Australia and uranium: the pusher of the Pacific

Since the First World War, conflict and mining have gone hand in hand in Australia. Without a reliable and steady supply of coal, iron ore and associated metals for the production of weapons and machinery, any war effort is short-lived.

Essington Lewis, appointed managing director of BHP in 1926, visited Japan in 1935 and said that the nation could be described as a ‘big gun-powder magazine and the people as fanatics and any day the two might connect and there will be an explosion’. Though Lewis urged large stockpiles of raw materials for steel production and the manufacture of munitions (guns, ships, tanks, planes, mines, ammunition, tools, optical aids etc.), he and Attorney General Robert Menzies rationalised that iron ore exports to Japan should continue so as to fund the manufacturing industry to prepare for a likely military engagement with that country. A ban was finally placed on ore exports to Japan in May 1938. But in November of that year, Menzies demanded that a remaining 277,000 tonnes of pig iron for a Japanese order be loaded on the Dalfram at Port Kembla. Dockside workers, already outraged by the news of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, refused to work. Only after the workers’ remarkable interstate solidarity in the face of the application of the draconian Transport Workers Act did Menzies cave in and ban the Dalfram shipment.

In May 1940, Prime Minister Menzies appointed Lewis Director of Munitions. As an ‘industrial dictator’, Lewis had carte blanche to acquire materials, appoint favoured private industrial leaders to the board, and contract private firms he deemed necessary.

The episode is important not because of the loading of the pig iron onto the Dalfram but because of the reactionary treatment of domestic workers by the Lyons/Menzies government for economic gain from the supply of an expansionist foreign militarist state. This is not to make a direct parallel between contemporary conditions and Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s so much as to indicate how, in the circuitous logic of capital accumulation, one nation can supply another with materials that then return in destructive ways – as with the bombing of Darwin by Japanese planes on 19 February 1942.

After the disastrous nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after 11 March 2011, the world was re-awakened to the dangers of nuclear power. The price of uranium in the global markets halved as the advanced countries, led by Germany, downscaled their nuclear energy plans. In response, the nuclear industry turned to those economies tipped for rapid economic expansion. With the global electricity supply from nuclear power generation falling to the lowest level since 1980 and the number of operating units reduced to 388 (fifty less than the peak of 2002), the Australian uranium mining industry and its transnational investors scrambled to recoup the huge investments they had committed. From about early 2013, however, a certain confidence returned to the industry in Australia, with new mining leases being approved. What justified this given that other uranium miners sought to escape the industry?

On 7–11 July 2014 Prime Minister Abe of Japan made a five-day visit to Australia that included a special trip with Prime Minister Abbott to the Pilbara mines. The day Abe arrived, the CEO of Mitsubishi announced that Australia was a ‘veritable lifeline’ for Japan’s resource-dependent economy, and promised billions in investment in Australia’s resources, agribusiness and retail sectors. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster did not deter the Japanese government from courting more than 20 countries for the purchase of Japan’s nuclear technologies. Indeed, the export of nuclear technology has become central to the economic plans of the Abe government, with agreements already reached with Jordan, Vietnam, South Korea, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. More deals are under consideration with India, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.

The unveiling of a surge in Japan’s military spending in December 2013 and the push to legally reinterpret its constitution to permit collective security operations is intended to boost its military capacity due to an intensified antagonism with China. Abe’s frenzied inter-state activity has led to fresh security and trade agreements with the US, UK, EU representatives, Australia, India and the ASEAN nations with special attention to the Philippines, Vietnam and Burma. For Australia’s part, this included a free trade agreement and the purchase of Japanese Sōryū-class submarines, which are designed to counter China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capacities and to support US Navy carrier strike groups.

A similar pattern took shape on 5 September 2014, when Abbott and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of India committed to the Australia-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in New Delhi. This agreement was the culmination of preparations initiated by the Howard government in 2007 and supported by the Gillard government in 2012, with bans on uranium mining lifted by the West Australian and Queensland Liberal governments in 2008 and by the NSW Labor government in 2012.

Australia has the world’s largest known uranium deposits – about 28 percent – and is, at nearly 7,000 tonnes a year, the world’s third largest exporter of uranium behind Kazakhstan and Canada. The Australian government (and many other countries) placed a ban on exporting uranium to India after its ‘Smiling Buddha’ Pokhran I nuclear tests produced from a clandestine nuclear weapons program. India justified its indigenous development of civil and military nuclear capacity and its refusal to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as contingent upon the significant reduction of nuclear weapons held by existing nuclear weapons states. India was also excluded from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), comprising 48 nations, and suffered economic sanctions after its Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998.

This stalemate shifted when the Singh administration, which had actively canvassed for international and national backing, finally procured the US–India energy agreement of July 2005 and the US–India Civil ‘1-2-3’ Nuclear Agreement of October 2008. The 1-2-3 Agreement stipulated that India would open its civilian nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and delineate its civil and military facilities. In return, the US would provide nuclear technologies (six reactors) and others would provide nuclear fuels. This led the NSG (including Canada and Australia) to lift the ban on uranium export, even though India remained a non-NPT signatory and a nuclear weapons state.

In 2008, India’s Reliance Industries began paying Uranium Exploration Australia Ltd (UXA) for licenses to participate in exploration in Australia. China had already asked to conduct uranium exploration activities in Australia in 2005, and India seeks to become an alternative market to China. It plans to double national energy consumption (presently 949 kwh) and triple electricity generation (presently 135 kwh) over the next 20 years. This will include a projected increase from nearly 4 percent of electricity from nuclear power to 25 percent, or a 13-fold increase to 62,000 megawatts by 2032, so as to achieve half of China’s current power consumption level (which is roughly 4000 kwh). Australian uranium mining companies, as well as other nuclear-related corporate combines such as GE/Toshiba, Westinghouse/Hitachi, AREVA/Mitsubishi, have welcomed this, seeing it as a key opportunity to revive the nuclear industry while becoming less reliant on the Chinese market.

The new demand from India will include uranium mined from Ben Lomond near Mt Isa which is likely to be shipped from Townsville Port, and coal mined from the gargantuan Galilee Basin and shipped from Abbott Point, passing through the dredged Great Barrier Reef, or freighted by road to Darwin or Adelaide ports (which hold uranium licenses). The Australia-India uranium agreement supports this concerted and accelerated push.

In cementing a nuclear deal with India, the Abbott government has committed to selling uranium to a nation-state that barely conceals its intentions to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal and that rejects the NPT and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As a pro-business politician and hardliner against Pakistan and the Muslim population in India, Modi favours a security policy based on nuclear deterrence. The BJP holds a commanding majority in the lower house of Parliament, and can pass legislation with little opposition. The deal with Australia is only one of several such agreements Modi seeks to conclude as part of an ambitious five-year plan.

First, the Australia-India uranium trade agreement is unsafe. If Japan’s nuclear industry and government have proven unable to properly contain the potential for serious nuclear accidents at its domestic nuclear power plants, then India’s nuclear industry, which is much less reliable and possibly even more corrupt, poses even higher risks of mismanagement.

Internally, India is also unstable, as the government fights an embedded insurgency. It maintains a violently repressive approach to imposing nuclear installations and uranium operations (such as Gorakhpur, Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Jadugoda) upon vulnerable communities, and against the wishes of civil protesters, five of whom have been killed since 2010. While guaranteed only intermittent electricity supply, such communities are experiencing higher rates of disease, congenital malformations and early deaths. In Jagudoga, Jharkhand (19,500 people), those living near the central uranium mine operated by Uranium Corp. of India Ltd. (UCIL), have suffered disproportionately high health problems.

While the Jharkhand High Court found in 2007, based on an epidemiological study of 4,022 households by Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, that proximity to the mining operations increased rates of illness, Chairman Diwakar Acharya denied any correlation, and blamed ordinary socio-economic factors (malnutrition). Another study in 2008 by the Centre for Science and Environment showed that the dust and water contaminated with heavy metals from the mine and the tailing ponds accumulates in crops and water, fish and animals which are then ingested. This is consistent with many other findings around mines in other countries, including Ranger in Australia and the Grand Canyon in the United States.

Second, while Tony Abbott reiterated that ‘suitable safeguards’ were in place to ensure that Australian uranium would be used for ‘peaceful purposes’ and for ‘civilian use only’, such ambiguous terms create false impressions. Nuclear technologies are inherently dual-use (both for civil energy production and military use), and it is disingenuous to claim that a water-tight separation can be ensured. In fact, ten of India’s twenty nuclear facilities do not fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervisional authority, and India only selectively recognises IAEA safeguards for specific foreign supplied reactors and facilities. With no mechanism to inspect this nuclear technology to ensure that the fuel is not diverted into nuclear weapons production, safety cannot be guaranteed.

Even if the diverted fuel was discovered, neither Australia nor the IAEA could force compliance. An influx of imported foreign uranium will simply make it easier for India to reserve some of its indigenous uranium for enrichment and/or reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium, or for some of Australia’s uranium to be ‘misallocated’ toward military facilities.

In effect, Tony Abbott’s policy to treat India as the exception undermines the IAEA standards within the disarmament regime, and breaches Australia’s obligations to the Rarotonga Treaty for the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.

Third, and perhaps most significant, the deal will upset the ‘balance’ between India-Pakistan and in the South Asian region so as to aggravate rivalries and intensify tensions between the two nations, as well as others such as China and Bangladesh. A new uranium enrichment facility at the Indian Rare Metals Plant recently identified near Mysore may serve to expand India’s ballistic missile nuclear submarine fleet, and to support the development of thermonuclear weapons. It is unthinkable that the ‘international community’ would allow, say, Iran or North Korea to conduct similar operations without sanction.

So why does Australia continue to actively seek to accelerate the exploration, extraction and export of uranium into volatile conditions such as those in India?

Following a visit in January 2014 by PM Abe to India, PM Modi paid a five-day visit to Kyoto and Tokyo from 31 August to conclude the Japan-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Although Modi left without signing the agreement, the Japan-India relationship was upgraded to a ‘special strategic and global partnership’.

This means that in return for Japanese investment ($35 billion over five years), Modi promised to set up a ‘Japan-plus special management team’ in the Prime Minister’s office to fast-track approvals of investment proposals from Japan. It is as yet unknown whether India will procure Japan’s turbines for 1000 Mw capacity reactors. It could turn to Canada or South Korea for the 19 reactors it plans to build with a combined 17,400 Mw capacity over the next five years.

Nonetheless, an increased financial and industrial base will feed into an upgraded and stronger military-strategic ‘partnership’ with Tokyo. India will purchase Japanese armaments to build its blue-water navy and modernise its forces for likely integration with existing US and Japan technologies. Despite economic incentives and an invitation from China to India to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India’s ‘Look East’ policy puts it on track to a trilateral military security cooperation between the US, India and Japan. This can be seen in Japan’s ongoing participation in the annual US-India Malabar joint naval exercises since 2010, as a gesture toward securing Japan’s access to supply lines in the Indian Ocean. These rehearsals slot neatly into an overarching US anti-China ‘pivot to Asia’.

It is unlikely that the Japan-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement went unsigned because of any putative scruple Japan may have about selling nuclear technologies to a nuclear weapons state. The sticking point over India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLND 2010), which places liability upon vendors and component manufacturers, was surmounted by US and Indian negotiators in the 1-2-3 agreement of 2007–8. Japan could adopt this model and appear to stay within IAEA guidelines. Rather, it is likely that a full nuclear agreement was not signed so as not to fall into the trap of rivaling China, at least overtly.

In this light, can this alliance building be all that different from the ‘assertive expansionism’ China is accused of in the South and East China Seas?

The pattern discussed suggests the perennial links between mining and militarisation. As Essington Lewis’ involvement in the Menzies war cabinet showed, when nation-states seek to radically increase their energy generation capacity for rapid mass production of munitions, they are usually preparing to contest their position in the world order. Uranium and nuclear weapons have been intrinsic factors in the post-war US-led alliance system from the US Reverse Course policy of 1948 in which Japan and West Germany were embraced as strategic allies at the onset of the Cold War. During the Korean War (1950–53), during the atmospheric nuclear testing between 1946 and 1963, and in the proliferation of nuclear weapons as nations sought ‘parity’, the reliable supply of metals, minerals and fossil fuels have been crucial.

The Australia-India uranium trade agreement will supply enough yellow cake for India to diversify its nuclear program. If and when the Japan-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement is concluded, it will supply nuclear technology India requires for generating capacity, and indirectly, to enhance its nuclear arsenal. Both of these agreements, negotiated almost simultaneously, tacitly legitimise India’s nuclear status and assist in its ambitions for greater geopolitical influence. This will make Australia and Japan, both NPT members, complicit in the enhancement of India’s nuclear weapons program. A nuclear arms race in East and South Asia, and an increased risk of accidents in India similar to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, may result.

While leaders such as Abe, Abbott and Modi downplay the reality confronting people affected by radiation exposures from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we should remember that this contamination came, in part, from Australian uranium.

The refusal of executive leaders to acknowledge the dangers of the uranium trade reflects the centrality of nuclear power to the US-led security regime that seeks to dominate non-compliant nations such as China or Russia. Thus Tony Abbott, prior to departing to India to conclude the uranium deal, placed a ban on uranium export to Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. The uranium trade, it seems, is now a political instrument beyond regulatory institutional controls. Political leaders understand the value of a constant, reliable and prompt supply of fresh uranium to fuel reactors that can produce Uranium 235 or Plutonium 239 for nuclear-tipped tactical or strategic missiles.

When the actual benefits from uranium trade are weighed against the potential and actual damage being wrought by malfunctioning nuclear reactors, the use of nuclear weapons (broadly defined), and the steady production of nuclear waste, however, the policies of these political leaders cannot be justified. This becomes ever more obvious when we compare the costs and risks of nuclear power and the recent rapid advances in solar, wind and tidal energy generation.

Adam Broinowski

Dr Adam Broinowski is an ARC postdoctoral research fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

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  1. Yes, all this activity is so extra weird when terrorists are imagined everywhere and capable of anything — OMG, Mr Tony & Co P/L, why aren’t you seriously being more careful?

  2. Many thanks for this informative article. Let’s hope it will be followed up with interviews with the prime minister et al and the author on, say, Four Corners, Background Briefing and/or the Science Show. Again, thanks for such an enlightening report.

  3. ‘t would be good to engage in a fine grained analysis of why the PM thinks coal (and uranium) exports to the degree of expansion that clive and gina and their investors are talking is ‘good for humanity’.

  4. Thank you Dr Broinowski for your comprehensive study.

    Considering SA’s pending Royal Commission into potential nuclear facilities in that state, I would like to see your article widely distributed among the people of all Australian states.

    In view of the fact that the Statute of the IAEA was approved on 23 October 1956, I am of the opinion that the IAEA “watchdog” and its collaborators (including WHO) are abysmal failures and farcical in the extreme.

    One may ask why WHO has a binding (gag)contract with nuclear’s IAEA and not the coal industry? After all both industries present a potential threat to humans and the biosphere.

    The following link suggests that India is tripling its fleet of nuclear submarines.

    In addition, India plans to spend $150 billion through 2027 on new fighter jets, anti-tank missiles, helicopters and submarines.

    The link also suggests that India is now the world’s largest arms importer:

    Certainly, the double standards of the Australia/India uranium contract will further irritate Pakistan and provoke more tensions among the two nations (and perhaps beyond?)

  5. It’s a pleasure Shirley. While uranium prices remain low finding some willing recipient of the world’s nuclear wastes will give some breathing space for the nuclear industry which has not resolved its nuclear waste issue. But not for long. This waste must be managed regularly for far longer than those politicians who are trying to pass the legislation, or their grandchildren, will be alive. what a pity their imaginations do not seem extend that far. The Abbott government has also made an agreement to sell uranium to Ukraine — a highly volatile and unstable country. So much for Australia’s cherished safeguards regime! Adam

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