Concerns Expressed Over Australia's Uranium Deal With China

Australian Prime Minister John Howard (right) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, at Howard's office in Canberra earlier this month. (Photo: David Hancock / AFP-Getty Images)

There are concerns that the recent decision by the Australian government to supply uranium to China will destabilize the region, contribute to nuclear proliferation and result in the diversion of more resources for China's nuclear weapons program.

Prime Minister John Howard hailed the agreement — signed with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao earlier this month — as a breakthrough and stressed the importance to Australia of the growing relationship between the two countries. "Of all the important relationships that Australia has with other countries, none has been more greatly transformed over the last 10 years than our relationship with China," he said at a news conference following talks with Wen.

Addressing concerns that the export of uranium to China would result in an increase in nuclear proliferation, Wen denied that his government would divert the Australian uranium into its nuclear weapons program guaranteeing instead to use the ore to satisfy China's voracious energy needs. "China is a responsible country in the international community," he said.

However, Australian Greens energy spokesperson Christine Milne questioned Wen's assurances and pointed to the inadequacy of international monitoring safeguards agreements. Senator Milne claimed the supply of the ore would allow the Chinese government to divert some of its own uranium into nuclear weapons programs. "The Chinese Ambassador to Australia in December 2005 said that China had insufficient uranium for both its nuclear power and nuclear weapons programs. It is obvious that Australian uranium will make up the shortfall," she said to reporters.

Expressing concern that the enriching of the uranium fell outside of the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) monitoring specifications Senator Milne added, "What must be understood is that China, as a nuclear weapons state, makes the decision about which facilities will be open to inspection by the I.A.E.A. These facilities can be withdrawn from inspection at any time of China's choosing.

"The agreements make clear that Australian yellowcake will go first to Chinese nuclear facilities for conversion and these are outside the safeguards agreement.

"Whilst Prime Minister Howard says that Australian uranium will only be permitted to be enriched to 20 percent, there is no way that he can guarantee this as once the uranium is converted into uranium hexafluoride it is impossible to tell from where it was sourced.

"Selling uranium to a military dictatorship which has already made nuclear materials and technology available to Pakistan and Iran and which has so little respect for human rights and industrial health and safety is putting dollars before human decency and global security," Milne said.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center based in Washington, D.C., also questioned the adequacy of assurances from China. "You've freed up their resource base to make more weapons, so whether or not your material goes into bombs or not isn't really on point.

"I think anyone would be naive to think that you haven't made it easier for China to ramp up its nuclear weapons capacity, at a time of its choosing," said Sokolski to The World Today, an Australian radio program.

One of Australia's leading environmental groups the Australian Conservation Foundation also strongly criticized the government's decision. "Australian uranium exports would facilitate diversion of China's limited uranium supplies into their ongoing nuclear weapons program, further regional insecurity and increase nuclear risks including unresolved nuclear waste management.

"China is an authoritarian state with a history of lack of accountability and non-compliance to a range of relevant nuclear and human rights treaties and conventions," the group said in a press release on the eve of the signing.

However, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer supported the existing safeguard agreements. "These agreements establish strict safeguards, arrangements and conditions to ensure Australian uranium supplied to China, and any collaborative programs in applications of nuclear technology, is used exclusively for peaceful purposes," he said to reporters.

Meanwhile Australia's close ally the United States has stopped short of fully endorsing the uranium deal with China saying the agreement was a matter between the two countries.

Offering only qualified support to the deal, State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli called the safeguards arrangement "adequate" and though agreeing that the deal met safeguard specifications under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, avoided endorsing the deal. "It's not a question of the U.S. supporting or not supporting, this is a deal between Australia and China," he said to reporters.

The United States in recent times has expressed its concern over the expansion of China's military including its apparent attempt to increase its nuclear weapons capability. Many in the Bush administration have seen the signing of the deal to import Australian uranium as a means for China to extend its regional influence at the expense of the United States and its powerful allies in Asia such as Japan.

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