Proposed Uranium Deal to China Raises Weapons Concerns ; Australia Is Negotiating to Supply Fuel for 40 to 50 New Nuclear Power Plants in China

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The Howard government has begun negotiations with Chinese officials to sell uranium to the energy-hungry Asian giant in a deal that is expected to be signed within 12 months.

Judging by the standards of supply and demand, the deal makes complete sense. China is expected to build 40 to 50 nuclear power plants over the next two decades and needs uranium to fuel them. Australia has it. China's Pacific neighbor is sitting on 41 percent of the world's easily extractable uranium.

The sale would be so good for Australia's coffers that the opposition has decided to back it. But the talks come amid close international attention to nuclear proliferation, as well as US concerns about arms sales to China. The uranium deal, critics say, raises uncomfortable questions about whether the uranium could be diverted to further China's nuclear weapons arsenal.

"It is setting a dangerous precedent of selling to a new country which is not an open society," says David Noonan, campaign officer on nuclear issues at the Australian Conservation Foundation. "We have concerns also about where this nuclear waste is going to be dumped and whether there will be enough checks in place to see that low-enriched uranium used for fuel is not then going to be reprocessed to produce plutonium - which is of course used to make bombs."

In recent years, Chinese officials have globetrotted from Russia to Latin America to Canada in an effort to ink new energy supply deals. China's booming manufacturing economy requires enormous amounts of energy to keep its factories running.

Australia is already a crucial energy supplier for China. Last year Canberra signed a $19 billion deal to supply China with liquefied natural gas and the two countries are expected to begin free trade talks when Prime Minister John Howard visits Beijing this month.

To help meet its energy demands, China has indicated that it is going to expand its nuclear-power capacity beyond its current nine nuclear plants.

In discussing the proposed export of uranium to China, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Parliament last month that the deal would only go through if China agreed to safeguards to ensure that the uranium would not be used to build nuclear weapons, would not be given to other countries, and would be safely handled.

But critics say that past international efforts at safeguards have not stopped some nations from using uranium for nuclear weapons programs.

"Australia pins all its hopes on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty which both [China and Australia] are signatory to," says James Courtney, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace. …