Uranium sales to China

See also the ‘Illusion of Protection‘ document.

Uranium policy a hypocrisy

David Noonan, October 5, 2009


As China celebrates the 60th anniversary of communist rule with a slickly orchestrated march down the Avenue of Eternal Peace to Tiananmen Square that featured new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is a fitting moment to question Australia’s role as uranium supplier to the crouching tiger of our region.

After the United Nations Security Council, with a push from US President Barack Obama, agreed to a historic resolution last month to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Australia needs to consider whether we see our future as supplying China’s uranium market. We also need to assess the broader effects of Australia’s uranium exports on nuclear non-proliferation, regional security and China’s human rights record.

One of Kevin Rudd’s early initiatives as prime minister was to establish the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, co-chaired by former foreign minister Gareth Evans, saying this would be “our gift to the world”.

Unfortunately, Australia can never credibly lead on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament while spreading nuclear risks as one of the world’s largest uranium suppliers. The mismatch between Australia’s rhetoric and the illusion of protection provided by nuclear safeguards is stark in the case of China.

As a uranium exporter, Australia has a responsibility to strengthen nuclear safeguards and to act decisively to disqualify any state that does not fully observe its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. China is modernising – rather than eliminating – its nuclear arsenal and has so far failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China is one country that does not meet its non-proliferation treaty obligations.

BHP Billiton’s plan to expand the Roxby Downs (Olympic Dam) copper and uranium mine is being considered by the federal and South Australian governments. BHP proposes the world’s largest open pit mine as a uranium quarry to fuel the global nuclear industry, with much of its efforts directed towards China. BHP’s plan would see Australia selling uranium-infused bulk copper concentrate for processing in China, transferring more than a million tonnes a year of radioactive waste and thousands of tonnes of uranium.

Australian uranium will effectively disappear off the safeguards radar on arrival in China, a country whose military is inextricably linked to the civilian nuclear sector and where nuclear whistleblowers and critics are brutally suppressed and jailed. This alone is reason to disqualify China from acquiring Australian uranium.

In July, a well-known environmental activist and recipient in 2006 of the prestigious Nuclear-Free Future Award, Sun Xiaodi, and his daughter Sun Dunbai were jailed and sent to a “re-education through labour” camp for their efforts to expose corruption and contamination in China’s nuclear industry.

Sun Xiaodi is a former worker at No. 792 Uranium Mine in Gansu province in north-west China. Since 1988, the whistleblower has travelled repeatedly to Beijing to petition the Government to end corruption in China’s nuclear industry and to speak out for the rights of uranium mine workers.

According to Chinese court documents, the crimes Sun Xiaodi and Sun Dunbai are guilty of include inciting the public with libellous slogans including “nuclear pollution” and “human rights violation”. In reality, Sun Xiaodi and Sun Dunbai are paying a very high price for speaking out.

Australians should recognise that it is not appropriate for us to export uranium to a government that does not tolerate criticism of its nuclear industry and fails to meet minimum international human rights standards. We should also be mindful that our commitments to non-proliferation are in conflict with our “dual use” uranium sales.

Australian uranium produces plutonium – a potent bomb-making material – in nuclear reactors overseas. Australia consents to the separation and stockpiling of this plutonium through the “reprocessing” of spent nuclear fuel waste in a number of countries, including China. While our Government says that the plutonium is only to be used for peaceful purposes, we are in effect being asked to trust this and every future Beijing regime.

Nuclear waste management remains unresolved around the world. With the future of high-level nuclear waste accumulating at reactor sites across the US still unresolved after 50 years of the nuclear industry, how can BHP provide any credible assurances on nuclear waste management in China?

Australia is strutting the international stage claiming credentials as a regional democratic voice, nodding our head in agreement with the US President’s call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, while propping up the nuclear sector in a China that is suppressing human rights, modernising its nuclear weapons arsenal and engaging in building nuclear reactors in Pakistan that will increase plutonium production capacity.

Australia’s reputation and nuclear-safeguard responsibilities should not be further compromised to suit BHP Billiton’s commercial interests. The first shipment of Australian uranium that BHP has now sent to China should be the last.

The only potentially credible future for BHP’s Roxby Down mine and the proposed expansion is to trade only in copper and to leave the uranium and other radioactive wastes at the mine site.

David Noonan is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner.

China will do what it likes with the uranium we sell it

Mike Steketee, The Australian, April 6, 2006


JOHN Howard is sparing in his use of superlatives but this week he was moved to describe as “remarkable” the transformation in the relationship between Australia and China.

Indeed. It was only two Liberal governments ago that Australia refused to recognise Red China, as it was commonly referred to. Howard entered parliament in 1974, 18 months after the Whitlam government extended diplomatic recognition and three years after conservatives saw political capital in Gough Whitlam’s visit to China as Opposition leader for talks with premier Zhou Enlai.

“Australia has gained a Chinese candidate, if not a Manchurian candidate, for the prime ministership,” fulminated the National Civic Council’s Bob Santamaria. “In no time at all Mr Zhou had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout,” said Liberal prime minister William McMahon.

Thirty-five years later, a conservative Government has agreed to sell uranium to China, a country with nuclear weapons which remains a communist dictatorship, albeit a changed one. And Howard, the self-styled most conservative leader the Liberals have had, concedes that, although the safeguards negotiated with China are “very rigorous”, in selling uranium to any country “we have to assume a certain degree of good faith”.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer claimed the safeguards agreements signed by China this week would ensure that Australian uranium would be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes”. The agreements themselves give the lie to that.

As explained in the annual reports of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, uranium is routinely mixed from many sources when it is converted into nuclear fuel, making Australian atoms indistinguishable from the rest. The safeguards agreements do not cover the conversion plants: instead, they require that an equivalent quantity of converted uranium is allocated to a facility, such as an enrichment plant, which is covered by the safeguards. So the argument goes that if Australian uranium were used to make materials for a bomb, it would have no practical effect because an equivalent amount would have been removed.

This is the same agreement we have struck with other countries, including the US, to which we now sell almost 40 per cent of our uranium and which remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons. The safeguards may be strict on paper but enforcement is another matter.

China has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, bringing it under international safeguards, as well as the bilateral ones agreed with Australia.

In fact, it has gone further than the US in bringing into force, as well as signing, the additional protocol that requires increased access to nuclear facilities and more information about nuclear activities.

But China’s history is hardly that of a model nuclear citizen. It has transferred nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and Libya. To adapt Howard’s words, we have to assume a degree of faith that it behaves better in future. As a nuclear weapons state, China chooses which of its facilities are subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection.

The international non-proliferation regime is far from watertight, as the IAEA’s Mohamed El Baradei readily acknowledges. He said in a speech last month that IAEA verification operated on an annual budget of about E100 million ($170 million), “a budget comparable to that of a local police department. With these resources, we oversee approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. When you consider our growing responsibilities – as well as the need to stay ahead of the game – we are clearly operating on a shoestring budget.”

This is just one of the many challenges El Baradei identified in policing nuclear safeguards. Terrorists had expressed a clear desire to acquire nuclear weapons, he said. In the past decade, the IAEA had recorded more than 650 cases of attempted smuggling of nuclear material. Of 189 signatories to the NPT, 118 still had not brought into force the additional protocol meant to beef up the safeguards. Though disarmament was supposed to be a key goal of the NPT, El Baradei estimated that there were still 27,000 nuclear warheads around the world.

As with other safeguard agreements Australia has negotiated, China cannot enrich uranium greater than 20per cent or reprocess nuclear material – both steps towards making weapons-grade material – without Australian permission. But Australia has never refused a request for reprocessing.

How willing would we be to blow the whistle on China if we suspected it was breaching the safeguards? Not very, judging by how far we are prepared to go to cater to Chinese sensitivities. Police this week went to extraordinary lengths to prevent Falun Gong protesters from polluting the line of sight of visiting Premier Wen Jiabao, even wheeling out the Canberra booze bus to park in front of their banners. If that seems like a small matter, it betrays a larger government attitude.

Of course, Australia already is up to its armpits in the world uranium trade. Refusing to sell to China would not close down its nuclear weapons program, any more than would withholding supplies from the US. Even if we stopped all uranium exports, the world would not quickly become a safer place, given the amount of nuclear material sloshing around. In fact, cutting back access to Australian uranium might have the perverse effect of encouraging more reprocessing and increase the stock of weapons-grade material.

But we should not pretend that we have any control over China’s behaviour. We would be better off putting our efforts into supporting El Baradei’s proposals to take enrichment and reprocessing out of the hands of individual nations and provide them through international facilities.

Uranium exports to China would be a bad risk

Any promises made by China regarding Australian uranium are not to be trusted, says JIM GREEN

Canberra Times, 17/1/06.

A POLL of 1200 Australians last September found that 53 percent were opposed to uranium exports to China, with just 31 percent in favour. Nevertheless, the federal Government is meeting a Chinese delegation in Canberra this week to negotiate a bilateral uranium export agreement.

Some difficult questions arise. What would happen to a whistleblower publicly raising concerns about diversion of materials from China’s nuclear power program to its WMD program? Most likely the same fate as befell Sun Xiaodi, who was concerned about environmental contamination at a uranium mine in north-western China. The non-government organisation Human Rights in China reports that Sun Xiaodi was sacked and harassed, and in April 2005, immediately after speaking to a foreign journalist, he was abducted by state authorities and has not been heard from since.

Beijing’s record of media censorship is equally deplorable. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 27 journalists were being held in prison at the start of last year, making China the world’s largest prison for journalists. Of the 167 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders, China ranked 159th for press freedom.

Uranium sales to China would set a poor precedent. Will we now sell uranium to all repressive, secretive, military states, or just some, or just China?

Clearly we can’t rely on whistleblowers or the Chinese media to inform us of any diversion of Australian uranium for nuclear weapons production. We would be completely reliant on the inspection system of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the provisions of the bilateral safeguards agreement being negotiated in Canberra this week.

As a nuclear weapons state, China is not subject to full-scope IAEA safeguards. Facilities using Australian uranium would be subject to inspections, but this is no simple matter since ‘our’ uranium is indistinguishable from, and mixed with, uranium sourced elsewhere. Further, the IAEA’s inspection program is chronically under-resourced, so it is unlikely that inspections would be sufficiently numerous and rigorous to provide confidence – let alone certainty – that Australian uranium was not being diverted.

As for the bilateral agreement being negotiated this week, it will probably contain provisions such as a requirement for Australian consent before uranium is enriched beyond 20 percent uranium-235 (highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear weapons) and a requirement for consent to reprocess spent fuel produced using Australian uranium.

While these provisions are commendable, they have never once been invoked. No customer country has ever sought permission to enrich beyond 20 percent. More importantly, numerous requests to reprocess spent fuel produced from Australian uranium have been received, but they have never once been rejected, even when this leads to the stockpiling of plutonium.

Given that bilateral agreement provisions have been repeatedly watered down, and some key remaining provisions have never once been invoked, it cannot truthfully be claimed that Australia’s uranium export safeguards are better than any in the world. That claim will, however, be made repeatedly this week.

As for the argument that China will simply source uranium from elsewhere if we do not supply it, the argument is morally bankrupt. By the same logic, we might just as well be exporting illegal drugs, or profiting from the detention of political prisoners in China.

Freedom of Information documents released last year reveal that Beijing wants to weaken provisions contained in bilateral agreements, though the detail remains unclear.

Does China want a free hand to enrich uranium or to separate plutonium from spent fuel without seeking Australian consent? Currently, China claims that it is not producing fissile material for its weapons program, but there is no independent verification of the claim.

Perhaps Beijing wants the freedom to transfer Australian uranium, and by-products such as spent fuel and plutonium, to other countries without first seeking Australian consent? That also is an alarming scenario. Beijing joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004, and that hopefully represents a lasting change of attitude. But as recently as 2001, the CIA reported that China had provided missile-related items to North Korea and Libya as well as “extensive support” to Pakistan’s nuclear program. In 2003, the US government imposed trade bans on five Chinese firms for selling weapons technology to Iran.

It is not difficult to envisage a scenario whereby the IAEA inspection regime and the bilateral agreement would count for nothing – the most obvious being escalating tension over Taiwan. Beijing promises military action in the event that Taipei declares independence, and Washington promises a military reaction in which Australia could become embroiled. The bilateral agreement would not be worth the paper it’s written on.

Former diplomat Professor Richard Broinowski has voiced his concern that by exporting uranium to China, we could free up China’s limited domestic reserves for military use. Comments made in December by China’s ambassador to Australia, Madame Fu Ying, strengthen this concern. The ambassador reportedly told a Melbourne Mining Club luncheon that China has sufficient uranium for its military program but not enough to accommodate both its military and civil requirements.

Dr. Jim Green is a campaigner with the newly-formed Beyond Nuclear Initiative, a collaboration between the Poola Foundation (Tom Kantor Fund), Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Mate, I nuked myself in the foot

Editorial – Taipei Times – Taiwan
Jan 21, 2006

The Australian newspaper on Wednesday reported that an Australian government source has privately admitted that Canberra cannot prevent Beijing from using uranium bought from Australia in its nuclear arsenal, should the two countries strike a trade deal.

But this minor hitch is not likely to stop sales of uranium to China, because Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) seems to believe, in all seriousness, that China would honor an agreement in which the “use of [Australian uranium] for nuclear weapons, nuclear explosive devices, military nuclear propulsion [or] depleted uranium munitions will be proscribed,” as a DFAT spokesperson put it.

Whether or not Aussie uranium goes directly into Chinese warheads — or whether it is used in power stations in lieu of uranium that goes into Chinese warheads — makes little difference. Canberra is about to do a deal with a regime with a record of flouting international conventions, notwithstanding the increased oversight that comes with participation in global bodies.

One can almost hear the Australian government’s saliva collecting in its mouth at the prospect of selling billions of dollars of uranium from its huge reserves to an eager customer for decades to come.

Never mind that the customer is an unstable Third World despot with a big chip on its shoulder — and the owner of nuclear warheads and other munitions pointing in potentially inconvenient directions for Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Russia, India and Taiwan, not to mention US bases in the region.

The question that follows is whether Australia can be trusted to do not only the lucrative thing for itself, but also the smart thing for the region when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation. The answer appears to be “no.”

We can expect to hear a lot of highfalutin language from Australia in the weeks to come about the need to modernize China and the role “clean” nuclear energy can play in a country desperate for fuel.

Such “global citizen” shtick won’t wash. All of this is happening as evidence emerges of tawdry connections between DFAT and the Australian Wheat Board, which is under investigation for feeding massive bribes to Iraqi officials while former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was still in power.

What confidence is there to be had in Canberra now that we know Prime Minister John Howard misled the public about the dangers of non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and lectured on the moral certitude of an invasion, at the same time as people with close government connections — with possible government knowledge — were spreading bags of filthy lucre across Baghdad and beyond?

In China’s case, Canberra has been setting itself up for a sublime strategic fall for some time, with Washington increasingly concerned that Australia might act in a manner that would compromise regional stability, and US strategy in particular.

Were it not so preoccupied with “homeland security” and the grim situation in Iraq, perhaps Washington could better recognize the folly of its deputy sheriff in Asia profiting handsomely from the potential acceleration of China’s nuclear militarization.

“She’ll be right, mate,” is the cry from an Australian who would seek to soothe the tempers of people around him and shut down an embarrassing conversation.

To which Taiwanese can only reply, “It’s not right, and you’re not my mate.”

China’s money blinds many to danger

February 10, 2006, Sydney Morning Herald


It is wrong to trust the regime when it says it will not use Australian uranium for weapons, writes Yu Jie.

FOR the past few years, Western countries have gradually lost their vigilance toward the Chinese Communist Party regime. Western countries investing in China have become the greatest help to the maintenance of the Chinese Communist Party’s economic growth.
This is particularly the case with the lopsided development of Shanghai, whose economic bubble is for the most part driven by Western investment.
Western government and business circles are like the ostrich, pretending they cannot see the reality of China’s political system, pretending they don’t know the appalling human rights catastrophe now happening in China, such as the ruthless persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and the Christians worshipping in household churches – more than 100 million citizens pursuing freedom of belief.
This kind of persecution didn’t just happen in the Middle Ages; it’s happening in China today.
The Western policy of appeasement is driven by economic interest. In order to sell China Airbuses and high-speed trains, the French President, Jacques Chirac, when he visited China, shamelessly said the Tiananmen incident belongs to the past century and we should let bygones be bygones.
In the greatest rebuke to him, not long after Chirac returned to France, the Chinese communist authorities opened fire on villagers in Dongzhou in Guangdong province. The Tiananmen incident remains China’s bloody reality.
The French and German governments have for a time energetically campaigned for the European Union to lift the embargo on selling weapons to China, but the regime is one that maintains its political rule by killing people.
I can be regarded only as a nominal citizen. I am 32 this year, but I have never participated in an election – not an election of the head of state nor an election of the mayor. Not even once.
The legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party rule does not come from elections; it comes from military might. The founder of the party, Mao Zedong, once openly declared: “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” There has not been any change in this principle today.
One aspect of the party authorities’ foreign policy is to politely propagandise the foreign policy of China’s peaceful rise to the people of the West.
Another aspect is to deliberately let Zhu Chenghu, the head of the National Defence University’s Defence Academy and a People’s Liberation Army major-general, issue an aggressive threat to the whole world, in asserting that China can launch a nuclear war on the West, particularly the United States.
Zhu Chenghu is a crown prince of pure lineage, the grandson of the founder of the Chinese Red Army, Zhu De. According to the Chinese Communist Party ruling principle that “the party commands the gun”, it is not possible for a mere major-general to issue this kind of individual opinion on his own.
Even in a Western country with freedom of expression, a high-ranking military general cannot indiscreetly make his personal views about a nation’s nuclear policy known in a public forum.
Zhu’s views must therefore have received silent approval from the highest authorities – even from the nation’s President, Hu Jintao. It’s just like a master unleashing a fierce and vengeful dog to threaten the neighbours.
But Australian authorities blithely plan to export uranium ore to this highly dangerous regime, one side willingly believing a series of agreements, which China signed, that this uranium ore will not be used for military purposes.
But when have the Communist Party authorities genuinely respected international agreements?
The European Union should not lift the weapons embargo against China, and Australia should not export uranium ore to China.
This shortsighted behaviour can in the short term bring a definite economic benefit. But in the long term it will inevitably endanger world peace.
Yu Jie, the co-founder and vice-president of Independent Chinese PEN Centre, is a writer and intellectual based in Beijing. Translation by Chip Rolley.

Uranium to China could go in nukes

Dan Box, The Australian, January 18, 2006

GOVERNMENT officials negotiating the sale of Australian uranium to China admit there is no guarantee it will never be used in nuclear weapons.
Australian diplomats, due to meet their Chinese counterparts today in Canberra, are expected to push for China to agree to safeguards similar to those signed by other nuclear weapons states that buy Australian uranium, such as the US, Britain and France.
The agreements are designed to prevent the use of Australian uranium in nuclear weapons. However, they allow countries with both nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs to mix Australian uranium with uranium from different sources.
The safeguards state only that an equivalent amount of uranium bought from Australia – designated Australian obligated nuclear material (AONM) – is not used in nuclear weapons.
This means Australian uranium can be mixed with uranium from other sources provided a portion of the total, matching the size of the Australian export, is used only for nuclear energy.
Australian officials admit the system means it is possible for Australian uranium to end up being used in the production of nuclear weapons.
“On an atom-for-atom basis it is theoretically possible,” a government source said.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said yesterday Australian negotiators would insist that safeguards preventing the use of AONM in weapons production would be a condition of any trade in uranium to China.
“Use of AONM for nuclear weapons, nuclear explosive devices, military nuclear propulsion (or) depleted uranium munitions will be proscribed,” he said.
Responsibility for monitoring the use of AONM is held by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, whose director-general, John Carlson, is leading the talks in Canberra.
The office already accepts there is public concern the AONM principle means Australian uranium may end up being used in nuclear weapons. “This overlooks the realities of the situation, that uranium atoms are indistinguishable from one another and there is no practical way of attaching flags to atoms,” it says in a 2000 report.
Critics of the current negotiations also argue that any export deal will allow China to use Australian uranium for its energy, diverting more of its existing uranium supplies to its weapons program.
In December, Chinese ambassador to Australia Fu Ying told an audience at the Melbourne Mining Club that China had enough uranium resources to support its weapons program but would need to import more to meet its power demands.
China is planning a significant expansion of its nuclear energy program.
The Uranium Information Centre says China gets about half its uranium needs from its own mines – about 750 tonnes – with the balance imported from Kazakhstan, Russia and Namibia in Africa.
Today’s talks are the result of years of informal negotiations between government and industry on both sides.
WMC Resources, the former owner of the Olympic Dam uranium mine in South Australia, lobbied Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in 2004 to open up discussions on an export safety agreement.
While Australia sits on about 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, the industry’s attempts to profit from this have suffered under longstanding Labor policy restricting mine development.
A number of senior party figures, including federal Opposition resources spokesman Martin Ferguson, support a change in the policy, widely expected to be debated at the ALP conference next year. This would be a significant step towards overturning restrictions on uranium development in place in individual Labor-held states.
“It’s hard to accept that under the current policy we can, by 2011 or so, have the largest uranium mine in the world (at Olympic Dam) and be potentially the largest exporter of uranium in the world but, at the same time, say that some other little uranium mine which is a pip on the horizon can’t be developed,” Mr Ferguson said.

New China syndrome

The Bulletin, 02/01/2006,
bulletin.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin/site/articleIDs/8B9E747B1188D978CA257103000722FD (dead link)

If Australia wins a contract to supply uranium to China, it may very well wind up supplying material for nuclear weapons. Paul Daley reports.

So you thought Doctor Strangelove died in the rubble of the Berlin Wall? And the N-bomb menace? About as relevant, you say, as Sting bleating on about the Russians loving their children, too? Prepare for a frightening truth. The New Terrorism that ushered in the 21st century with such terrible effect courtesy of suicide bombers and hijacked passenger planes is fast being superseded by a renewed global nuclear threat.
And it’s not just terrorist groups like al-Qaeda who want to acquire or are threatening to use nuclear weapons. It seems the most onerous sabre-rattling today comes from the original nuclear powers – including China, France and the United States – and newcomers like Israel, Iran, Pakistan and India, which are developing, or already have, their own nukes.
Australia, which owns 40% of the world’s established uranium stocks, is central to the future of global nuclear power and, therefore, to weapons proliferation. China, an emerging superpower and repressive military regime with arguably little distinction between its nuclear energy and weapons programs, is energetically engaged in multi-billion-dollar negotiations with Canberra to buy Australian uranium to fuel its nuclear reactors. It plans to spend up to $40bn on a new program to ensure nuclear fuel provides up to 4% of its voracious domestic energy needs by 2010.
While the deal is worth potentially $450m a year to Australia’s uranium producers, it will be incumbent upon our political leaders to convince us of the virtually impossible – that any atomic material derived from Australian yellowcake sent to China is used solely for peaceful purposes. At the outset of diplomatic negotiations between Beijing and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on January 17 over the proposed Australia-China Nuclear Co-operation Treaty, Australian officials and politicians talked tough: Australia would insist on stringent “safeguards”, they said, to ensure China couldn’t use our uranium for weapons. But that’s impossible to guarantee. Impossible, because any Australian safeguards will be predicated on the fundamentally flawed safety regime of the UN’s Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which makes inspections of nuclear facilities optional for the five original nuclear weapons states, namely the US, Britain, Russia, France – and China.
In the past few months everything old, at least in the world of weapons of mass destruction, has become new again, as threats and counter-threats of nuclear strikes have issued forth across the globe.
This month, apropos of little, soon-to-be-former French President Jacques Chirac announced Paris reserved the right to use its nuclear arsenal, its force de frappe, against state-sponsored terrorists. This coincided with Israel’s thinly veiled warning that it might launch a nuclear strike against new global bad boy, Iran, if Tehran continued to defiantly pursue its quest to enrich uranium, a critical process in the production of nuclear power – and N-bombs. An overreaction? Just late last year the new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did, after all, declare that Israel should be “wiped off the map”. Could this have been anything but a nuclear threat?
All the while China, fast becoming enough of a military and trade colossus to spook the US, last year warned Washington that its intervention in any military conflict over Taiwan would be met with a nuclear response.
“If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,” said Zhu Chenghu, a general in the People’s Liberation Army.
“We, Chinese, will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian.Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”
This reverberated in Washington and Taipei, where there is growing alarm over Australia’s negotiations with China.
The Secretary-General of Taiwan’s National Security Council, Professor Parris Chang, told The Bulletin that Australia could become an unwitting “accomplice” in China’s nuclear weapons program and should not trust Beijing’s assurances that its nuclear energy and weapons programs are distinct. He also stridently criticised Australia for having “east-tilted” towards China and for putting trade with Beijing ahead of regional security.
“China’s assurance is not that valuable because we know China’s record of proliferation … and, yes, we know of China’s [nuclear technology] assistance to Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan. And so we look [at] what China is doing instead of just what China is saying,” Chang says.
“Certainly, Australia doesn’t want to be seen as an accomplice in China’s manufacturing of nuclear weapons because the sale of uranium to China, even though the Chinese say this is for nuclear power use, well … the so-called peaceful use of the uranium could be transferred to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
“Australia also ought to place a great emphasis on the peace and security of the South-East Asian area. In recent years we have noticed that Australia has almost east-tilted towards China because of trade considerations … even for the purpose of business, for the interests of Australia, [Taiwan thinks] that really, peace and security in East Asia would be very important.”
Concerns such as Chang’s which, diplomatic sources maintain, are also held (albeit more discreetly) in the Pentagon, will, ironically, only make the prospect of a uranium deal with Australia all the sweeter for China.
One insider to the negotiations told- The Bulletin that while Beijing’s priority was to secure a deal, “it will happily drive a wedge between Washington and Canberra on China policy and security policy relating to Taiwan.
“There is much more riding on this for China than just a uranium deal.”
China is, indeed, playing a deft game with Canberra. It has been underscored almost from the outset by an implied threat that if it gets too difficult, Beijing will take its fantastically lucrative business elsewhere. Beijing also made it clear well before formal negotiations began that it would play hard-ball on safeguards and would not subject itself to further – or perhaps any – IAEA inspections in relation to Australian uranium.
Last September, China’s leading arms control official, Zhang Yan, refused to say if Beijing would allow IAEA inspections as part of the safeguards governing the import of Australian uranium.
“I can’t give you an affirmative guarantee to that,” he told The Australian.
Last December, meanwhile, China’s ambassador to Australia, Madam Fu Ying, reportedly told almost 600 of Australia’s leading mining executives that Australia needed to prove it was a “reliable” uranium supplier if it wanted the business.
“China really needs to be careful in where it chooses its source of supply,” Fu said, adding that the “political environment” of supplier countries was a key factor.
“We don’t want this trade to be interrupted by other factors,” she said.
While the Chinese embassy did not respond to The Bulletin’s repeated requests to interview Fu, insiders say she was effectively warning Australia not to complicate the deal with political bickering over safeguards or, indeed, the merits and safety of nuclear power.
It’s an argument likely to appeal to the pro-mining, pro-nuclear energy Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who, with the imprimatur of John Howard, strongly favours exporting Australian uranium to responsible buyers. The Chinese have gone out of their way to fete Downer over this deal.
“Australia holds the world’s largest uranium reserves, which enables us to make a major contribution to global energy production,” he said in a major speech late last year. “It also means we have the responsibility and the opportunity to have a strong input on international efforts to counter proliferation of nuclear materials.”
Downer and Howard will also be acutely mindful that any public debate on Australian uranium exports will draw attention to deep divisions in the Labor Party over its unworkable 1995 No New Mines Policy, which limits uranium production to the three existing mines – the giant Olympic Dam (which has a third of the world’s uranium reserves) and Beverley mines in South Australia, and the Northern Territory’s Ranger mine. Labor’s state leaders have been seriously at odds over uranium policy. Some opponents, including Western Australia’s recently retired premier Geoff Gallop, argued uranium mining opened the possibility of fissile material falling into the hands of terrorists. Others, like former NSW premier Bob Carr, have been more equivocal while Gallop’s replacement, Alan Carpenter, foreshadowed a change to WA Labor’s stance on uranium mining when he took over. Uranium stocks spiked.
Washington has made it clear it expects Australian military support in the event of any conflict with China over Taiwan. But could, as critics maintain, fissile material derived from Australian uranium find its way into Chinese nuclear warheads fired at American – or indeed, Australian – interests in such circumstances?
The answer, it seems, is yes.
Sources maintain that Australian officials, led by the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office – the section of our foreign service charged with ensuring Australian Obligated Nuclear Material is used solely for peaceful means – expect China will ultimately comply with what are in reality relatively relaxed safeguards imposed on other established nuclear weapons states, like Britain and the US, that have purchased our uranium. While the regulations allow export to countries, such as China, with both nuclear weapons and energy programs, such countries are only required to prove that the equivalent amount of yellowcake – as opposed to the specific uranium in the shipment – is used solely for power generation.
Any Australian uranium imported by China can, therefore, be mixed with uranium from elsewhere and used to make weapons – so long as a portion of the total, equal to the size of the Australian take, is demonstrably used solely for energy production.
As ASNO noted in a 2000 report: “Uranium atoms are indistinguishable from one another and there is no practical way of attaching flags to atoms.”
Since the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which made possession of nuclear weapons the sole prerogative of China and the other nuclear weapons states – the Club of Five – other states must subject themselves to IAEA inspections if they wish to acquire nuclear technology.
Numerous countries – including North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa, India and now Iran – have covertly developed nuclear weapons while enriching uranium for energy.
The inherent bias of the IAEA safeguards towards the Club of Five underpins the safety guidelines for Australian uranium exports, because only states outside the club are subject to additional international protocols of random inspection and verification.
Despite much conjecture, it remains unclear what safeguards China will ultimately accept. China has indicated it would prefer Australian officials – rather than IAEA inspectors – to enforce any requisite safeguards attached to the Australian deal.
A DFAT spokeswoman confirmed to The Bulletin that the safeguards being sought by Australia in relation to the proposed uranium deal were based on those of the IAEA.
She said Australia was confident that, in the event of a deal, no Australian uranium would make its way into China’s weapons program. “Consistent with other similar agreements China will be required to give a binding treaty-level commitment to use Australian uranium solely for peaceful purposes. Military purposes will be proscribed. It should be noted that Australian uranium would not be supplied to China for unspecified purposes, but would be sold to Chinese power utilities for electricity generation.”
In the event of a deal, the spokeswoman said, Australians would not carry out inspections. “Under arrangements anticipated, the IAEA would conduct inspections – ASNO would monitor the flow of Australian nuclear material in China through nuclear accountancy, analysis of reporting provided by counterparts, and other relevant information.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation, which opposes nuclear power and uranium exports, is stepping up its campaign against the Australia-China Nuclear Co-operation Treaty. It says all states should be subject to the additional safeguards.
“Our understanding is that a deal is being put forward whereby China will be expected to sign up to the existing safeguard regime, that is a non-binding agreement that will allow China to exclude certain facilities from inspection or opt out, citing national security, altogether,” says the ACF’s David Noonan.
“The ACF is also concerned that China – which, according to a US Congressional report has exported weapons technology to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Libya and Syria – does not make a real distinction between its nuclear weapons and energy programs and is opposed to any transparency in the process.”
Despite the ambiguity surrounding China’s nuclear programs, others argue that supplying uranium to China for energy simply frees up other uranium for weapons.
“Yes, sure, of course, unavoidably so – unless China were swimming in such a glut of uranium that it would never consider importing any. But if it is considering importing, then it presumably would not easily have enough for all its needs – civilian and military – without those imports,” says Norman Rubin, director of Nuclear Research at Energy Probe, an anti-nuclear think-tank in Canada, another country negotiating uranium exports to China.
“In those circumstances, even if every atom of Australian uranium can be proved to have ended up in civilian use, Australia would still be helping China to meet its needs for military explosive uranium. One might as well argue that Australians should send money to al-Qaeda for flight training lessons, but not for knives or guns. In fact, sending money to al-Qaeda for textbooks and medicines and food and childcare is probably illegal in Australia, as it should be, because it will inevitably increase their ability to buy explosives and box-cutters.”
“The bottom line,” says the figure involved in the Beijing–Canberra negotiations, “is that China has enough uranium supplies for power or weapons, but not both, to last until 2020.”
The talks between Australia and China will continue in the weeks ahead, but our insider describes the deal as a fait accompli.
All of which might give Sting something new (or should that be old?) to sing about.