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Australia's nuclear connections

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 13, 1996) For a number of years a key commonwealth Government department, and an unknown number of bureaucrats and diplomats, have been promoting nuclear power behind the backs of Australian public.

(463.4605) Jean McSorley - This cabal believes that it is acceptable to actively promote nuclear power overseas, even though it is banned in Australia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the promotion of nuclear power by Australian agencies, particularly in neighbouring states like Indonesia, ignores the wishes of the majority of Australians. In a democratic country press, public and parliament deserve to know what their public servants do overseas, particularly on an issues as crucial as nuclear power. Australian officials, mainly in the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Australian Nuclear Science an Technology organisation (ANSTO) are getting away with all manner of subversive activities.

Korea moves
In early 1996 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans, committed A$6 million (US$4.25 million) towards the oil deal made between the U.S. and North Korea- some estimates have put Australia's total contribution at A$45 million. The money would form part of the deal for two light-water reactors promised to North Korea in return for it abandoning its current nuclear program. The Australian contribution is small change considering the overall price tag of A$2-4 thousand million per reactor. Australia volunteered to chip in, but that's hardly surprising once Washington had indicated that it expected a helping hand from its chums. Initially DFAT officials flatly denied the existence of this deal. Only weeks later the commitment for the first $6 million was announced.

The two promised reactors will produce enough plutonium for 100 bombs per annum- far more than the rather small reactor Korea currently operates. This important point seems to have escaped any real scrutiny. A comparison also worth noting is that the possible $45 million on offer represents approximately ten years Federal Government spending on solar power. It is unclear when this deal was discussed and who was involved. The media assumed that the deal is a good thing. Some people believe, however, that it was wrong to bow to the implied threat that Pyongyang was pursuing a weapons program. Many think it's the best of a bad deal because it lessened tensions on the Korean peninsula. That might well be true, but before approval there should be some form of parliamentary scrutiny, at least, for it might be that we are going down a very dangerous path.

This is only one of the many matters relating to the nuclear industry and Australia's role that should be of serious concern. Uranium mining does not exist in a void- it is only worth dragging out of the ground if there is somewhere to sell it. There fore the uranium market will always have to be led by reactor sales. Uranium got Australia into the internal nuclear club, however, uranium sales were more of a by-product of the promotion of nuclear technology and nuclear power. Australia actively takes part in this promotion only partially because there might be the opportunity to sell uranium. There are no huge financial rewards for Australia from uranium sales. Much of the uranium dollar goes off-shore. Our selling of uranium only muddies the waters and compromises us in a number of areas. Genuine efforts to improve matters, like Australia's work on the international liability regime, are undermined by private company activities which continue to promote dual use civil/military nuclear technology, particularly reactors. Notwithstanding the above, it is more important politically at present for Australia to continue to be actively involved in nuclear matters because this gives us access to key international fora. Unfortunately most of those fora promote or support nuclear power.

Nuclear clout
Australia sill clings to the permanent regional seat of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It also co-ordinates the fifteen nation Regional Co-operation Agreement (RCA) under the auspices of the IAEA. The IAEA, perceived by many as the main international nuclear watch- dog, actually acts as international sales promoter for the nuclear industry. Indeed, the IAEA's supervisory role came well after the agency was established to promote nuclear power. Nuclear energy is the only electricity system that enjoys the support of a UN-backed agency (the IAEA), so companies like Mitsubishi and Westinghouse benefit from unwitting taxpayers the world over. The RCA was established to promote the spread of nuclear information, technology and science. Australia, which pays a certain amount directly into the IAEA's general coffers, also pays an additional amount towards RCA activities.

ANSTO fosters the myth that it is important for our technicians to have a hand in the nuclear power programs of developing countries because of our 'technical expertise'. It is claimed that we could be a real aid to Indonesia. This somewhat overlooks the expertise of the Japanese and American engineers who will build and operate plants - and who have far more knowledge of full scale commercial nuclear plants than Australian technicians. It also ignores the fact that Australia's own reactor at Lucas Heights is more a bi-plane compared to the Stealth Bomber that the Advanced Pressurised Water reactor proposed for Indonesia represents. There is also the laughable notion that ANSTO can give the Indonesians advice on how to deal with radioactive waste, yet it has fail to properly manage even a small proportion of its own nuclear garbage. The DFAT submission to the 1993 Research Reactor Review noted that without a new reactor Australia might lose its already slender grasp on nuclear matters! It's fairer to say that by taking part in the RCA Australia gets to send it scientists to nuclear installations that are far more modern than our own.

So, Indonesia doesn't gain technologically from Australia. However having Australia's moniker on a technical co-operation agreement means Jakarta gains massively in the political stakes. In a world where many countries are complaining about their nuclear neighbours' programs, Australia's actions do not square. Austria, for example, protested vigorously against plans by Germany to operate a reprocessing plant near their shared border. Vienna has even offered money to the Czech republic if it would close its nuclear plants. Ireland is considering legal action against the British government over the Sellafield operations. Yet the Australian government has persisted in chasing the nuclear technology and science deal with Jakarta.

Nuclear obsession
If the claim of helping on the technological front doesn't add up, then what is behind Australia's obsession with Indonesia's nuclear industry? There's no doubt that Australia would like to have a lot of access to Indonesia's nuclear plants. There is a strong belief that the original 'deal' the Australian Government presented for signing in 1992 requested more access to Indonesia's nuclear facilities than even the IAEA would hope to get. Indonesia's Research & Technology Minister, B.J.Habibie, refused to sign that deal at the last minute.

In 1994 the deal was described as being in 'the diplomatic wilderness'. However, it is still on the table and, as Jakarta's nuclear plans take a big step forward in 1996, it is expected it will be dusted off for new negotiations. It is worth remembering that this agreement, plus a further bilateral agreement on uranium sales, has to take place before any Australian uranium can be sold to Indonesia. It is the IAEA's role in international affairs, and there are few more powerful organisations, which attracts Australia.

Our continuing IAEA role gives us the ability to operate more freely in the nuclear field than should, by rights, be allowed by our level of nuclear technology. Of course, it would not be a bad thing if Australia were in there pushing for stricter safeguards, a separation of promotion and watch- dog activities and stringent safely laws. If Australia did that it would, more than likely, lose its Board of Governors seat. So, Australia has to be part of the promotional stakes to keep within the upper echelons of the Agency.

Thus, the place in the hierarchy becomes the thing in itself- not uranium per se. Without that wider nuclear activity Australia would drop further down the list of 'countries that count'. Along with the alliance - even in regions of seismic activity, or in countries where there are no real rules governing the operation of plants and where public input is ruled out.

Nuclear Asia
It is not just Indonesia and North Korea that stand to benefit from Australia's nuclear largesse. A couple of years ago the head of ANSTO let slip that it had been advising China on how to develop its next reprocessing plant- so that Synroc technology could be utilised. At the time those discussions were taking place China was not a full signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Indeed, as one of the elite club of five nuclear weapons states, China does not have to allow full safeguards on all its nuclear facilities. Australia often bends the rule. In late 1993 Minister for Foreign Affairs Evans let slip that Australia was looking at ways to sell uranium to Taiwan via a third party. Taiwan is not an NPT signatory. An added concern to all the nuclear promotion going on is the absence of nuclear liability agreement. There's is no insurance policy to cover countries bordering nuclear states, making it doubly foolhardy to encourage nuclear plants. In the event of another major nuclear accident Australia, as a 'senior' member of the IAEA, would be liable to a higher share of the joint compensatory package primarily because we sell uranium. The implications of this have not been widely acknowledged, let alone discussed. To give an idea of the scale of things, Chernobyl cost the USSR Government in the region of US$30-300 thousand million.

Perhaps we should not be looking to these obscure areas, when all around there are more disconcerting and blatant examples of Australia's involvement in the nuclear industry. Australia sells uranium to two of the known weapons states- the UK and the US. In late 1994 the Australian Government decided to lift the ban against uranium sales to France and only belatedly rescinded this after the French announced the resumption of nuclear weapons testing. (the restrictions where lifted again on October 21, see WISE NC 461.4575) Australia has also given the green light to the Japanese nuclear fuel cycle, which includes prior sanction to a massive reprocessing and plutonium separation facility in Rokkasho in northern Honchu. There is no question that the Japanese plutonium program is used as a justification, excuse and incitement for the nuclear programs of others. North Korea certainly made much of this when wrangling with the IAEA over inspection rights. South Korea, which accounts for 10 per cent of all Australian uranium sales, only abandoned its clandestine nuclear weapons program as late as 1992.

The example of South Korea also raises other issues. The nuclear industry there does not publish details of routine discharges from nuclear plants. Like many other countries Australia trades with, South Korea does not comply fully with IAEA guidelines on nuclear power development. These guidelines, which are not legally enforceable, are meant to represent some sort of standard or aim. It's doubtful that any countries we deal with on nuclear matters fully comply with IAEA recommendations.

Only recently we discovered that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had also been funding 'technical assistant grants' for part of the RCA nuclear technological program. The meaning of this has to be investigated. Australia does part fund the ADB, so is this another avenue for funnelling nuclear money into the region? Why should we get so worried if these projects are only for reactors for medical isotopes? One reason is that Iraq's nuclear weapons program started with a medical isotope reactor. Thanks to lobbying by NGOs of ADB in mid 1995 the bank will now not fund nuclear power. Unfortunately decades of experience with the international nuclear industry tell us it is capable of some terrible things. How can we account for the licensing of massive radioactive discharges from the Sellafield plant? Who will justify the US testing radioactive materials on its own citizens, or the unthinking contamination of communities by the Russians? Would you excuse the French occupation and weapons testing in Polynesia?

There are those naive, cynical or ignorant enough to think Australia's role in the nuclear industry enhances its international standing. That's not true. This country should stand alongside the weapons states and others who have contaminated this planet, and be charged with aiding and abetting criminal activities.

Source: Chain Reaction (Australia), July 1996
Contact: Friends of the Earth Australia, PO Box 45, O'Connor, ACT, 2602 Australia.
Tel: +61-6 257 1657