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
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
To help meet its energy demands, China has indicated that it is
going to expand its nuclear-power capacity beyond its current nine
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
But critics say that past international efforts at safeguards
have not stopped some nations from using uranium for nuclear weapons
"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. …