When Will Russia Freeze Its Nuclear Ambitions?


The Winter Olympics is big news with a big price tag. Intent on restoring Russian pride and perception, President Vladimir Putin is spending large — the snow show has cost over $50 billion dollars to stage. But while the cameras shine brightly, other stories remain in the dark in Russia, including the story of the nation’s nuclear industry.

Nuclear politics has always been serious and secretive in Russia. Following World War II, the then Soviet Union was obsessed with matching US nuclear war-fighting plans and vast regions and resources were dedicated to this goal. Miners, many of them Wehrmacht PoW’s, hewed uranium ore at the Wismut mine complex in Eastern Germany, test sites in Kazakhstan were routinely bombed and restricted industrial zones and factories made the bombs themselves.

And they built nuclear reactors. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, equated communism with the "electrification of the countryside" and the incessant demand for energy and ever more ambitious five year economic plans saw Soviet planners fall in love with the promise of nuclear power. The love affair was unrequited and has led to a sector plagued with safety, security, governance and waste management problems.

Just how serious these problems were became apparent on 26 April 1986 when state monitoring stations in Sweden registered a massive spike in radiation levels and the world learned to pronounce Chernobyl.

The meltdown and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear complex in Ukraine spewed radioactive waste across large parts of the Soviet Union and well beyond. The accident has caused massive economic, environmental and human damage and dislocation. The adverse impacts and radioactive reverberations continue today.

Australia’s connection with the Russian nuclear industry escalated in 2007 when Prime Minister John Howard and President Putin inked a uranium supply agreement at the APEC summit in Sydney.

The deal was widely criticised by environment, proliferation and human rights groups and subject to detailed assessment from the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, the Federal Parliament’s scrutineer of Australian treaty deals and international agreements.

In the months that followed, JSCOT heard evidence highlighting concerns and deficiencies within the Russian nuclear industry, including an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimate that only half of Russia's nuclear materials have been reasonably secured.

Along with a domestic nuclear industry plagued with corruption, limited regulation and disturbingly porous security, JSCOT heard of Russia’s continuing flirtation with nuclear weapons.

Russia's arsenal of over 14,000 nuclear weapons has an explosive yield equivalent to 200,000 Hiroshima bombs and Putin has stated that any reduction in these numbers would only serve to make its nuclear arsenal "more compact but more effective".

Putin has declared that a nuclear arsenal "remains one of the top priorities of Russian Federation policy" and that Russia will develop "completely new strategic [nuclear]complexes." In both 2007 and 2008 Russia threatened Poland with nuclear strikes from missiles it would base at its enclave of Kaliningrad following Polish approval for US missile defence bases in Poland.

Informed by these real world concerns and evidence JSCOT, to its considerable credit, recommended a mix of caution and action in relation to planned Australian uranium sales.

The majority report argued that the government should not advance any sales until a series of essential pre-conditions were met. These included a detailed analysis of Russia’s nuclear non-proliferation status, the complete separation of Russia’s civil and military nuclear sectors, reductions in industry secrecy, independent safety and security assessments of Russian nuclear facilities and action on nuclear theft and smuggling concerns.

Importantly JSCOT urged that "actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs" at any Russian sites that may handle Australian uranium and recommended that "the supply of uranium to Russia should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out."

Despite these concerns successive Australian governments have furthered the fiction that the Russian nuclear sector is secure and safe.

In late 2010 the Gillard Government finalised the deal, and in December that year the first shipment of Australian uranium, sourced from Energy Resources of Australia’s troubled Ranger mine in Kakadu — itself the site of a spectacular and severe contamination event last December — arrived in Russia.

Putting the promises of an under-performing resource sector ahead of evidence based assessment has seen Australia squander a real chance to advance nuclear non-proliferation — however, we still have the ability and the responsibility to make a difference.

President Putin’s civil atomic aspirations exceed the capacity of Russia’s nuclear sector while his military ones have no place on a habitable planet. Neither should be fuelled by Australian uranium.

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.