Australian uranium: feedstock for proliferation

August 31, 2005

The good news is that we don't know for sure that exported Australian uranium has been used in nuclear weapons programs since the late 1940s. The bad news is that we don't know it hasn't.

The regime designed to attempt to prevent military misuse of Australian obligated-nuclear material (AONM) — mainly uranium and its by-products such as plutonium produced in nuclear power stations — has the following elements:

  • Uranium exports are subject to Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) audits. Consignment weights are recorded and passed on to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  • All recipient countries must be signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the AONM must be subject to IAEA safeguards inspections.
  • In addition to IAEA safeguards, bilateral agreements must be in place between Australia and uranium customer countries.

The basic elements of this system were put in place in 1977 by then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser's Coalition government. But within months, the system was being watered down. As Mike Rann, now the premier of South Australia, noted in his 1982 anti-uranium mining book, Uranium: Play It Safe: "Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first."

A detailed critique of the safeguarding of AONM is provided by retired diplomat Professor Richard Broinowski in his 2003 book Fact or Fission? The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions. Broinowski details how the 1977 safeguards system was gradually weakened, and he discusses current problems: "Terms such as 'fungibility' and 'equivalence' are used by Australian nuclear officials to explain the fact that Australian uranium cannot be identified once it leaves Australian shores and enters the commercial international nuclear fuel cycle. Instead, it becomes a book-keeping entry. This is meant to ensure that somewhere in the complex international fuel cycle system, in some country, and in some form, an equivalent amount of material is not being used to make nuclear weapons. But the accounting method is tenuous, and subject to distortion or abuse...

"Despite assurances of the Safeguards Office to the contrary, it is not credible that none of this material has been lost through accounting errors, illegally diverted, or otherwise mishandled without detection..."

To take the case of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, accounting depends on estimates of the quantity of plutonium and other radionuclides contained in the spent fuel, and the accounting is further complicated by the inevitability that some material will be stuck in the reprocessing apparatus. So-called Material Unaccounted For (MUF) is commonplace. As ASNO concedes: "Every year inventory reports involving bulk material will include a component of MUF."

ASNO also claims that "to date, reported MUF involving AONM has been explained to ASNO's satisfaction". However, ASNO refuses to supply details of unaccounted AONM. Certainly there have been incidents of large-scale MUF in Australia's uranium customer countries such as Britain and Japan. Moreover, ASNO has not established a track record as an honest, independent regulator. It is pro-nuclear industry bureaucracy that routinely peddles pro-nuclear propaganda.

A further difficulty safeguarding AONM is its quantity, the variety of its forms, and the variety of locations and circumstances in which it is held. ASNO provides the following information on AONM held overseas — totalling over 100,000 tonnes — in its 2003-04 annual report:

  • Natural uranium: 20,262 tonnes (Canada, Euratom, Japan, South Korea and the US).
  • Uranium in enrichment plants: 8025 tonnes (Euratom, Japan and the US).
  • Depleted uranium: 67,823 tonnes (Euratom, Japan and the US).
  • Low enriched uranium 9056 tonnes (Canada, Euratom, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Mexico and the US).
  • Irradiated plutonium: 78 tonnes (Canada, Euratom, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and the US).
  • Separated plutonium: 0.6 tonnes (Euratom and Japan).

A further problem with uranium exports is that even if the uranium (or derivatives such as plutonium) is not used directly in military programs, it potentially frees up uranium from other sources — primarily domestically mined uranium ore — for use in military programs.

The industry-funded Uranium Information Centre states: "Australia's position as a major uranium exporter is influential in the ongoing development of international safeguards and other non-proliferation measures, through membership of the IAEA Board of Governors, participation in international expert groups and its safeguards research program in support of the IAEA."

However, successive Australian governments have used whatever influence they enjoy in support of flawed policies which undermine non-proliferation and disarmament objectives. The policies are largely driven by the commercial interests of the Australian uranium export industry and also by the military alliance between Australia and the nuclear-armed United States.

As Broinowski notes: "Australian diplomats may argue with their American colleagues at the margins, for example, over the desirability of the US ratifying the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, or interpretation of the fissile materials cut-off treaty. But what really shapes their position is the unstated but well-understood Australian government policy that its great protector — the US — should never forfeit its overwhelming superiority over all other nations in nuclear weaponry."

Bilateral agreements

The Uranium Information Centre states: "A further concern is that countries may develop various sensitive nuclear fuel cycle facilities and research reactors under full safeguards and then subsequently opt out of the NPT. Bilateral agreements such as insisted upon by Australia and Canada for sale of uranium address this by including fallback provisions, but many countries are outside the scope of these agreements."

However, it is unlikely that any country willing to pull out of the NPT would be concerned about abrogating its responsibilities under a bilateral agreement.

Bilateral agreements negotiated between the Australian government and uranium customer countries are not really any more stringent than the generic "peaceful use" provisions required by all uranium exporters. Australia insists on prior consent to enrich uranium beyond 20% uranium-235 (because highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear bombs similar to the one used by the US to destroy Hiroshima in 1945). But no country has requested permission to enrich uranium imported from Australia beyond 20%.

Australian bilateral agreements also require prior consent to reprocess spent fuel, since that means the separation of weapons-useable plutonium. But permission to reprocess has never been refused, even when this has led to the stockpiling of weapons-useable plutonium.

At least 600 kilograms of "unirradiated" Australian-obligated plutonium is stockpiled in Japan and Europe. About 80 tonnes of Australian-obligated "irradiated" plutonium is contained in spent fuel held at many locations around the world. A mere 10 kg is sufficient for a plutonium fission weapon of similar explosive yield to that which destroyed Nagasaki in 1945.

It is frequently claimed that the "stringent" conditions placed on AONM encourage a strengthening of non-proliferation measures generally, and that the more uranium exported from Australia the better because it means that a significant proportion of the world's uranium trade is covered by Australia's "stringent" conditions.

However, by permitting the stockpiling of plutonium the Australian government is not "raising the bar" but setting a poor example and encouraging other uranium exporters to adopt or persist with equally irresponsible policies. The Australian government does not have the authority to directly prohibit plutonium stockpiling, but it does have the authority to refuse international transfers and reprocessing of AONM and it could therefore put an end to the stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.

ASNO claims that it "monitors the quantities of Australian-obligated separated plutonium held under relevant agreements. If these quantities appear excessive relative to normal requirements the matter would be raised with the government concerned. To date it has not been necessary to do so."

It is difficult to comment on Australian-obligated plutonium stockpiles in Europe since successive governments have refused to detail which countries hold how much plutonium. But in at least some European countries holding Australian-obligated plutonium, the amount must be excessive in relation to civil uses since hardly any countries are engaged in plutonium breeder research programs, and the use of plutonium in mixed oxide fuel is also limited.

Japan is fast becoming drunk on plutonium. As at the end of 2003, Japan's holdings of unirradiated plutonium amounted to 5.4 tonnes, in addition to 35.2 tonnes of civil unirradiated plutonium held overseas and 105 tonnes of plutonium in spent fuel at reactor sites and reprocessing plants. Japan's plutonium stockpile, which includes Australian-obligated plutonium, is grossly excessive in relation to its limited use of plutonium in civil power and research programs.

'Impeccable credentials'

According to ASNO's John Carlson, "One of the features of Australian policy ... is very careful selection of our treaty partners. We have concluded bilateral arrangements only with countries whose credentials are impeccable in this area".

Nothing could be further from the truth. Australia sells uranium to a number of countries with poor nuclear credentials, including the US, which is breaching its NPT disarmament commitment in many ways: refusing to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty; making a mockery of the proposed fissile material cut-off treaty by blocking any inspection or verification measures; engaging in research on new generations of nuclear weapons; suggesting that it might begin nuclear weapons testing again; resuming the production of tritium for use in nuclear weapons, and using a "civil" power reactor to produce the tritium; acknowledging in the Pentagon's nuclear posture review that it intends to maintain its nuclear arsenal "forever"; embarking on nuclear co-operation with India (a non-NPT country); threatening first-use nuclear strikes; and developing a nuclear hit-list of seven countries, all of them NPT member-countries except North Korea, and five of them non-nuclear weapons states.

The disgraceful role of the US, and its manifold breaches of its NPT obligations, are ignored by Canberra. Successive Australian governments claim that the US is in compliance with its NPT obligations because of Washington's claimed reduction in the number of nuclear weapons it possesses. But even that solitary achievement is largely a function of creative accounting "worthy of Enron", according to the US Natural Resources Defense Council.

France and Britain are also customers for Australian uranium and, like the US, neither country has the slightest intention of fulfilling its NPT disarmament obligations. As IAEA director-general Mohammed ElBaradei noted in a 2004 speech: "There are some who have continued to dangle a cigarette from their mouth and tell everybody else not to smoke."

Australian uranium and Asia

Japan, a major customer for Australian uranium, has developed a nuclear "threshold" or "breakout" capability — it could produce nuclear weapons within months of a decision to do so, relying heavily on facilities, materials and expertise from its civilian nuclear program.

An obvious source of fissile material for a weapons program in Japan would be its stockpile of plutonium, including Australian-obligated plutonium. In April 2002, the then-leader of Japan's Liberal Party, Ichiro Ozawa, said Tokyo should consider building nuclear weapons to counter China and suggested a source of fissile material: "It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads; we have plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan, enough to make several thousand such warheads."

Japan's plutonium program increases regional tensions and proliferation risks. Diplomatic cables in 1993 and 1994 from US ambassadors in Tokyo described Japan's accumulation of plutonium as "massive" and questioned the rationale for the stockpiling of so much plutonium since it appeared to be economically unjustified.

A March 1993 diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Michael Armacost to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, posed these questions: "Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?"

Broinowski poses questions that the Australian government won't — and in some cases can't — answer: "How much AONM sold over the years to Japan has gone missing? How much of it now exists as weapons-grade uranium or plutonium ready to be put into Japanese nuclear weapons if the government decides to make them?"

Australian consent to the separation of Australian-obligated plutonium and its stockpiling in Japan should be withdrawn on non-proliferation grounds. That consent should also be withdrawn on the basis of the unacceptable safety record of Japan's plutonium/reprocessing program over the past decade.

South Korea is another major customer for Australian uranium with less than impeccable credentials. In 2004, South Korea disclosed information about a range of activities that violated its NPT commitments — uranium enrichment from 1979-81, the separation of small quantities of plutonium in 1982, uranium enrichment experiments in 2000 and the production of depleted uranium munitions from 1983-87.

Australia has supplied South Korea with uranium since 1986. It is not known — and may never be known — whether Australian-obligated nuclear materials were used in any of South Korea's illegal research. South Korea has acknowledged using both indigenous and imported nuclear materials in the tests, but denies that any AONM was used.

Canberra is now negotiating a bilateral treaty with China to permit uranium sales. China is a nuclear weapons state with no intention of fulfilling its NPT disarmament obligations, and it refuses to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty. Furthermore, under its current highly repressive and anti-worker regime, it is difficult to imagine a Chinese nuclear industry worker feeling free to publicly raise safety, security or proliferation concerns.

Following the recent US decision to engage in nuclear industry cooperation with India, two Australian government ministers are now arguing for uranium sales to India. But India is one of just four countries outside the NPT/IAEA regime. Australian uranium sales to India would clearly weaken the NPT.

[Jim Green is a nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.