The End of Safeguards


Selling uranium to India, and what appear to be contracts already negotiated to sell it to Taiwan, would throw Australian safeguards principles out the window. A brief historical recall is needed to put things into context and assess how far our bilateral safeguards have been eroded by the Howard Government.

In July 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam commissioned Justice Fox of the ACT Supreme Court to conduct what was and remains Australia’s most comprehensive environmental report an examination of the effects of mining and exporting uranium from the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory. Fox gave grudging approval for exports subject to very strict safeguards.

On becoming Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser was saddled with these, and announced a safeguards regime to Parliament in August 1977. It stipulated that, before Australain uranium could be sold overseas:

Candidate States must be signatories to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); government-to-government safeguards agreements must be concluded before negotiation of commercial contracts, and a clause inserted in each contract stating that terms of sale were subject to them; Australian uranium must be in a form to attract full-scope safeguards by the time it left Australian ownership, and all facilities using Australian uranium must be accessible to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Australian inspectors; and that each request for transferring, enriching beyond 20 per cent U235, or re-processing Australian uranium must receive specific prior Australian Government consent.

With a moralistic flourish, Fraser declared Australia was only selling uranium to encourage peaceful nuclear technology and discourage the development of nuclear weapons. Trade Minister Doug Anthony even added that under the terms of the NPT, Australia had a legal obligation to sell our uranium.

Neither claim was true. Commercial considerations governed the whole deal. And the Treaties Section of DFAT determined that Article IV of the NPT did not obligate Australia to sell its uranium to a particular customer, or at all.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Over the following 10 years, commercial considerations gutted Fraser’s package of much of its potency. In particular, the concept of ‘equivalence’, and allowing customer countries to substitute Australian uranium for uranium from other countries to save on freight, made it virtually impossible to determine where Australian uranium was at any point in the nuclear chain, and what it was being used for.

Malcolm Fraser’s 1977 bilateral safeguards provisions were underwritten by adherence by customer countries to the NPT, and the effectiveness of IAEA surveillance. But the potency of the Treaty and its Agency have both been eroded since then, particularly by the continued refusal of the recognised nuclear weapons States to honour their obligation under Article VI to reduce and eventually abolish their nuclear arsenals.

How far this erosion has cut into non-proliferation assurances surfaced at the May 2005 NPT Review Conference in New York. There, it became clear that the USA, which had a new nuclear war doctrine and plans to modernise and expand its nuclear arsenal, was in no mood to lead the way back to sane non-proliferation principles.

Meanwhile three States that had developed nuclear weapons outside the Treaty Pakistan, India and Israel would remain uncensored. North Korea continued its nuclear brinksmanship. And the likelihood of nuclear weapons finding their way into the hands of sub-national terrorist groups had increased.

The representatives of many nations walked away from the Conference profoundly disillusioned with the double standards of those States with nuclear weapons, and with the Treaty’s dysfunctionality. The likelihood that some of these nations would seek their own nuclear weapons had increased.

It is against this background, that current developments either sanctioned or encouraged by the Howard Government must be seen.

First, under the stimulus of rising world prices, Australian uranium mining and exports are to expand, not just from Olympic Dam, BHP Billiton’s massive copper, gold, silver and uranium mine in South Australia, but around the country. At least 29 new mines are waiting to cash in on the bonanza. Howard and his Ministers claim that Australian uranium sales will contribute to a decrease in global warming, a claim that even a cursory examination of the energy plans of Australia’s actual and potential customers, reveals as specious.

Second, Australia now has a safeguards agreement in place with China, a treaty that cannot be enforced and will not guarantee that Australian fissile material will not be diverted to China’s nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, Australia is a development partner in an American missile defence system a system that guarantees that China will expand its own nuclear deterrent.

Third, Howard and his Ministers are toying with the idea of selling uranium to India, which is not a signatory to the NPT so sales to its nuclear industries would breach one of Australia’s most fundamental uranium export conditions. This will encourage countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea already nuclear weapons threshold countries with the motive to go further, and among Australia’s best uranium customers to walk away from the NPT.

Fourth, we are suddenly told that Australian mining companies have negotiated sales of uranium to Taiwan, and that China is relaxed about the deal. Taiwan has not been a signatory to the NPT since China took its seat on the United Nations in November 1971. And Taiwan has had a covert nuclear weapons program from 1964 to 1988, developing an intermediate range ballistic missile capable of hitting mainland China. We are told that Australian uranium to fuel Taiwan’s six power reactors will go through the USA and will be covered by arrangements with that country.

What we urgently need are answers to the following questions: Precisely how will US regulations prevent Taiwan diverting Australian uranium to weapons application? Will we ship it to the US, displacing an equivalent amount of US uranium to Taiwan? Why can’t we negotiate with Taiwan a binding non-government safeguards agreement, for example, by writing provisions into a commercial contract?

Most crucial of all, have Ministers considered leading an international push to rework the NPT into an effective international document, a document in which an international outcast like Taiwan can become a full member? Or does the Howard Government secretly wish the NPT would disappear?

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