Ukraine nuclear fears partly fuelled by Australian uranium

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south eastern Ukraine is the largest in Europe.

Most would not know, and would probably be shocked, that Australian uranium is being exported to Ukraine. Less than a year ago, the first shipment landed in Ukraine.

The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) approved the export plan, even though the committee’s investigation conceded existing safeguards were “not sufficient” and there was a risk Australian nuclear material would disappear off the radar.

Before the uranium left last April, many, including the federal parliament’s treaty review committee, raised serious safety and security concerns about where it would end up.

Uranium is a dual-use material that can be used for civil power production or diverted for far less civil purposes.

Along with the notorious Chernobyl plant, Ukraine has an aging fleet of 15 reactors — two-thirds of which have now exceeded, or are at, their design life use-by date. This radioactive material, now absorbed into Ukraine’s aging nuclear sector, is fuelling uncertainty.

On February 24, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had not been able to gain access to key nuclear facilities in Ukraine. As it had already downgraded Ukraine’s nuclear transparency, there is a real threat that this uranium has disappeared.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s (ACF) 2017 submission to JSCOT highlighted how Ukraine’s nuclear sector was plagued by serious and unresolved safety, security and governance issues and that some reactors had been the focus of armed assaults.

ACF told a parliamentary inquiry in 2016 on planned uranium sales to Ukraine that “there are serious and unresolved nuclear safety and security issues with Ukraine’s nuclear sector that would be exacerbated by the proposed treaty action”.

It also said there were “serious containment and waste management issues” at Chernobyl where authorities were still trying to "enclose the stricken reactor complex and reduce the chances of further radioactive releases”.

There are also "deep concerns over those parts of the Ukrainian nuclear sector that are not yet infamous names, including very real security concerns about nuclear facilities being targeted in the [then] current conflict with Russia”.

It went on to mention the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, Europe’s largest, was just 200 kilometres from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine at that time.

“Advancing a bilateral agreement with Ukraine would not significantly affect Australia’s exports. Ukraine’s intention to increase external uranium purchases offers Australian producers the chance of a portion of a potential market valued between $A20–50 million. This is simply an equation where scant return directly entails — and fuels — considerable risk.”

ACF recommended then that Australia instead “help enhance energy security in Ukraine” through the provision of smart and sustainable renewable energy systems and resources. “Nuclear electricity has extremely high capital costs and is centralised and risky, while renewable energy is faster to deploy, more flexible and fit for purpose, as well as safer and cheaper.”

Today, ACF is keen to find out what steps the federal government and its agencies are taking for a proper risk assessment, along with a contingency plan to remove Australian nuclear material, if that is needed.

Although JSCOT ultimately recommended the uranium deal, it made it conditional, saying the Australian government must “undertake a proper assessment of risks, and develop and maintain a suitable contingency plan for the removal of Australian nuclear material if the material is at risk of a loss of regulatory control”.

Whether from unsecured nuclear material, Chernobyl or other compromised nuclear facilities, or the horrific prospect of nuclear war, the Ukraine conflict sharply highlights radioactive risk.

Ukraine urgently needs hostilities to cease and the world needs a comprehensive transition to renewable energy systems that cannot be so easily weaponised.

[Dave Sweeney is a spokesperson for the Australian Conservation Foundation.]