How can we trust nuclear, if we can’t trust its operators?
Whether it’s nuclear safety or weapons proliferation, the federal government (and the Opposition and the mining companies) can be safely relied upon to exacerbate problems with irresponsible uranium export policies. Widespread safety breaches and proliferation concerns in North Asia are recent manifestations of the problem.
In May, five engineers were charged with covering up a potentially dangerous power failure at South Korea’s Kori-I reactor which led to a rapid rise in the reactor core temperature. The accident occurred because of a failure to follow safety procedures. A manager decided to conceal the incident and to delete records, despite a legal obligation to notify the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.
In October, authorities temporarily shut down two reactors at separate South Korean nuclear plants after system malfunctions. In November, a major scandal was revealed involving the systematic use of forged quality and safety warranties for nuclear reactor parts such as fuses, switches, heat sensors, and cooling fans. The current total stands at 8601 reactor parts, 10 firms and six reactors. Plant owner Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power has acknowledged possible bribery and collusion by its own staff members as well as corruption by firms supplying reactor parts.
Inadequate and compromised regulation has been a factor behind the problems in South Korea’s nuclear industry − just as it was a key factor behind the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said Seoul needs to rebuild public trust by boosting transparency and improving regulation. According to the IEA, “recent incidents at Korean nuclear facilities should serve as a timely reminder to the government that the nuclear regulatory authority must maintain an enhanced profile, be well-resourced and able to take independent decisions.”
There is a recurring patterns: inadequate regulation and inadequate nuclear safety practices lead to accidents and scandals; public controversy and media interest ensue; expressions of sorrow and promises of reform are solemnly offered; then it’s business as usual as soon as the public and media interest die down.
Australian governments and uranium companies could help to break the vicious cycle by making uranium exports conditional on adequate safety standards and proper regulation − but they don’t.
They do nothing except react with mock indignation at any suggestion that their silence and inaction makes them partly culpable for inadequate safety standards and inadequate regulation in uranium customer countries, and for the accidents that inevitably follow such as the Fukushima disaster.
Even more troubling is the willingness of successive Australian governments to turn a blind eye to weapons proliferation concerns in North Asia. In 2004, South Korea disclosed information about a range of illegal secret nuclear weapons research over the preceding 20 years.
The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) described South Korea’s secret nuclear research as a matter of “serious concern” − but did nothing about it.
The Howard government didn’t even voice concern let alone take any action despite the fact that Australian uranium has been exported to South Korea since 1986 and may have been used in the illegal research.
Now, South Korea wants to develop uranium enrichment technology in violation of its commitments under the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea has no legitimate need for enrichment technology (there is ample global enrichment capacity) and there are serious proliferation concerns as enrichment provides a direct route to nuclear weapons material in the form of highly-enriched uranium.
Will Canberra permit enrichment of Australian uranium in South Korea? Expect uranium miners BHP Billiton and Energy Resources of Australia to inform the decision. Don’t expect proliferation concerns or common sense to inform the decision.
Australia also fuels proliferation tensions in North Asia by allowing Japan open-ended permission to separate and stockpile weapons-useable plutonium produced from Australian uranium.
The issue has resurfaced in recent months with another round of mouthing-off by Japan’s nuclear hawks. Japan’s defence minister, Satoshi Morimoto, said that Japan’s nuclear power program is “taken by neighboring countries as having very great defensive deterrent functions”. Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba recently said: “Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”
Japan’s plutonium program demonstrably fans regional proliferation tensions. A March 1993 diplomatic cable from then US Ambassador Armacost in Tokyo posed these questions: “Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan’s being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?”
Since 1993, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has grown and regional tensions have worsened. Yet Australia has never once refused Japan (or any other country) permission to separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Australian uranium, even though bilateral agreements give Australia the right to do so.
An argument could be made in support of Australia’s uranium industry if our export policies resulted in better safety standards and reduced proliferation tensions around the world. But Australia turns a blind eye to poor safety practices and contributes to proliferation tensions through irresponsible uranium export policies.
Given that sad reality, and given that uranium accounts for a minuscule 0.02 percent of Australian jobs and a paltry 0.21 percent of export revenue, there’s a strong case for leaving it in the ground.
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