A Critique of the ASTEC Report

Australian Left Review, Aug 2014

On 9 November 1983, as the uranium debate within the ALP gained tempo, the Prime Minister Mr, Hawke requested a government advisory body, the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC), to conduct an inquiry into some of the political and technical aspects of uranium mining. The subsequent report, titled Australia's Role in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle is sometimes referred to as the Slatyer Report after its chairman, Professor Ralph Slatyer of the Australian National University.

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A Critique of the ASTEC Report

of the ASTEC Report - continued over page 'litiative was the establishment of an alternative nquiry chaired by Dr. Keith Suter. This com m unityased inquiry recently published its report titled ustralia and the Nuclear Choice which arrived at ssentially opposite conclusions to the Slatyer quiry. The most damaging case against the Slatyer inquiry, however, is derived from the content of the report itself. The A STEC report has come under strong criticism especially from within the scientific com m unity in Australia. Suspicion about the inquiry was such that the report was mentioned only once during the ALP national conference debate on uranium. However, the framing of the conference resolutions on uranium was already a foregone conclusion. The ALP's uranium policy, which allows the export of uranium from Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs, subject to "stringent safeguards”, can best be understood by reference to the attitudes detailed in the A STEC report.__________________ J the Nuclear Fuel Cycle provides he recently released A S T E C R ep o rt titled Australia's Role in a k e y t o u n d e r s t a n d i n g polarisation o f argum ents found in the current nuclear d ebate. T h a t key is found by exam ining how it is possible fo r the reco m m en d atio n s o f A S T E C to be in essential opposition to the conclusions of the Ranger U ranium Inquiry released in 1976. A S T E C r e c o m m e n d e d " T h a t expo rts o f A ustralian uran ium should not be limited as a m a tte r o f principle but should be perm itted subject to s t r i n g e n t c o n d i t i o n s o f s u p p l y designed to strengthen the n o n ­ p roliferation regime". The Ranger Inquiry recom m ended "Policy respecting A ustralian uranium ex p orts, for the time being at least, should be based on a full recognition o f the hazards, dangers and problems o f and associated with the production o f nuclear energy, and should therefore seek to limit or restrict expansion ol that production". The A S T E C recom m endation is obtained from a rather unconvincing discussion on energy issues which concluded th at the controlled supply o f A u s t r a l i a n u r a n i u m w o u l d " c o n t r i b u t e s i g n i f i c a n t l y t o international energy security". Part of the e x p lan atio n for the inadequate discussion in the A S T E C R e p o rt can be attributed to its term of reference. The R anger Inquiry had very much b ro a d e r terms of reference and exam ined all the issues concerning the nuclear industry. Vertical Proliferation t h e A n essential reason for the / A differing conclusions rests on ^ t h e perspective taken on n u c l e a r p r o l i f e r a t i o n a n d t h e effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime by A ST E C , The non-proliferation treaty (N P T ) which forms the centrepiece o f the N on-Proliferation Regime (N P R ) i n c o r p o r a t e s i n t o its a r t i c l e s opposition to both the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-w eapons states (horizontal p ro life ra tio n )an d to t h e e x t e n s i o n o f th e w e a p o n s capability o f nuclear w eapon states (\ertical proliferation) insofar as it d e m a n d s o f them effective measures leading to nuclear disarm am ent. A lthough acknow ledging that nuclear proliferation has two dim ensions, the A S T E C Report follows tlu emphasis of the N P R by concentrating on the impact o f u ra n iu m exports on issues related to horizontal proliferation. What effect the supply o f u ra n iu m for civilian use has, directly o r indirectly, o n the military pro g ram s of nuclear w eapons states receives hardly a m ention in the A S T E C Report. While the question o f w hether or not the nuclear arm s race receives indirect support from the supply of A u stralian uranium remains open, there is evidence that Australian u ranium d evelopm ents profit from the arm s race. T he United States is the only co u ntry to which A S T E C points as being a likely and significant new client for Australian uranium in the period 1984-1996, assum ing export contracts are allowed. The economic viability o f the proposed Roxby Dow ns mine will be dependent on sales of uran iu m to American utilities. A lthough the USA has ample uran iu m o f its own, A S T E C says "The United States and the Soviet Union have very much larger weapons program s, which may consume a m o u n ts of u ra n iu m com parable to those used in their civil nuclear programs". If the arm s race were to cease and a s c h e d u l e o f n u c l e a r w a r h e a d d i s m a n t l e m e n t i n t r o d u c e d , this statem ent o f A S T E C indicates there could be a dou b lin g o f domestic u ra n iu m available in the U SA for civilian use. T he market for Australian u ran iu m in the USA would collapse and with it the calculated viability of the R o x b y D ow ns mine. F o r so long as1 the arm s race continues there will be increased dem an d for Australian, uranium . Horizontal Proliferation and Latent Proliferation he A S T E C conclusion that! u ranium exports should not be limited as a m atter of principle isJ predicated on the Report's analysis of I the N on-Proliferation Regime (NPR) I from which it concludes that uranium 1 e xports would not c ontribute to the] spread o f nuclear weapons. The I R a n g e r I n q u i r y ' s e x t e n s i v e ! ex am in a tio n of the N P R led it to quitej] the opposite conclusion and, whilel A u s tr a lia n Left Review B9 arguing Australia must institute appropriate measures to support the regime, it recommended a very cautious a p p ro a c h to any uranium development. The definition o f horizontal nuclear proliferation adopted by A S T E C tells much ab o u t the philosophy the Report adopts to the functions of the N PR . ASTEC says " ... a n increase in the number o f countries with such weapons or which have exploded nuclear devices (is) referred lo as horizontal proliferation". In recent years, however, there has been a redefinition of proliferation in terms ol the degree to which nuclear te c h n o lo g ical d e v e l o p m e n t s a n d access lo fissile materials would enable a country to develop a nuclear explosive device on relatively short notice. This is referred to as latent proliferation. The definition used strongly influences ju d g m en ts of the ap p r o a c h a n d e f f e c tiv e n e s s ol m e a s u r e s a d o p t e d t o s t o p proliferation. Pressure.s Opposing the Regime r i n f l u e n c e t h e p o l i t i c a l he N P R is a series o f agreements and mechanisms established to motivations of countries who signatories to the regime, and to manage the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies which could lead a c o u n t r y t o n u c l e a r w e a p o n s development. The prim ary argum ents in the A STEC Report for deeper involvement by Australia in the regime arise not from encouragem ent at its success in preventing proliferation, • T h e further spread of sensitive but rather because o f the considerably nuclear technologies. a d d ed pressures bearing against the • Difficulties in verilying no nuclear N P R since the R a n g er Inquiry eight weapons pledges in some N P T states. years ago. A ST E C 's support for the •T h e existence of unsafeguarded further involvement o f Australia in the nuclcar facilities. nuclear fuel cycle is a logical •Politicisation of the International c o n s e q u e n c e o f a m a n a g e m e n t Atomic Energy Agency (IA EA ) and philosophy rath er th a n a ju d g m e n t on the threatened withdrawal o f the USA. the viability of the N P R obtained from • S t a l e m a t e s in d is c u s s i o n s o n weighing the pressures which support proposals to develop an international o r oppose the regime. The logic of the plutonium storage agreement. m anagem ent app ro ach dictates that the more pressure brought against the T he above is not an exhaustive list N P R the more support it would of what are essentially ihe secondary require in term s of Australia's nuclear pressures against the N P R . The developments. T hus, A S T E C says prim ary threat, however, even to the "Australian participation in stages of n o n - p r o l i f e r a t i o n t r e a t y i t s e l f the nuclear fuel cycle in addition to continues to be the total lack o f uranium mining and milling should be progress in nuclear disarm am ent. permitted where such participation A S T E C sa y s " T h is fa ilu r e to prom otes and strengthens the n o n ­ implement the treaty provisions is a proliferation regime. weakness in the N on-Proliferation The following points summarise the Regime and has provided some pressures opposing the NPR referred countries outside the treaty with to in the A S T E C Report: grounds for refusing to join. It has also • Increasing international tensions, provided ample o p portunity for A S T E C says "while a lack of security criticism o f the treaty by some remains in the world, a universal countries which are already members p o l i t i c a l c o m m i t m e n t t o n o n ­ of the N PT, but which find its proliferation is difficult and perhaps conditions onerous". impossible to achieve". The diplom atic and o the r initiatives •C o u n trie s holding out from non­ Australia can take to respond lo these aprreoliferation agreements. A S T E C problem s are independent of the direct says "there is a small group of so-called supply of A ustralian uranium . The "threshold countries" which have the AS 1 EC R eport simply reiterates the technological capacity to develop a argum ents of the Prime Minister, Mr weapons p rogram and which have not Hawke that the supply of uranium made a political com m itm ent to do gains and enhances credibility for so" (Exam ples are Argentina, Brazil. A ustralian participation in the NonIndia, Israel, Pakistan and South Proliferation Regime. Yet even Africa.) without further uranium exports. A cylinder of uranium hexafluoride fuel — It was this, in gaseous form which recently escaped from the reactor at Lucas Heights In Sydney. Australia will c ontinue to have vested interests in the N P R because of the existence o f A ustralian origin nuclear material in the world's nuclear fuel cycle and by o u r continued interest in the technology of disposal which was discussed in the A S T E C Report and is generally supported. Pressures Supporting Non-Proliferation y placing predom inant emphasis on the political motivations and m a n a g e m e n t b a r r i e r s t o proliferation, the A S T E C Report's recom m endations for more Australian involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle downplay the econom ic and technical impetus this would give to latent proliferation. In line with its restricted definition of horizontal proliferation, A S T E C supports its conclusions by citing the success of the N P R within the context of the expansion of the nuclear industry over the past three decades. Yet A S T E C makes little assessment of the c o ntribution to non-proliferation by the general d o w n tu rn in nuclear p o w e r , s e t b a c k s to a n t i c i p a t e d development of breeder reactors using p lutonium and the weakness of nuclear industries, particularly in the third world, which restricts the financing o f fuel cycle developments. E conomic and technical difficulties in so-called threshold states have also slowed the development o f weapons potential. The threats to the medium or long term viability of the Non-Proliferation Regime are so severe that, while requiring the continuing support of Australia, we cannot afford to trade off the caution detailed in the Ranger Pressures to Supply Uranium A n im p o rta n t conclusion of the Ranger Inquiry concerned the ability of the Commonwealth to "immediately term inate these (nuclear) activities, permanently, indefinitely, or for a specific period". Under its terms of reference, ASTEC failed to examine the domestic and international pressures which trap Australia into a forced supply situation. Each supply of uranium in turn induces pressure on Australia to continue supply, regardless o f changes which occur within the general context of nuclear proliferation or the overall world situation, in particular, supply, o n c e c o n t r a c t e d f o r f r o m any particular country, becomes virtually unstoppable except for reasons d e t a i l e d in b i l a t e r a l a n d non­ proliferation agreements, regardless of other international considerations. Such difficulties in the current dispute with France over nuclear testing in the Pacific have put to rest the once pop u la r "leverage" argum ents of the Hawke government. Conclusion hile the A S T E C Report does a n excellent jo b o f detailing the school of thought on the N P R advocated by th e international nuclear fraternity, it fails to displace the pre-eminence o f the findings of the Ranger Uranium Inquiry. Consensus dem ands that an Environmental Inquiry be undertaken on the Roxby D ow ns proposal, thus allowing invest­ igation of the full range of nuclear issues which have arisen in the eight years since the Ranger Inquiry, with time allowed for the participation of the whole A ustralian com m unity. This a u th o r believes the balance of argum ent comes dow n firmly on the side of the position which concludes "leave uranium in the ground”. Ron Leeks, B.Sc., M.Sc., Dip,Ed,, has worked as an organiser for the Campaign Against N uclear Power (Q ld ) and maintains an active In terest in the global nuclear system and the anti-nuclear and peace movements.


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Ron Leeks. A Critique of the ASTEC Report, Australian Left Review, 2014,