Richard Broinowski writes:
Michael Angwin believes that the 'normalisation' of Australian uranium policy is almost complete, and that uranium should be dealt with like any other Australian resource. He misses the rather salient point that uranium exports can never be 'normalised' because unlike any other natural mineral except thorium, uranium makes nuclear weapons. Strict safeguards should attach to every shipment, and customers should be carefully vetted as to their motives in buying it.
He also believes that uranium has become a good ambassador, a platform for building Australia's relationship within our region and beyond. But the only neighbour for which Australian uranium may prove to have had any kind of relation-building role is India, because New Delhi has said as much. Or more accurately, it has blackmailed Canberra by asserting that if we don't sell it our uranium, bilateral relations will suffer. To my knowledge, no other customer country has ever made such a claim.
To the contrary, most have said that if Australia tries to impose overly strict safeguards, they will source their uranium elsewhere. There is plenty around.
Michael seems to base his optimistic forecasts about uranium exports on the belief that there is an ever-expanding international nuclear power industry. But his predictions verge on fantasy. Even before the disaster at Fukushima, world appetite for uranium had been shrinking as the global fleet retracts.
Equally fanciful is his claim that state political parties in Australia are being elected on pro-uranium platforms. Where is the proof for such contentious assertions? Pro-uranium mining policies don't win elections. The intention to allow new uranium mines to open are usually slipped in among other policy initiatives that have more immediacy. Elections are won either because of the attraction of more urgent bread and butter policies that appeal to the voters' hip pocket nerve, or because the electorate simply wants to turf out an opposition it has grown tired of. Meanwhile, any pro-mining support by political parties is very carefully distinguished from any suggestion that Australia should develop its own nuclear power industry, for that would be the kiss of political death.
Michael refers to Australia's agreement to sell uranium to the UAE, a potential proliferation risk if ever there was one. Going against a world-wide disinclination to follow the nuclear path, the UAE recently contracted to purchase four 1000 MW reactors from South Korea on a turn-key basis. At a recent Lowy luncheon, former United States Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said that if Iran got the bomb, there would be rapid regional nuclear proliferation. Where would countries like Saudi Arabia get their bombs? From Pakistan. And where would Saudi Arabia get its plutonium? Very likely from the irradiated fuel from UAE reactors. Egypt and Turkey would not be far behind.
So, rather than being a normal Australian mineral export, uranium has all sorts of political and security ramifications, which Michael Angwin chooses to ignore. It is precisely the kinds of rationalisations he makes that have over the years persuaded successive Australian governments to attenuate what started out in 1977 to be fairly strict safeguards. The latest of these is to agree to sell uranium to India, a non-signatory to the NPT. The consequences of this are yet to be felt. They could be disastrous.