Yellowcake John


Now that Iran has demonstrated it can enrich uranium, the parameters for the future of the world have shifted. Australia, meanwhile, has been re-considering its own relationship to the global nuclear future, because we have the single largest reserve of the key ingredient in all things nuclear uranium most of which is currently securely underground.

Australia ‘s relation to the nuclear industry is complex and reflects that itchy combination of proclaimed ethical values, sectoral political and economic self-interest, and potentially self-deluding Realpolitik that has so nicely been revealed in the Iraqi oil for food kickbacks scandal.

Given the personal mentor role that the Prime Minister assigns to one of his predecessors, RG Menzies, it is worth thinking again about some of the political and ethical questions posed by Menzies in the 1930s.

In 1934, then Attorney-General Bob Menzies led the Lyons Government’s campaign to expel Czech writer Egon Kisch, who was trying to alert Australians about the rising dangers of Nazism in Europe. Menzies’s eventual defeat in that case led him to later draft a Sedition Act, which the current PM has recently updated.

Kisch on board the SS Strathaird before his leap to the wharf

While seeking to prevent news of Fascism entering the country, Menzies was also anxious to ensure that Australian raw materials were sent to Japan to aid its war effort in invading China. He successfully defeated union attempts to block the export of ‘pig iron,’ thus earning him the sobriquet he wears to this day.

All these actions were done in the name of principle.

And back to the present day. Australia’s current policy states that we will not export uranium to countries that have not signed the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and do not sign a bilateral agreement with Australia on safeguards, including pledging that the fuel will only be used for civilian purposes.

Opponents of any change to this policy, including the expansion of uranium mining and increased production for new markets, argue that the safeguards are too fragile, and the critical issue of nuclear waste has not been resolved. Proponents of change argue that there is an ethical framework in place, that there are huge potential economic benefits to ‘Australia’ (actually to the major mining companies), and that Australia can use its market dominance to extract stronger safeguards from customer nations, including safe waste disposal.

Hovering in the background is another, more terrifying Realpolitik consideration. The nuclear arms club is now quite large: the USA, UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea (maybe), Israel (probably). With Iran soon in the game, the whole of Asia is a potential nuclear engagement zone.

Australia knows this. Will we amplify the dangers or reduce them by selling more uranium to Asia?

The Howard Government has signed a major supply agreement with China that will sooner or later force the opening of more uranium mines in Australia. Given the rate and pace of development of nuclear plants across China, the chances of another Chernobyl disaster or ten are increasing. China has an unfortunate history of industrial accidents with potentially catastrophic effects what would happen to a heavy water leak into the Yangtze, or a meltdown northwest of Beijing with the wind coming in off the Gobi desert? Even the British have been unable to prevent continuing low levels of nuclear pollution entering the North Sea.

Australia has not indicated that such matters are of any concern to us rather, that such policing is the UN inspectors’ role (shades of the AWB?).

For Taiwan, the expansion of uranium-fuelled energy will make it a more productive economy, and provide a small but added incentive for China to reincorporate the island into the People’s Republic, especially if there is any sense on the mainland that the fuel could be enriched for bomb production.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

In Australia, there are other even more confronting questions. It is likely, after an internal civil war, that the ALP will acquiesce to an abolition of its ‘no new mines’ policy. Even if the ALP doesn’t acquiesce, Howard has suggested he is prepared to use constitutional powers to override the Labor State Governments on the issue.

Australians will then be asked why we are happy to make money selling dangerous products to foreigners, but are not willing to have the same energy sources here. We will be asked why we accept heavy polluting power sources such as coal and petroleum that have serious health and environmental effects, but are unwilling to have nuclear reactors providing cheaper, and if what our Government has argued is true cleaner and safer energy.

My prediction is that there will be more mines and at least one civilian, energy-producing nuclear reactor in Australia within 10 years (maybe in South Australia); Australia will be selling uranium to whomever it can secure contracts from (except Iran, Israel and North Korea); and Asia will be a very scary place, with the UN regularly revealing increasingly serious ‘technical’ breaches of its safeguards.

Meanwhile nuclear waste will continue to float around the planet, until someone discovers a solution (which may be a very long time).

Menzies was a great role model.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.