Nuclear safeguards and Australian uranium export policy

Guest Post by Dr Jim Green. Jim is the National nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, Australia.

Thanks to Barry Brook for the opportunity to contribute a post on the topic of nuclear safeguards.

Why should nuclear power proponents involve themselves in advocacy to strengthen the safeguards system? Perhaps the strongest argument is that public concern about weapons proliferation shapes as a significant constraint on the expansion of nuclear power. Here are some relevant considerations:

— Opinion polls repeatedly demonstrate a high level of public concern about WMD proliferation and national governments routinely cite WMD non-proliferation as a top-shelf national priority.

— Daily media reports about the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran reinforce public concerns about the links between the peaceful atom and WMD proliferation.

— A 2005 survey of 1000 Australians found that 56% believe that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections are not effective while barely half as many (29%) believe they are effective (1).

— A 2008 survey of 1200 Australians found 2:1 opposition to uranium exports to nuclear weapons states (2).

— The US National Intelligence Council argued in a 2008 report that:

The spread of nuclear technologies and expertise is generating concerns about the potential emergence of new nuclear weapon states and the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups.

The Council also warned of the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and noted that a number of states in the region…

are already thinking about developing or acquiring nuclear technology useful for development of nuclear weaponry. (3)

Nuclear power advocates who accept the need to strengthen safeguards can act individually by making submissions to relevant government inquiries, writing to government ministers, writing letters to newspapers, etc. Better still, a loose coalition of nuclear power advocates could be established to work on safeguards and related issues. It would also be welcome if the Science Council for Global Initiatives and other such organisations would take up these issues (Ed: we are, see here).

Safeguards – a snapshot and some modest proposals

The IAEA is responsible for the international safeguards system. Visits to nuclear facilities by IAEA inspectors are the cornerstone of the system. At best it is an audit system involving periodic inspections of some nuclear facilities. At worst, IAEA safeguards are tokenistic (e.g. in China) or non-existent (Russia). In addition to physical inspections, other safeguards measures such as 24/7 live video monitoring have been introduced but only at a small number of facilities. For more information on the safeguards system – and protracted efforts to strengthen it – see the ‘further reading’ section below.

Recently-retired IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei has summed up the problems with his observations that the IAEA’s basic rights of inspection are “fairly limited”, that the safeguards system suffers from “vulnerabilities”, that efforts to improve the system have been “half-hearted” and that the safeguards system operates on a “shoestring budget … comparable to a local police department”. South Australian Premier Mike Rann succinctly explained the problem in 1982:

Again and again it has been demonstrated here and overseas that when problems over safeguards prove difficult, commercial considerations will come first.

Readers interested in and concerned about safeguards could consider the following, modest proposals as a starting-point for your new career as a part-time safeguards activist!

1. The IAEA safeguards department is seriously underfunded (4). The problem is widely acknowledged yet it persists year after year, decade after decade. Perhaps the Australian government could be persuaded to kick in some more money and also to pursue this issue seriously in international fora.

2. Basing the IAEA safeguards system on periodic audits seems inadequate. Perhaps a minimum requirement ought to be that all nuclear facilities of any proliferation significance have a couple of IAEA inspectors permanently stationed on-site. Nuclear facilities typically employ hundreds of people so the additional costs associated with that proposal should not be prohibitive. Alternatively, permanent on-site inspectors or 24/7 live video monitoring might be set down as a minimum requirement.

3. All nuclear facilities processing Australian-Obligated Nuclear Materials (AONM – primarily uranium and its by-products) ought to be subject to IAEA inspections (i.e. the IAEA ought to have the authority to carry out inspections of those facilities). At the moment, it is a general rule that all facilities processing AONM must be subject to IAEA inspections but exceptions are made for the flimsiest of reasons.

4. Important information about safeguards is kept secret by the Australian government and there is a compelling case for greater transparency. Examples of unwarranted secrecy include the refusal to publicly release: country-by-country information on the separation and stockpiling of Australian-obligated plutonium; Administrative Arrangements, which contain important information about safeguards arrangements; information on nuclear accounting discrepancies; and the quantities of AONM held in each country.

5. Something needs to be done about the stockpiling of ever-growing amounts of plutonium as plutonium separation at reprocessing plants continually exceeds its limited uptake in fast spectrum reactors and MOX-fuelled reactors. The problem could easily be addressed by suspending or reducing the rate of reprocessing such that stockpiles of separated plutonium are drawn down rather than continuing to expand. Failing that, one modest reform would be for the Australian government to revert to the previous policy of requiring permission to separate Australian-obligated plutonium on a case-by-case basis rather than providing open-ended permission.

6. A credible safeguards regime for Australian uranium exports depends on having a credible safeguards agency. Sadly, the federal government’s Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) is anything but. For example, during the 2008 Joint Standing Committee on Treaties inquiry into the Howard-Putin uranium export agreement, ASNO conspicuously failed to inform the Committee that there has not been a single IAEA safeguards inspection in Russia since 2001 and instead misled the Committee with the indefensible claim that (non-existent) safeguards would “ensure” peaceful use of AONM in Russia. (Obviously the weapons genie is out of the bottle in Russia but there are other reasons for concern such as the frequency of nuclear theft and smuggling.) A detailed EnergyScience Coalition critique of ASNO concludes with a call for an independent inquiry (5) and the Australian Uranium Association has also called for an inquiry into the role and resourcing of ASNO (6). Changes are in train at ASNO with the imminent departure of its head and deputy-head. Now is an ideal opportunity to bring about much-needed reform so readers might consider writing to foreign minister Stephen Smith calling for an inquiry and for reform of ASNO.

If you want to argue for more radical reforms than those listed above, by all means go ahead! In his book ‘Prescription for the Planet‘, Tom Blees argues that:

Privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide, with complete international control of not only the entire fuel cycle but also the engineering, construction, and operation of all nuclear power plants. Only in this way will safety and proliferation issues be satisfactorily dealt with. Anything short of that opens up a Pandora’s box of inevitable problems.

He also argues that:

The shadowy threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism virtually requires us to either internationalize or ban nuclear power.

Blees also argues for a radical strengthening of safeguards including the establishment of a strike-force on full standby to attend promptly to any detected attempts to misuse nuclear facilities or to divert nuclear materials.


(1) IAEA, 2005, ‘Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA – Final Report from 18 Countries’

(2) Australian Conservation Foundation, November 2008 media release

(3) US National Intelligence Council, 2008, “Global Trends 2025 – a Transformed World”

(4) See for example Mohamed El Baradei, 2009, ‘Intervention on Budget at IAEA Board of Governors’

(5) EnergyScience Coalition, ‘Who’s Watching the Nuclear Watchdog?’, briefing paper #19

(6) See p.12 of the AUA’s submission #45 to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties

Further reading on safeguards:

* IAEA: <>

* Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office <>

* Medical Association for Prevention of War <>

* Friends of the Earth safeguards section: <>

* Medical Association for the Prevention of War and Australian Conservation Foundation, 2006, “An Illusion of Protection: The Unavoidable Limitations of Safeguards”, <>

* Non-Proliferation Policy Education Centre, 2008, “Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom”, <>.

* Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding Dialogue,  June 2007, <>

Information on the interconnections between civil and military nuclear technologies and programs:

* See the country case studies and other literature posted at: <>; <>; <>.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

104 replies on “Nuclear safeguards and Australian uranium export policy”

I just wanted to re-iterate that I think it’s really great that Jim Green was willing to submit a post here, and set down his views and contentions in a detailed post, and talk about them in a constructive way, and allow them to be peer-reviewed through the comments thread.

I’d really like to see more of this on BraveNewClimate.

I’d really like to see more similar guest posts with names such as Green or Lowe or Ludlam or Diesendorf or Caldicott on them.

I’m sure Barry would be completely happy to host more guest posts from these people – but to be honest, I really don’t expect that we’ll see any such posts coming again any time soon.


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