This is the safeguards section from the August 2015 submission to the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, by Friends of the Earth, Australia; the Australian Conservation Foundation; and the Conservation Council of SA.
The submission is online.
- Two reasons why safeguards are vital: uranium exports, and Australia’s compromised position regarding nuclear weapons
- The limitations of safeguards − summary
- Australia’s uranium export policy / customer countries
- Provisions in bilateral agreements − enrichment and reprocessing
- Not all facilities processing AONM are subject to IAEA inspections
- Australia’s uranium exports are shrouded in secrecy
- Safeguards and Australia’s uranium exports − proposed uranium sales to India
- Safeguards and Australia’s uranium exports − uranium sales to Russia
- The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO)
- The realpolitik of Australian safeguards policy
- New reactors types − proliferation-resistant?
Two reasons why safeguards are vital: uranium exports, and Australia’s compromised position regarding nuclear weapons
The issues of safeguards is highly relevant to Australia’s uranium exports.
As mentioned previously (‘Enrichment and proliferation), Australia’s active support for and reliance on (US) nuclear weapons is well-known and Australia is thus regarded as untrustworthy regarding nuclear weapons proliferation. As former IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei noted:
“Why, some ask, should the nuclear-weapon States be trusted, but not others − and who is qualified to make that judgment? Why, others ask, is it okay for some to live under a nuclear threat, but not others, who continue to be protected by a ‘nuclear umbrella’?”
Australia’s historical efforts to lower the lead time for weapons production are well documented. For example, Prime Minister John Gorton undoubtedly had military ambitions for a nuclear power reactor he wanted to have constructed in the late 1960s at Jervis Bay. He later said: “We were interested in this thing because it could provide electricity to everybody and it could, if you decided later on, it could make an atomic bomb.” Since the mid-1980s (when then foreign minister Bill Hayden wanted Australia to develop a “pre-nuclear weapons capability”), there has been very little or no interest in developing weapons or developing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Thus, for example, Australia was quick to sign an Additional Protocol allowing the IAEA greater safeguards inspection rights.
What might eventuate if problems or uncertainty emerged with the US nuclear alliance? Given the bipartisan support for and reliance on nuclear weapons, it is possible that Australia might take steps towards developing a nuclear weapons capability through with the development of enrichment technology, or reactors and reprocessing, etc. The question of Australia revisiting the option of an Australian nuclear weapons capacity has been raised by several analysts in recent years.
Australian efforts to move towards a weapons capability − either deliberately or as an unavoidable consequence of the pursuit of a civil nuclear program − would encourage other regional countries (e.g Indonesia) to do likewise.
The limitations of safeguards − summary
There are many problems and limitations with the international safeguards system. In articles and speeches during his tenure as IAEA Director General from 1997− 2009, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei said that the Agency’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities” and “clearly needs reinforcement”, that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted”, and that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to that of a local police department”.
Problems with safeguards include:
- Chronic under-resourcing. El Baradei told the IAEA Board of Governors in 2009: “I would be misleading world public opinion to create an impression that we are doing what we are supposed to do, when we know that we don’t have the money to do it.” Little has changed since 2009. Meanwhile, the scale of the safeguards challenge is ever-increasing as new facilities are built and materials stockpiles grow.
- Issues relating to national sovereignty and commercial confidentiality adversely impact on safeguards.
- The inevitability of accounting discrepancies. Nuclear accounting discrepancies are commonplace and inevitable due to the difficulty of precisely measuring nuclear materials. The accounting discrepancies are known as Material Unaccounted For (MUF). There have been incidents of large-scale MUF in Australia’s uranium customer countries such as the UK and Japan.
- Incorrect/outdated assumptions about the amount of fissile material required to build a weapon.
- The fact that the IAEA has no mandate to prevent the misuse of civil nuclear facilities and materials − at best it can detect misuse/diversion and refer the problem to the UN Security Council. As the IAEA states: “It is clear that no international safeguards system can physically prevent diversion or the setting up of an undeclared or clandestine nuclear programme.” Numerous examples illustrate how difficult and protracted the resolution (or attempted resolution) of such issues can be, e.g. North Korea, Iran, Iraq in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Countries that have breached their safeguards obligations can simply withdraw from the NPT and pursue a weapons program, as North Korea has done.
- Safeguards are shrouded in secrecy − to give one example, the IAEA used to publish aggregate data on the number of inspections in India, Israel and Pakistan, but even that nearly worthless information is no longer publicly available.
- There are precedents for the complete breakdown of nuclear safeguards in the context of political and military conflict − examples include Iraq, Yugoslavia and several African countries.
- Currently, IAEA safeguards only begin at the stage of uranium enrichment. Application of IAEA safeguards should be extended to fully apply to mined uranium ores, to refined uranium oxides, to uranium hexafluoride gas, and to uranium conversion facilities, as well as enrichment and subsequent stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Joint Standing Committe on Treaties (JSCT) recommended in 2008 that “the Australian Government lobbies the IAEA and the five declared nuclear weapons states under the NPT to make the safeguarding of all conversion facilities mandatory.” However the Australian Government rejected the recommendation in its 2009 response to the JSCT report.
- There is no resolution in sight to some of the most fundamental problems with safeguards such as countries invoking their right to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and developing a weapons capability as North Korea has done. More generally, responses to suspected non-compliance with safeguards agreements have been highly variable, ranging from inaction to economic sanctions to UN Security Council-mandated decommissioning programmes. Some states prefer to take matters into their own hands: Israel bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, the US bombed and destroyed a reactor in Iraq in 1991 and Israel bombed and destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007.
In 1982, Mike Rann identified the core problem: “Again and again, it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.”
For more information on the limitations of safeguards see:
Medical Association for the Prevention of War and Australian Conservation Foundation, 2006, “An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards”, www.mapw.org.au/download/illusion-protection-acf-mapw-2006
Henry Sokolski (ed.), Feb 2008, “Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom”, www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=841
Alan J. Kuperman, David Sokolow, and Edwin S. Lyman, March 18, 2014, ‘Can the IAEA Safeguard Fuel-Cycle Facilities?’, Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin (www.NPPP.org), http://blogs.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2014/03/NPPP-working-paper-2-2014-Mar-18.pdf
Looking beyond Iran and North Korea for Safeguarding the Foundations of Nuclear Nonproliferation, former IAEA Safeguards Director Pierre Goldschmidt, Nov 15, 2011, www.npolicy.org/article.php?aid=1115&tid=4
Building Support for the Agencys Safeguards Mission, Henry Sokolski, Nov 03, 2010, Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre, www.npolicy.org/article.php?aid=50&rtid=6
Non-proliferation Policy Education Centre www.npolicy.org and see in particular the section on the non-proliferation regime www.npolicy.org/topics.php?page=0&tid=4
Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding Dialogue, June 2007, https://www.keystone.org/policy-initiatives-center-for-science-a-public-policy/energy/nuclear-power-joint-fact-finding.html
Value-subtracting: Form vs. substance in Australian uranium safeguard policy, Richard Leaver, Austral Special Report 09-08S, 11 December 2009, Nautilus Institute, http://nautilus.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/leaver-safeguards.pdf
Nuclear Safeguards: some Canadian questions about Australian policy, Richard Leaver, Austral Policy Forum 09-5A, 23 February 2009, http://nautilus.org/apsnet/nuclear-safeguards-some-canadian-questions-about-australian-policy/
The Nuclear Safeguards System: An Illusion of Protection, 2010, www.mapw.org.au/files/downloads/iIlusion_of_protection_full3.5MB.pdf
Australia’s uranium export policy / customer countries
Here brief comment is made about the choice of uranium customer countries. In 1998, the then Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation office (ASNO) said: “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.”
That was not true at the time (e.g. sales to declared nuclear weapons states that pay scant regard to their NPT obligations) and it is certainly not true now.
Recommendation 33: The Royal Commission should recommend that state and federal governments no longer permit uranium sales to:
- repressive, secretive countries (e.g. China and Russia − albeit the case that sales to Russia have been suspended)
- nuclear weapons states that are not fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (US, Russia, China, France, UK)
- countries that have not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (China, USA, India)
- countries with a history of weapons-related research based on their civil nuclear programs (South Korea and Taiwan).
Provisions in bilateral agreements − enrichment and reprocessing
In addition to IAEA safeguards, countries purchasing Australian uranium must sign a bilateral agreement. However there are no Australian inspections of nuclear materials stockpiles or facilities using Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials (AONM − primarily uranium and its by-products such as plutonium) – Australia is entirely reliant on the inadequate and underfunded inspection system of the IAEA.
The most important provisions in bilateral agreements are for prior Australian consent before Australian nuclear material is transferred to a third party, enriched beyond 20% uranium-235, or reprocessed. However no Australian government has ever refused permission to separate plutonium from spent fuel via reprocessing (and there has never been a request to enrich beyond 20% U-235). Even when reprocessing leads to the stockpiling of plutonium (which can be used directly in nuclear weapons), ongoing or ‘programmatic’ permission has been granted by Australian governments. Hence there are stockpiles of Australian-obligated separated plutonium in Japan and in some European countries.
Japan, a major customer of Australian uranium, has 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 civil 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 Japan 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 describe 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 Armacost in Tokyo to 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?”
Japan’s plutonium stockpiling and reprocessing plans continue to cause regional concern − for example China has recently voiced concern. Moreover it continues to complicate efforts to prevent other regional countries (esp. South Korea) from going down the same plutonium/reprocessing path.
Despite this, Australia continues to provide open-ended (‘programmatic’) approval for Japan to separate Australian-obligated plutonium. The government could and should prohibit the stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium. At the very least, the government should revert to the previous Australian policy of requiring approval for plutonium separation / reprocessing on a case-by-case basis.
It is frequently claimed that the “strict” or “stringent” conditions placed on AONM encourage a strengthening of non-proliferation measures generally. However, by permitting the stockpiling of plutonium the Australian government is not ‘raising the bar’ but is setting a poor example and encouraging other uranium exporters to adopt or persist with equally irresponsible policies. While the Australian government does not have the authority to prohibit stockpiling, it does have the authority to permit transfers and reprocessing of AONM and could therefore put an end to the stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.
Recommendation 34: The Royal Commission should recommend that state and federal governments prohibit high enrichment of Australian uranium and prohibit the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.
Not all facilities processing AONM are subject to IAEA inspections
Australia allows the processing of AONM in facilities which are not covered by IAEA safeguards at all. While AONM is meant to be subject to IAEA safeguards from the enrichment stage onwards, ASNO is willing to make exceptions.
For example ASNO has recommended that the Australian government agree to the processing of Australian uranium in unsafeguarded enrichment plants in Russia and the recommendation was readily accepted by the federal government. ASNO states: “Russia does not propose to place these enrichment facilities on its Eligible Facilities List because the facilities were never designed for the application of safeguards and could not be readily adapted for safeguards purposes.”
The enrichment facilities would not require any adaptation whatsoever. Russia simply needs to permit the application of safeguards and the IAEA could then adopt safeguards measures such as inspections, the use of video monitoring etc.
Recommendation 36: The Royal Commission should recommend that state and federal governments prohibit the processing of Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials in facilities beyond the scope of IAEA safeguards.
Australia’s uranium exports are shrouded in secrecy
Nuclear transfers and developments demand the highest level of transparency, however this is often not the case. Some example of unjustified secrecy include the refusal of successive Australian governments to publicly release:
- Country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium.
- ‘Administrative Arrangements’ which contain vital information about the safeguards arrangements required by Australia.
- Information on nuclear accounting discrepancies (Material Unaccounted For) including the volumes of nuclear materials, the countries involved, and the reasons given to explain these accounting discrepancies. The JSCT recommended that: “Further consideration is given to the justification for secrecy of Material Unaccounted For’.” There is no legitimate justification for the secrecy surrounding MUF. ASNO has done no better than to cite commercial confidentiality. All MUF information, past, present and future, should be reported publicly and this should be done on a country-by-country and facility-by-facility basis. Some other countries (e.g. Japan) release MUF data and thus Australia’s secrecy clearly fails to meet best practice.
- The quantities of AONM held in each country are confidential. ASNO states: “The actual quantities of AONM held in each country, and accounted for by that country pursuant to the relevant agreement with Australia, are considered by ASNO’s counterparts to be confidential information.”
Recommendation 37: The Royal Commission should recommend public release of country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium; all current and future ‘Administrative Arrangements’ pertaining to uranium exports; detailed information on nuclear accounting discrepancies including the volumes of nuclear materials, the countries involved, and the reasons given to explain accounting discrepancies; and the quantities of Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials held in each country.
Safeguards and Australia’s uranium exports − proposed uranium sales to India
The Australian government is in the process of further compromising the safeguards system by pursuing a nuclear cooperation agreement with India that weakens safeguards standards in many respects. The agreement is currently before the Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCT). In its current form, the agreement has been strongly opposed by, among others, a former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (John Carlson), a former Chair of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (Ronald Walker), a former Assistant Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (Prof. Lawrence Scheinman), and an Australian nuclear arms control expert (Crispin Rovere).
John Carlson, who headed Australia’s safeguards office for 21 years, argues that the agreement with India “represents a serious weakening of Australia’s … safeguards conditions” and that weaknesses in the agreement “mean Australian material could be used in support of India’s nuclear weapon program.”
If the uranium agreement is approved, there will be sustained pressure for Australia to apply equally inadequate standards to other countries. As John Carlson noted in a submission to JSCT: “If the Government does compromise Australia’s safeguards conditions, inevitably this will lead to other agreement partners asking for similar treatment.”
Moreover, other nuclear and uranium exporting countries will follow Australia’s lead and weaken their safeguards requirements. This disturbing and cascading retreat from responsibility would further compromise non-proliferation objectives and mechanisms.
Recommendation 38: The Royal Commission should recommend that state and federal governments do not permit uranium sales to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and are actively expanding their nuclear weapons arsenals (e.g. India).
Safeguards and Australia’s uranium exports − uranium sales to Russia
Submissions to the JSCT India inquiry by John Carlson and some others argued that Australia’s safeguards requirements were robust other than the seriously defective Australia−India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.
Those arguments do not stand up to scrutiny, and there is no clearer illustration of profound problems than the Australia−Russia Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. The JSCT rejected the agreement to sell uranium to Russia when it learnt that IAEA safeguards inspections in Russia are nearly non-existent. Among other recommendations the JSCT said it is “essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle” Australian uranium and that uranium exports “should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out.” The major parties in Canberra rejected the recommendation − they were prepared to allow uranium sales to Russia despite being well aware that IAEA safeguards inspections are very nearly non-existent.
ASNO failed to advise the JSCT that safeguards inspections in Russia are very nearly non-existent − until that information was provided to the JSCT by an NGO. In other words, ASNO misled the JSCT and thereby misled Parliament. Further, ASNO’s submission to the JSCT inquiry into uranium sales to Russia said that Australia exports uranium under “strict non-proliferation conditions.” The reality of near-zero safeguards inspections cannot be squared with the claimed of strict conditions.
Likewise, ASNO’s ‘Regulation Impact Statement’ stated: “These agreements establish strict safeguards and control measures to ensure that exported uranium, nuclear equipment, or technology, are used solely for peaceful, non-military purposes.” That claim cannot be squared with the reality of nearly non-existent safeguards inspections in Russia.
Recommendation 39: The Royal Commission should investigate the deficiencies in the process leading to the approval of uranium sales to Russia, including statements made by the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office
The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO)
A 2007 EnergyScience Coalition paper detailed many problems with ASNO. The paper concluded:
“The authors of this paper believe there is a compelling case for major reform of ASNO as a matter of urgency. An alternative course of action would be for the Australian government to establish an independent public inquiry. Such an inquiry should have a broad mandate to review all aspects of ASNO’s structure and function, should be adequately resourced, and should have powers similar to those of a Royal Commission to access witnesses, documents and other evidence.
“Such an inquiry should be carried out independently of ASNO. It should also be carried out independently of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), given that the current relationship between ASNO and DFAT is arguably one of the areas in need of review. DFAT has declined a request to review a paper detailing numerous inaccurate statements made by ASNO (letter to NGOs, 28 May 2007, available on request).
“Such an inquiry should address the competence and performance of ASNO; its scientific and technical expertise; whether its current management, organisation, structure and relationships best serve its mandate; any conflicts of interest; the implications of ASNO’s structural connection to DFAT (whether it has sufficient independence or operates as a ‘captured bureaucracy’); and options for reform including consideration of organisational models in other countries.
Since the 2007 paper was written, ASNO’s performance has become even more problematic, e.g. misleading the JSCT regarding safeguards in Russia, e.g. ASNO’s defence of the indefensible Australia−India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.
Recommendation 40: The Royal Commission should recommend an independent public inquiry covering all aspects of the operation of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office.
The following article summarises some of ASNO’s failings:
Who’s watching the nuclear watchdog?
Richard Broinowski and Tilman Ruff
10 September 2007
Australia has been poorly served by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, the Commonwealth agency tasked with preventing nuclear proliferation dangers associated with Australia’s uranium exports. Its failures are so numerous and significant that, along with other members of the EnergyScience Coalition, we have written a comprehensive critique of the Office and call on the federal government to establish an independent public inquiry.
The Safeguards Office makes the absurd claim that Australia only sells uranium to countries with “impeccable” non-proliferation credentials. In fact, Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapon states (all of which are failing to fulfill their disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) as well as with states with a history of covert nuclear weapons research based on their “civil” nuclear programs (such as South Korea and Taiwan).
The government also permits – and the Safeguards Office supports – uranium sales to countries (including the United States) which are blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.
Now the government proposes allowing uranium sales to India, not even a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a serious blow to the international non-proliferation regime yet has been met with silence from the Safeguards Office.
Last year’s debate on uranium sales to China showed the Safeguards Office at its worst. In testimony to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, the Office did not know the number of nuclear facilities in China, nor how many or which of these would process uranium and its by-products. Nor did it know how the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) selected nuclear facilities for inspection. The Safeguards Office was dismissive of China having the worst record of exports of proliferation-sensitive materials and know-how of any of the nuclear weapon states.
The Safeguards Office routinely misleads us when it asserts that nuclear safeguards “ensure” or “provide assurances” that Australian uranium will not contribute to weapons proliferation. These assurances contrast with the frankness of Dr Mohamed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, who acknowledges that the international safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities”, not least because it runs on a “shoe string budget”, and that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted”.
The Safeguards Office claims that all nuclear materials derived from Australia’s uranium exports are “fully accounted for”. That claim is false. There are frequent accounting discrepancies involving Australia’s nuclear exports. What the Safeguards Office means when it says that nuclear material is “fully accounted for” is that it has accepted all the explanations provided by uranium customer countries for accounting discrepancies, however fanciful those explanations may be. Secrecy is another feature of the Safeguards Office – it refuses to provide specific or even aggregate data on nuclear accounting discrepancies.
Perhaps the most misleading of the claims made by the Safeguards Office is its repeated assertion that nuclear power does not present a weapons proliferation risk. In fact, power reactors have been used directly in weapons programs. Some examples include India, which is reserving eight out of 22 power reactors for weapons production; the use of a power reactor in the United States to produce tritium, used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons; and North Korea’s use of an “Experimental Power Reactor” to produce plutonium for weapons.
Nuclear power programs also indirectly facilitate weapons programs by providing a rationale for acquiring proliferative technologies such as research reactors, uranium enrichment plants and reprocessing plants.
The IAEA, the US Department of Energy and other authorities consider almost all plutonium to be weapons-usable, yet the Safeguards Office continues to claim that plutonium derived from power reactors is not suitable for weapons. This is not only wrong; it is dangerous.
The inevitable conclusion arising from our detailed critique of the Safeguards Office (posted at www.energyscience.org.au) is that, at best, it is ineffectual, providing an illusion that an independent agency is protecting the interests of the Australian people when it comes to the vital matter of preventing nuclear proliferation. At worst, the Safeguards Office serves the commercial interests of the nuclear industry and the political interests of those who promote it, and contributes more to the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation than to the solutions.
We call on the federal government to establish an independent public inquiry to review all aspects of the Safeguards Office – its performance; scientific and technical expertise; whether its current management, organisation and relationships best serve its mandate; any conflicts of interest; whether it has sufficient independence; and options for reform. The inquiry should be adequately resourced, and should have powers similar to those of a Royal Commission to access witnesses, documents and other evidence.
For more information on ASNO see: https://nuclear.foe.org.au/safeguards/
The realpolitik of Australian safeguards policy
It is sometimes claimed that Australia’s safeguards requirements are the equal of or better than those applied by any other uranium-exporting country. However the IAEA is responsible for safeguards regardless of the origin of uranium supplies. And there are serious flaws with Australia’s safeguards policies:
- Australia can claim little or no credit for the provisions of bilateral agreements given that key provisions have never been invoked (high enrichment), or, in the case of plutonium separation/stockpiling, permission has never been denied.
- In some cases Australia allows AONM to be processed in non-safeguards-eligible facilities.
- Australia allows uranium sales to nuclear weapons states which show little inclination to abide by their NPT disarmament obligations; states with a history of weapons-related research based on their civil nuclear programs; states blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; and to undemocratic, repressive, secretive states with extensive and documented human rights abuses.
- Uranium exports are shrouded in secrecy at many levels.
- ASNO is in great need of radical reform, or abolition and replacement with a more credible safeguards agency.
Australia could use its status as the world’s largest holder of uranium reserves to leverage non-proliferation and disarmament outcomes. Australia could, for example, have promoted the adoption of ‘Additional Protocols’, strengthened safeguards agreements which provide the IAEA with greater authority to inspect suspected diversion of nuclear materials. Australia could have led by insisting that all of Australia’s uranium customer countries must have an Additional Protocol in place. Indeed Australia does now require Additional Protocols of all customer countries − but that policy was only adopted after all of Australia’s customer countries had already concluded an Additional Protocol with no prompting or persuasion from Australia. Repeatedly Australia has demonstrated a reluctance to actively advance and strengthen non-proliferation initiatives.
ASNO states: “The non-proliferation regime is also strengthened through Australia’s requirement that recipients of Australian obligated nuclear material adhere to the Additional Protocol.” But Australia had nothing at all to do with that strengthening of the safeguards system. Instead of using Australia’s position to leverage a positive outcome, Australia indulged in a cynical, retrospective PR exercise in relation to Additional Protocols.
New reactors types − proliferation-resistant?
Advocates of every conceivable type of reactor claim that their preferred reactor type is proliferation-proof or proliferation-resistant.
For example, a thorium enthusiast claims that thorium is “thoroughly useless for making nuclear weapons.” But the proliferation risks associated with thorium fuel cycles can be as bad as − or worse than − the risks associated with conventional uranium reactor technology.
An enthusiast of integral fast reactors (IFR) claims they “cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material.” But IFRs can be used to produce plutonium for weapons. Dr George Stanford, who worked on an IFR R&D program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor − operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material.”
Nuclear advocates frequently make statements which are true, but misleading. For example, thorium itself is not a proliferation risk, but the uranium-233 that is produced when thorium is irradiated can be (and has been) used in weapons. And strictly speaking, it is true that IFRs “cannot be used to generate weapons-grade material” − because IFRs don’t exist. And neither new or old reactor types can produce weapon grade plutonium or weapons-useable plutonium in the sense that plutonium cannot be used in weapons until it is separated from materials irradiated in a reactor, by reprocessing.
Fusion illustrates how difficult it is to disentangle the peaceful atom from its siamese twin, the military atom. Fusion has yet to generate a single Watt of useful electricity but it has already contributed to proliferation problems. According to Khidhir Hamza, a senior nuclear scientist involved in Iraq’s weapons program in the 1980s: “Iraq took full advantage of the IAEA’s recommendation in the mid 1980s to start a plasma physics program for “peaceful” fusion research. We thought that buying a plasma focus device … would provide an excellent cover for buying and learning about fast electronics technology, which could be used to trigger atomic bombs.”
All existing and proposed reactor types and nuclear fuel cycles pose proliferation risks. The UK Royal Society notes: “There is no proliferation proof nuclear fuel cycle. The dual use risk of nuclear materials and technology and in civil and military applications cannot be eliminated.”
Likewise, John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, notes that “no presently known nuclear fuel cycle is completely proliferation proof”.
Proponents of new reactor types claim that proliferation-resistance is an important driver of technological innovation. However there is little or no evidence to support the claim. Moreover, precious few nuclear industry insiders or nuclear advocates show the slightest concern about proliferation problems such as the growing stockpiles of separated civil plutonium, or the inadequate safeguards system, or the troubling implications of opening up civil nuclear trade with non-NPT states such as India.
Climate scientist James Hansen states: “Nuclear reactors can also be made more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors.” But are new reactors being made more resistant to weapons proliferation than today’s reactors? In a word: No.
Hansen claims that “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.” While that is true, it is equally true that modern (Generation IV) technology could worsen proliferation problems. For example, India plans to produce weapons-grade plutonium in fast breeder reactors for use as driver fuel in thorium reactors. Compared to conventional uranium reactors, India’s plan is far worse on both proliferation and security grounds.
In a 2013 article, Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen wave away the proliferation problem with the assertion that they have “discussed it in some detail elsewhere”. But the paper they cite barely touches upon the proliferation problem and what it does say about proliferation is mostly false:
- It falsely claim that thorium-based fuel cycles are “inherently proliferation-resistant”.
- It claims that integral fast reactors “could be inherently free from the risk of proliferation”. At best, integral fast reactors could reduce proliferation risks; they could never be “inherently free” from proliferation risks.
- And it states that if “designed properly”, breeder reactors would generate “nothing suitable for weapons”. India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor will be the next fast neutron reactor to begin operation (scheduled for September 2015). It will be ideal for producing weapon grade plutonium for India’s weapons program, and it will likely be used for that purpose since India is refusing to place it under safeguards.
Hansen and his colleagues argue that “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks”. India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor is modern − but it will exacerbate, not reduce, proliferation risks.
 Pilita Clark, 1 Jan 1999, ‘PM’s Story: Very much alive… and unfazed’, Sydney Morning Herald.
 Bill Hayden, 1996, Hayden: An Autobiography, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, pp.422-423.
 Nautilus Institute, n.d., ‘Australian nuclear proliferation – contemporary’, http://nautilus.org/projects/by-name/aus-indo/aust-ind-nuclear1/australia-nuclear-proliferation/aust-prolif-now/
 For information on safeguards see the papers listed at https://nuclear.foe.org.au/links/#safeguards
 See section 6 in: ‘The Nuclear Safeguards System: An Illusion of Protection’, 2010, https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/CNF-Safeguards-web-2010-rev2018.pdf
 Mohamed El Baradei, 16 June 2009, ‘Director General’s Intervention on Budget at IAEA Board of Governors’, www.iaea.org/newscenter/statements/director-generals-intervention-budget-iaea-board-governors
 See section 4 in: ‘The Nuclear Safeguards System: An Illusion of Protection’, 2010, https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/CNF-Safeguards-web-2010-rev2018.pdf
 IAEA, 1993, Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons: IAEA Safeguards in the 1990s.
 Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, 2008, ‘Report 94: Review into Treaties tabled on 14 May 2008’, www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=jsct/14may2008/report1/fullreport.pdf
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 Mike Rann, March 1982, ‘Uranium: Play It Safe’.
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