Nuclear security and Australia’s uranium exports

Jim Green, 8 April 2014, Online Opinion

The March 24−25 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in the Netherlands was attended by representatives from over 50 countries. The NSS issued a banal communiqué, almost all of which was decided in advance. The closest the communiqué comes to substance is to identify a range of “voluntary measures” which states “may consider taking” such as publishing information about national laws, exchanging good practices, and further developing training of personnel involved in nuclear security. Elsewhere the communiqué is beyond parody: “Sharing good practices, without detriment to the protection of sensitive information, might also be beneficial.”

To be fair, useful work is being done in some countries to tighten nuclear security. But it’s too little and too slow, and the concept of nuclear security is too narrowly defined. The very first dot-point in the NSS communiqué insists that “measures to strengthen nuclear security will not hamper the rights of States to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.

Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted in 2009 that “even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals …” That mentality was in evidence at the NSS. Gilinsky advocates a reversal of priorities: “Security should come first − not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow.”

Nuclear security architecture

The NSS website says that Summit participants “laid the basis for an efficient and sustainable nuclear security architecture, consisting of treaties, guidelines and international organisations.”

But there was no discussion, and no outcomes, regarding vital architecture such as the flawed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The security threats posed by nuclear weapons arsenals were beyond the scope of the NSS, and the discussion on nuclear weapons was vacuous and steered well away from the failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations. US President Barack Obama’s ultra-lite contribution to the NSS went no further than a reworking of the old saying that a single nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day: “Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city … would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”

Nor did the NSS produce any outcomes regarding another vital piece of nuclear architecture: the flawed safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A recent report about the safeguarding of nuclear fuel cycle facilities, by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas, concludes: “Theoretical solutions to improve IAEA safeguards have been discussed for decades. However, proprietary, economic, and sovereignty concerns have limited the extent to which countries and private companies have implemented these theoretical solutions. Even in states that cooperate with the IAEA and apply sophisticated accounting mechanisms, such as Japan, safeguards at fuel-cycle facilities currently cannot come close to achieving their explicit goal of providing timely warning of a suspected diversion of one bomb’s worth of fissile material. The prospects are even worse in states that resist cooperation and may wish to keep open their weapons option, such as Iran, and at facilities that employ first-generation safeguards.”

Yet the NSS did not even consider the safeguards system. The broad problem was succinctly explained by former South Australian Premier Mike Rann many years ago, before he decided that his political ambitions were more important than speaking truth to power: “Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.”

Australia’s uranium customers

Nuclear security standards are demonstrably inadequate in a number of Australia’s uranium customer countries. Nuclear security risk factors in Russia include political instability, ineffective governance, pervasive corruption, and the presence of groups determined to obtain nuclear materials. A March 2014 report by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs notes that Russia has the world’s largest nuclear stock­piles stored in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkers, and that underfunding raises serious questions about whether effective nuclear security and accounting systems can be sustained.”

In a 2011 report, the US Director of National Intelligence discussed nuclear smuggling in Russia: “We assess that undetected smuggling of weapons-usable nuclear material has occurred, but we do not know the total amount of material that has been diverted or stolen since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We judge it highly unlikely that Russian authorities have been able to recover all of the stolen material.”

Nuclear security lapses have repeatedly made headlines in the USA over the past two years. Examples include:

  • the Air Force removed 17 officers assigned to guard nuclear-armed missiles after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and attitude problems;
  • Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority were twice caught napping with the blast door open;
  • an inspection by the Department of Energy’s Inspector General found that Los Alamos National Laboratory failed to meet its goal of 99% accuracy in accounting for the lab’s inventory of weapons-grade nuclear materials, including plutonium;
  • a report by LBJ School of Public Affairs at Texas University detailed inadequate protection of US commercial and research nuclear facilities;
  • at least 82 missile launch officers from an Air Force base in Montana face disciplinary action for cheating on monthly proficiency tests or for being aware of cheating and failing to report it. Former missile-launch control officer Bruce Blair said cheating “has been extensive and pervasive at all the missile bases going back for decades”;
  • missile launch officers in two different incidents were found to have violated security regulations designed to prevent intruders from seizing their ICBM-firing keys;
  • nineteen officers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were forced to surrender their launch authority because of performance and attitude problems;
  • the Navy has opened an investigation into accusations of widespread cheating by sailors at an atomic-reactor training school in South Carolina;
  • the congressionally mandated Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise says that drastic reforms are crucial to address “systemic” management shortcomings at the National Nuclear Security Administration; and
  • former military contractor Benjamin Bishop will plead guilty to providing nuclear-arms secrets and other classified information to his Chinese girlfriend.

Time magazine describes the most embarrassing lapse: “In the U.S. in 2012, an 82-year old nun and two other peace protestors broke into Y-12, a facility in Tennessee that contains the world’s largest repository of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in metal form and until the incident was colloquially known as “the Fort Knox of HEU” for its state-of-the-art security equipment. The nun bypassed multiple intrusion-detection systems because faulty cameras had not been replaced and guards at the central alarm station had grown weary of manually validating sensors that produced frequent false alarms. When the protestors started hammering on the side of a building that contains enough HEU for hundreds of weapons, the guards inside assumed the noise was coming from construction workers that they had not been told were coming. She and her fellow protestors were eventually challenged by a single guard.”

The United States’ credibility is also undermined by its failure to ratify the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Moreover US federal government budget requests and allocations for nuclear security have been reduced repeatedly since 2011, with programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the International Material Protection and Cooperation program, Securing the Cities, and a program to replace HEU research reactor fuel with low-enriched uranium, suffering.

Another ‘good news’ story from the NSS was an announcement that Japan would send “hundreds of kilograms” of HEU and separated plutonium to the US. But Japan continues to expand its stockpile of 44 tons of separated plutonium (nine tons in Japan, 35 tons at reprocessing plants in Europe) and it continues to advance plans to start up the Rokkasho reprocessing plant which would result in an additional eight tons of separated plutonium annually. With no hint of irony, the US/Japan joint statement announcing the plan to send HEU and separated plutonium from Japan to the US concludes: “Our two countries encourage others to consider what they can do to further HEU and plutonium minimization.”

There is a long history of lax nuclear security in Japan. The US has raised concerns about inadequate security at Rokkasho and other nuclear plants in Japan. In November 2013, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority admonished the Japan Atomic Energy Agency for failing to take appropriate measures to protect its Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor from potential terrorist attacks.

The March 2014 report by Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs details significant nuclear security gaps in a number of countries that import uranium − or want to import uranium − from Australia. For example it states that India’s approach to nuclear security is “highly secretive”; the threats India’s nuclear security systems must confront “appear to be significant”; India faces challenges “both from domestic terrorist organizations and from attacks by terrorist organizations based in Pakistan”; India also confronts “significant insider corruption”; and the risk of theft or sabotage in India “may be uncomfortably high”.

So what is Australia doing?

So what is the Australian government doing about the vital problem of inadequate nuclear security standards in uranium customer countries? And what are the uranium mining companies operating in Australia doing about the problem? The short answer is: nothing. They adopt a head in the sand approach, just as they ignored the disgraceful nuclear safety standards in Japan that led to the Fukushima disaster.

There are simple steps that could be taken − for example uranium exports could be made contingent on customer countries ratifying the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth