In a move that marks the first time Australia uranium would be sold to the Middle East, Trade Minister Andrew Robb is fast-tracking a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Last week he signed a new treaty in Dubai worth 800 tonnes of Uranium a year from 2020. But in doing so, the Minister is treating our Parliament as little more than a radioactive rubber stamp.
The foundation for these sales was laid by former foreign minister and airline food critic Bob Carr, who signed the initial agreement with the UAE — a country with a secretive, unelected government situated in one of the world’s most insecure regions.
Consequently, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recently recommended that prior to any ratification of the sales plan, the International Atomic Energy Agency undertake physical inspections of UAE facilities.
But the Federal Government's failure to take this or any other prudent step, in favour of providing "certainty" to the ailing uranium sector shows it has confused the commercial interest of Australia’s small, high-risk low-return uranium sector with our national interest.
Uranium is a small contributor to Australian export revenue and employment, but when it comes to global impact and risk Australian uranium is playing in the major league. The Australian Conservation Foundation has used industry data to examine the sustained gap between the sector's promise and performance.
The report, Yellowcake Fever: Exposing the Uranium Industry's Economic Myths, highlights the urgent need for an independent cost-benefit analysis and a comprehensive and transparent assessment of Australia's uranium trade.
The sector's employment contribution is tiny: the World Nuclear Association estimates there are less than 1800 jobs in Australia's entire uranium industry, representing just 0.015 per cent of Australian jobs. From 2002 to 2011, uranium sales averaged $627 million annually and accounted for only 0.29 per cent of all national export revenue: small beer, but with a big hangover.
Why sell to the UAE? The seven emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have one of the least participatory political systems in the world. In 2012, more than 50 human rights activists in the UAE were rounded up and detained without charge following calls for political reform. The Human Rights Watch 2013 world Report describes a worsening human rights situation in the country, with labour rights a particular issue.
The planned uranium sale treaty doesn't take into account local human rights issues, political changes or broader social upheavals in one of the world's most volatile regions. It states that the agreement “shall remain in force for an initial period of thirty years and upon expiry of this initial period shall be renewed automatically for successive thirty year periods”. If this is advanced Australia would be locked in. As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said, the Federal Government should "take a deep breath" and ask "do they really want to be selling uranium into the Middle East at the moment?"
Despite the Federal Government's repeated insistence that the uranium must and will only be used for peaceful purposes, there is clear evidence that international nuclear safeguards are stressed, under-resourced and effectively impossible to police. To simply state that Australian uranium will not be misused is dangerously naïve.
In the shadow of Fukushima — a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium — we need policy based on evidence. Instead of fast-tracking irresponsible uranium sales to the UAE and India — or continuing to provide nuclear fuel to nuclear weapon states — we urgently need an independent assessment of the full impacts of Australia's radioactive and risky uranium trade.
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