Australia's Uranium Trade: The Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges of a Contentious Export

By Smith, Ron | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Australia's Uranium Trade: The Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges of a Contentious Export


Smith, Ron, New Zealand International Review


AUSTRALIA'S URANIUM TRADE: The Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges of a Contentious Export

Editors: Michael Clarke, Stephan Fruhling, Andrew O'Neil

Published by: Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, 2011,212pp, 55 [pounds sterling].

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This volume presents a comprehensive account of the continuing political controversy in Australia concerning the mining and exportation of uranium. It is the product of an earlier workshop sponsored by the Australian Research Council and is substantially based on papers presented at that workshop. In part the papers collected here are simply descriptive of Australia's contribution to global nuclear activity from its earliest days, both in regard to the generation of nuclear power and in its inevitable relation to the production of nuclear weapons. In this they provide a useful history. Australia, after all, continues to supply some 20 per cent of the world's refined uranium oxide.

However, the main drivers of concern (what makes the uranium trade so 'contentious') are general fears about the dangers of radiation and radioactive material, which can arise from any part of the nuclear cycle, and specific anxieties about nuclear arsenals and nuclear proliferation. In the case of Australia, the focus has been increasingly on the extent to which Australian uranium might directly, or indirectly, contribute to the increase of these weapon stocks, and to their possession by more parties. The bulk of the book is concerned with this and the arguments are mostly still relevant, notwithstanding that the discussion in places has been overtaken by events.

Particularly, the workshop took place before the events at Fukushima in March 2011, which have had such a significant effect on the so-called 'nuclear renaissance', with its obvious implications for uranium demand. But this is not the only factor. Growth projections for civilian nuclear activity are also being impacted by the global economic slow-down and a sharp fall in the price of competitive energy sources. This is particularly the case with natural gas, as a consequence of the development of fracking technology, but it also applies to coal, where the cost has been inflated by 'carbon charges', which are now on an apparently unstoppable slide.

Despite this, and one other example (to be discussed below) where political events in Australia overtook the substantive discussion, there is much in this book which will be of interest to students of these long-running controversies. Clearly, the supply of Australian uranium oxide to nuclear-weapon states could be seen as relevant to their weapons' programme, even if, in most cases, they have alternative sources and, probably, little need for more warhead material. Supplying to states without a weapons' programme could equally be seen as problematic. Such states may change their mind, or they might, anyway, intend to reserve the possibility of such a programme ('hedging'). These are problems for Australian foreign policy, but they are not peculiar to Australia.

By contrast the middle chapters of the book (beginning with Chapter 5) provide detail of specifically Australian attitudes to uranium export policy and how that has played out in the political process. In the initial stages this was essentially bipartisan, and tied to compliance with the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the 'first wave' of the political debate). This was then overtaken and dominated by the Australian response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. As this passed, there was a 'third wave, in which the uranium export debate was then dominated by the issue of whether Australia should export to a non-NPT state, specifically India. …

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