COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Uranium export deal rewards China
, April 15, 2006
Australia has missed a rare opportunity to influence communist China on the issues of human rights and China's aggressive foreign policy, writes Peter Westmore.Australia has missed a rare opportunity to influence China on the issues of human rights and China's aggressive foreign policy, by signing a uranium export agreement with China. At the same time, Australia seems to have bungled its uranium policy with democratic India.
The hard fact is that China is desperate for Australia's uranium. There are just five suppliers of uranium to the world, and Australia - whose uranium exports have been strictly limited since the 1970s - has the potential to rapidly expand output, hence the recent sharp rise in stock market prices for Australian explorers and producers.China's nuclear weapons
While China is a major nuclear weapons power, it needs Australia's uranium to generate electricity rather than to produce weapons. It has been suggested by the Greens that Australian uranium will, at the very least, facilitate China's nuclear weapons program.
This is not so. According to an Australian expert, Leslie Kemeny, "China's known uranium resources of 70,000 tonnes are theoretically sufficient to fill the requirements for the mainland nuclear program in the short term. Production of about 750 tonnes per year supplies about half of China's present needs. The balance is imported from Kazahkstan, Russia and Namibia." (The Australian
, March 31, 2006).
In 2004, China consumed 2.2 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, with consumption projected to rise at over four per cent per year until 2025. Almost all of China's electricity is generated from coal, which is both dirty and increasingly expensive.
Currently, China consumes over a quarter of the world's total production of coal, turning most Chinese cities into environmental disaster zones.
As a result, China is urgently seeking to quadruple its nuclear energy output by 2020, and aims to ensure uranium supplies through the nuclear cooperation agreement with Australia.
Ian Hore-Lacy, general manager of the Uranium Information Centre, told the Cable News Network (CNN) recently that Australia would be a "natural supplier" to China. He said if China reached its 2020 nuclear energy goal, it would eventually need about 8,000 tonnes of uranium a year.
China's Ambassador to Australia, Madame Fu Ling, confirmed last December that China's limited supplies of uranium were insufficient for its domestic power needs and, last year, she paid an official visit to Australia's largest uranium mine, at the BHP Billiton-owned Olympic Dam in South Australia.
With some 40 per cent of the world's proved uranium resources, Australia was in a unique position to raise issues in the areas of both human rights and foreign policy.
But apart from a very limited commitment by China to end the grisly sale of human organs for transplants - which have been routinely removed from both executed criminals and executed members of Falun Gong - the Australian Government seems to have failed completely.
Australia has taken the view that it will export uranium to any country which has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a bilateral safeguards agreement which guarantees that Australian uranium will not find its way into nuclear weapons.
However, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is seriously flawed, despite its worthy intentions. For a start, the five nuclear powers at the time of its inception, including China, are permitted to maintain their nuclear weapons; but countries which have acquired nuclear weapons since it was established in the 1960s (including India, Pakistan and Israel) are excluded from it.
Further, China has signed the NPT, but has been implicated in supplying nuclear technology to states such as Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Canada, which also signed the NPT, supplied the nuclear reactors to India which were used to produce its nuclear weapons.
This indicates that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is ineffective, and that alternative methods must be developed to permit countries to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.Co-operation with India
The United States has clearly decided to pursue this approach with India, the world's largest democracy. Early last month, the United States reached an agreement with India to facilitate the transfer of nuclear reactor technology to India, the first sign of Indo-American nuclear co-operation for over 20 years.
Although nuclear energy currently supplies just 3 per cent of India's electricity needs, it is expected to supply 25 per cent by the year 2050.
Despite being isolated from access to Western technology, India's nuclear energy program is more advanced than China's. New Indian reactors are designed to use indigenous thorium, of which India has abundant supplies.
India has 14 reactors in commercial operation and a further nine under construction, compared to China which has nine reactors in operation and two under construction.
There is a lesson here for Australia.