nuclear industry, with much of its efforts directed towards China. BHP's plan would see Australia selling uranium-infused bulk copper concentrate for processing in China, transferring more than a million tonnes a year of radioactive waste and thousands of tonnes of uranium.

Australian uranium will effectively disappear off the safeguards radar on arrival in China, a country whose military is inextricably linked to the civilian nuclear sector and where nuclear whistleblowers and critics are brutally suppressed and jailed. This alone is reason to disqualify China from acquiring Australian uranium.

In July, a well-known environmental activist and recipient in 2006 of the prestigious Nuclear-Free Future Award, Sun Xiaodi, and his daughter Sun Dunbai were jailed and sent to a ''re-education through labour'' camp for their efforts to expose corruption and contamination in China's nuclear industry.

Sun Xiaodi is a former worker at No. 792 Uranium Mine in Gansu province in north-west China. Since 1988, the whistleblower has travelled repeatedly to Beijing to petition the Government to end corruption in China's nuclear industry and to speak out for the rights of uranium mine workers.

According to Chinese court documents, the crimes Sun Xiaodi and Sun Dunbai are guilty of include inciting the public with libellous slogans including "nuclear pollution" and "human rights violation". In reality, Sun Xiaodi and Sun Dunbai are paying a very high price for speaking out.

Australians should recognise that it is not appropriate for us to export uranium to a government that does not tolerate criticism of its nuclear industry and fails to meet minimum international human rights standards. We should also be mindful that our commitments to non-proliferation are in conflict with our ''dual use'' uranium sales.

Australian uranium produces plutonium - a potent bomb-making material - in nuclear reactors overseas. Australia consents to the separation and stockpiling of this plutonium through the ''reprocessing'' of spent nuclear fuel waste in a number of countries, including China. While our Government says that the plutonium is only to be used for peaceful purposes, we are in effect being asked to trust this and every future Beijing regime.

Nuclear waste management remains unresolved around the world. With the future of high-level nuclear waste accumulating at reactor sites across the US still unresolved after 50 years of the nuclear industry, how can BHP provide any credible assurances on nuclear waste management in China?

Australia is strutting the international stage claiming credentials as a regional democratic voice, nodding our head in agreement with the US President's call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, while propping up the nuclear sector in a China that is suppressing human rights, modernising its nuclear weapons arsenal and engaging in building nuclear reactors in Pakistan that will increase plutonium production capacity.

Australia's reputation and nuclear-safeguard responsibilities should not be further compromised to suit BHP Billiton's commercial interests. The first shipment of Australian uranium that BHP has now sent to China should be the last.

The only potentially credible future for BHP's Roxby Down mine and the proposed expansion is to trade only in copper and to leave the uranium and other radioactive wastes at the mine site.

David Noonan is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear-free campaigner.

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