Prime Minister Howard's call for a 'full-blooded' debate about nuclear power has unleashed a flood of dangerously deceptive propaganda about the capacity of Australian uranium to save the planet from global warming. Nuclear power, whether fuelled by Australian uranium or not, will not peg back carbon emissions in the time or to the extent required. Large amounts of energy from hydrocarbons are needed to mine and enrich uranium. It also takes about ten years to plan and construct a nuclear reactor, and several more of trouble-free operation before the reactor has 'paid back' the carbon emissions generated in setting it up in the first place. If nuclear power is to make any difference, it must massively substitute for coal and gas-fired generators right now.
But that will not happen. A number of countries plan to build new nuclear power plants, but nowhere near enough. Certainly the world's two biggest emitters of hydrocarbons, China and India, are building several new nuclear reactors. But they are also building much larger numbers of coal and gas-fired plants. India, for example, must bring on line a new one-thousand megawatt power plant every month for ten years to maintain an eight percent growth rate. The ratio of nuclear power in India's total electricity production may rise, but only from two to about ten percent of the whole. The remainder will continue to be generated by a mixture of coal, gas, hydro, with a tiny percentage based on new technology, including wind, biomass and solar. Meanwhile, China plans to increase its contribution from nuclear power to only four percent of total electricity generated by 2020, but renewables by up to 12 percent by the same year.
These matters will continue to be analysed as Howard's debate develops, although his panel of nuclear experts is unlikely to recommend renewable sources of energy. Here, however, I will concentrate on another aspect of the nuclear issue that I believe should be given equal consideration: the international security implications of Australian uranium exports. For several reasons I believe that this is a particularly dangerous time for Australia to be contemplating increasing them.
"Mr Howard's nuclear debate looks increasingly like a political and personal charade, the main purpose of which is not to clarify nuclear issues but to wedge the Labor Party in the lead-up to next year's general election."
First is the inability of Australian or international officials to trace with certainty where already-exported Australian originating nuclear material (AONM) has gone, and what it is used for. The quantities are not small. They include over 20 000 tonnes of natural uranium, 20 000 tonnes of enriched uranium, 50 000 tonnes of depleted uranium, and nearly 60 tonnes of plutonium - one of the two nuclear isotopes from which atomic bombs are made. The original Australian safeguards conditions of 1977, based on the findings of the Ranger Uranium Inquiry initiated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, were among the tightest in the world. But through years of commercial pressure and government back-down, they have been diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. Book transfers, flag swaps, the doctrine of equivalence and multi-labelling have seen to this. As well, customer countries have been allowed to enrich, transfer and reprocess AONM without strict case-by-case approval.
Nor are International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards a secure back-up. The Agency doesn't have enough funding to keep all the world's civil reactors under tight surveillance, and even if it did, a number of countries deny access. For example, at last count (April 2006), China allows IAEA access to only one of its power reactors, one research reactor and one enrichment plant. This despite a previously inflexible rule that AONM must be subject to IAEA surveillance as well as Australian safeguards in all facilities in which it is used.
Second is the probability, sooner or later, of international nuclear terrorism, and the possibility that AONM will be used in it. This could take the form of an attack on a poorly-guarded nuclear reactor fuelled with Australian uranium, a radiological bomb using conventional explosives to scatter radioactive debris in urban areas, or the detonation of a simple atomic bomb smuggled into a major city and assembled in a basement. In his recently-published book Nuclear Terrorism - the ultimate preventable catastrophe (Times Books, 2004), Harvard academic Graham Allison supports CIA estimates that more than 20 terrorist groups are currently pursuing such weapons. They include Russian Chechens, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.
Third is the incipient breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Drafted by the United States in the 1960s, it came into force with strong international support in the 1970s. Its central tenet, contained in Article VI, was a solemn mutual undertaking that the then-established nuclear weapons states would negotiate the reduction and eventual dismantling of their nuclear arsenals in exchange for a promise by the non-nuclear weapons states that they would neither make nor acquire nuclear weapons. But none of the weapons states has honoured this undertaking. And several non-weapons states, tired of the hypocrisy of nuclear weapons states claiming they need nuclear weapons for their security while denying the same right to non weapons states, continue to try to develop weapons of their own. Others, not signatories of the Treaty, have gone further and built nuclear weapons and delivery systems, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and possibly, North Korea.
Fourth is the aggressive policy of President George W Bush to expand United States' nuclear war-fighting doctrine to establish global military hegemony. His nuclear policy review of 31 December 2001 created a new land, sea and air-launched triad of offensive nuclear and conventional strike systems. This and his national security strategy of September 2002 reversed some time-honoured American nuclear principles that discouraged the use of nuclear weapons in war and proscribed their use against states not possessing them. President Bush has now given himself moral permission, nay duty, to establish a new liberal democratic world order, and in doing so, to launch pre-emptive nuclear attacks against any country (or sub-national group) that his advisors recommend targeting.
Meanwhile, United States scientists and nuclear engineers are researching and developing new generations of nuclear weapons, including 'mini-nukes' and 'bunker busters'. These activities, coupled with America's determination to develop a missile defence system to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear hard rain, has caused other countries to strengthen their own nuclear forces. In particular, Russia and China, determined not to allow the credibility of their own nuclear forces to be weakened, are quietly increasing and improving their own nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Threshold nuclear weapons states like Iran and North Korea are even more determined to take their own nuclear route.
Against this background, President Bush's recently-announced Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which attempts to contain proliferation by restricting to 'friendly countries' the capacity to enrich or reprocess uranium, is likely to fail. So will existing international arrangements to restrict trade in weapons and dual-use technology, such as the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Exchange Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists observed in September/October 2005, A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani physicist who sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, may have performed a valuable service by vividly revealing just how ineffectual the multilateral non-proliferation export control system has become. Its sluggish and cumbersome machinery cannot keep pace with the nimble activities of proliferators and terrorists.
Let us now return to Prime Minister Howard's debate, and his push to increase the sale of Australia's uranium. At least twice in recent nuclear history, Australian governments have acted with clear-minded purpose to curb nuclear excess. One was in 1977, when the Fraser government established strict bilateral conditions under which uranium could be exported. The other was in the early 1990s, when Keating's Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, and a few of his senior diplomats effectively lobbied for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and helped persuade the international community indefinitely to extend the NPT.
Their efforts culminated in the Canberra Commission, a bunch of international experts who met for the first time in the Australian capital in January 1996. The following August they handed down a blueprint that could have arrested the slide of mutual suspicion and double standards that was poisoning the NPT. They recommended a clear commitment by the nuclear weapon states to get rid of their nuclear weapons, take their nuclear forces off alert status, remove all warheads to separate storage, end all testing, initiate a third round of strategic arms limitation talks, and conclude a no-first-use agreement.
Keating was voted out of office in March. He later claimed that if he had won the 1996 election, he would personally have taken the findings to the General Assembly and lobbied President Clinton and the leaders of other nuclear states to execute them. But John Howard and Alexander Downer, with their distaste for tieing Australia to multilateral obligations, did nothing to endorse them widely, at the UN or elsewhere, and the report was quietly shelved.
Since then, Downer has played at the margins of non-proliferation. He supported the ratification of the CTBT, and announced in April 2000 his 'ANZAC Vision' a set of options calling for resumption of strategic arms limitation talks, early entry into force of the CTBT, immediate negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty, universal adherence to an IAEA protocol tightening inspections on declared nuclear facilities, universal adherence to the NPT, and effective controls on trading of nuclear materials. But these were 'safe' options, in the sense that they were non-controversial, and had general support, including from the United States.
In sum, the Howard government has done little more than rubber-stamp the dangerous, proliferation-prone policies of the Bush administration, including its new nuclear weapons research and development program. Domestically, Howard has found a way to have his yellowcake and eat it too. He is allowing 'market forces' to prevail in determining the rate of expansion of uranium mining and export. He is selling uranium through the United States to Taiwan, a country that is not bound by the rules of the NPT or the IAEA, and which has a proven record of attempting to develop its own nuclear weapons. And following the July 2005 US-India joint statement on nuclear co-operation, he is also contemplating selling it to India, itself a non-signatory of the NPT, a nuclear weapons state, and one with no commitment to stop producing weapons-grade fissile materials, something that all five NPT nuclear powers are committed to doing.
In the light of all this, Mr Howard's nuclear debate looks increasingly like a political and personal charade, the main purpose of which is not to clarify nuclear issues but to wedge the Labor Party in the lead-up to next year's general election.
Richard Broinowski is Honorary Professor of Communications at the University of Sydney, a former diplomat with extensive experience in Asia and Central America and the author of Fact or Fission? The Truth About Australia's Nuclear Ambitions, (Scribe, 2003). This article encapsulates much of Richard's presentation at the Evatt Foundation's Sunset Seminar on Nuclear Power at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 28 June.