Our Big New Uranium Customer


Supporters of the Federal Government’s new deal to sell uranium to Russia are asking us to forget Chernobyl. For example, the chief executive of the Australian Uranium Association, Michael Angwin, claims the regulation of the Russian nuclear industry has come a long way since the meltdown in 1986 which led to the contamination of a vast area, many deaths, mutations and dramatically increased cancer rates.

Let’s oblige them, put aside the most stark example of the dangers of nuclear power generation, and analyse the deal with Russia as we know it today. The Putin-Medvedev regime has demonstrated repeatedly that it is not a government in which much faith can be invested. Under the current administration, Russia has had hostile relations with a number of neighbouring countries, in some cases escalating into war.

It blocked gas supplies to the Ukraine in June 2009 in an attempt to bully the former member state of the defunct Soviet empire, and was implicated in the alleged poisoning of the president of Ukraine in 2004. When this alleged poisoning was investigated, Russian authorities refused to cooperate.

In August-September 1999 Russian aerial bombing in Chechnya displaced 100,000 civilians.

And in October 1999 Vladimir Putin, who had recently become Prime Minister, declared the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his parliament illegitimate, and sent the Russian army into the region, using artillery, cluster bombs and air raids. This was the beginning in earnest of the second Russian-Chechen war. Between 1999 and 2007 about 25,000 civilians were killed in Chechnya. International observers made strident criticisms of severe human rights abuses from Russian forces in Chechnya under Putin’s government. The combined total civilian death toll in the two Russian-Chechen wars has been estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000.

In 2008, months of tensions between Georgia and Russia erupted when Georgian forces stormed the break-away province of South Ossetia — leading to a heavy handed Russian military response which saw 50,000 Georgians displaced and over 300 killed.

The Russian government has also waged war on the media and other critics.

Since the early 1990s, a number of Russian journalists who have reported on the fighting in Chechnya, composed contentious reports on organised crime, scrutinised the conduct of state officials or investigated large businesses, have been killed.

On October 7 2006, respected journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had written a series of reports exposing corruption in the Russian army and its atrocities in Chechnya, was shot dead in her apartment building.

In January 2008 the head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, Oleg Panfilov, said a strategy of "judicial terrorism" was being employed by the Putin government to silence dissent, citing more than 300 criminal cases opened against journalists in Russia since 2002.

In November 1998, former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko was one of a group of Federal Security Service officers who publicly alleged that their superior officers ordered the assassination of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko subsequently fled to the United Kingdom, where he authored two books accusing the Russian government of staging terrorist attacks to consolidate Putin’s grip on power. He also accused Putin of ordering the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. On November 1 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell gravely ill and died. This was attributed to poisoning with the radionuclide polonium-210 after the Health Protection Agency found significant amounts of the rare element in his body.

After his death British authorities attempted to extradite one key suspect in the killing of Litvinenko — former officer of the Russian Federal Protective Service Andrei Lugovoy. These attempts were frustrated by Russian authorities and Lugovoy is now a member of the Russian Duma and immune from prosecution.

Under Putin-Medvedev there has been growing alarm at the deteriorating integrity of Russian elections.

European institutions observing the December 2007 legislative elections concluded they were neither free nor fair. The head of the Council of Europe delegation referred to the "overwhelming influence of the president’s office and the president on the campaign," identified an "abuse of administrative resources" and said the ballot was not consistently confidential.

In February 2008 Amnesty International said would be "no real opposition" to Putin in the 2 March election. Amnesty said laws restricting NGOs, police raids on demonstrations and harassment of opponents constituted "a systematic destruction of civil liberties in Russia".

Human rights organisation Freedom House said the victory of Putin’s party in the 2007 elections was "achieved under patently unfair and non-competitive conditions calling into doubt the result’s legitimacy", so it is no shock that the Russian government has repeatedly resisted efforts by international observers to monitor Russian elections.

This is the nature of the state operating the world’s most unforgiving energy technology, nuclear power, and our new uranium customer.

Of the 32 nuclear power reactors now operating in Russia, 23 were constructed prior to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. While Russian generators are generally licensed for 30 years, 12 of the current reactors have been operating for more than three decades. Late in 2000 plans were announced by Russian authorities for lifetime extensions of these 12 first generation reactors. The extension period is now envisaged as between 15 and 25 years.

By the late 1990s Russian authorities were exporting nuclear reactors or related technology to India — which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In August this year Russia announced it would begin the start up of Iran’s only nuclear power plant. Uranium fuel shipped by Russia into Iran began use at the Bushehr reactor on August 21, despite the fact Iran refuses to sign up to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which would make it subject to international monitoring of its atomic safety standards.

And that is just Russia’s peaceful nuclear sector.

The Institute of Political and Military Analysis, a Moscow-based non-government research organisation, reports that Russia has 3100 nuclear warheads, with the US State Department claiming in April 2009, that the correct figure is 3909. Russia also has a large but unknown number of tactical nuclear weapons. Russia is actively producing and developing new nuclear weapons and has been manufacturing Topol-M (SS-27) inter-continental ballistic missiles since 1997.

It is no wonder that the very real security and proliferation concerns of uranium deals with Russia were spelled out forensically by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) in 2008, a committee that urged the Australian government not to sell uranium to Russia. The Government has blindly dismissed these warnings. This is an example of short term profits taking precedence over longterm health and security interests.

The cross-border and internal aggression of the current Russian government, the ongoing abuse of power, the persecution and indeed assassination of journalists and critics, the election-rigging, the ageing nuclear power sector and the vast and growing nuclear arsenal make a compelling case against selling uranium to Russia. Even if we forget the past, as supporters of the deal announced by the Prime Minister at the G20 conference insist we should, we can not ignore the future.

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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.