Risky Business: BHP, Rio Tinto given carte blanche to export uranium to global hotspots

by | Mar 17, 2021 | Energy & Environment

It has been 10 years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster that was fuelled by Australian uranium but neither the mining industry nor the nation’s leaders have heeded any of the lessons, instead continuing to export uranium to countries with inadequate regulation and nations beset by corruption. David Noonan and Dr Jim Green report.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster, fuelled by Australian uranium mined by multinationals BHP and Rio Tinto, was entirely avoidable, as numerous reports have found.

Yet neither company has taken any responsibility for the catastrophic impacts on Japanese society that resulted from the use of their uranium in a poorly regulated industry.

With numerous warning signs of impending disaster at Fukushima, the mining giants and our leaders could have played an important role by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulation.

Yet the uranium companies get tetchy at any suggestion of culpability, with the Australian Uranium Association describing it as “opportunism in the midst of human tragedy” and “utter nonsense”.

Uranium accounts for less than 0.3 per cent of Australia’s export revenue and less than 0.1 per cent of all jobs in Australia.

One wonders why an industry that delivers so little is given carte blanche by the government to do as it pleases.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Glencore, Peabody and BHP

Australia ignored scandal after scandal

While the mining companies won’t acknowledge that Australian uranium was used in the Fukushima reactors, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office confirmed Australian nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in at least five of the six reactors.

Moreover, the mining companies can’t claim ignorance. Australia’s uranium industry did nothing as the Japanese nuclear companies lurched from scandal to scandal; accident to accident.

The uranium industry did nothing in 2002 when it was revealed that TEPCO had systematically and routinely falsified safety data and breached safety regulations for 25 years or more.

The uranium industry did nothing in 2007 when more than 300 incidents of ‘malpractice’ at Japan’s nuclear plants were revealed – 104 of them at nuclear power plants.

It did nothing even as the ability of Japan’s nuclear plants to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis came under growing criticism from industry insiders and independent experts.

And the uranium industry did nothing about the multiple conflicts of interest plaguing Japanese nuclear regulators.

Exporting to countries with inadequate regulation

Inadequate regulation was a root cause of the Fukushima disaster yet Australia has uranium supply agreements with numerous countries with demonstrably inadequate nuclear regulation, including ChinaIndiaRussia, the United StatesJapanSouth Korea, and Ukraine.

Likewise, Australian uranium companies and the government turn a blind eye to nuclear corruption scandals in countries with which it has agreements to supply uranium: South Korea, India, Russia and Ukraine among others.

Indeed, Australia has signed up to expand its uranium trade to sell into insecure regions.

In 2011 ‒ the same year as the Fukushima disaster ‒ the Australian government agreed to allow uranium exports to India.

BHP risks Indigenous heritage, workers and the environment

This despite inadequate nuclear regulation in India, and despite India’s ongoing expansion of its nuclear weaponry and delivery capabilities.

A uranium supply agreement with the United Arab Emirates was concluded in 2013 despite the obvious risks of selling uranium into a politically and militarily volatile region where nuclear facilities have repeatedly been targeted by adversaries intent on stopping covert nuclear weapons programs.

A uranium supply agreement with Ukraine was concluded in 2016 despite a host of safety and security concerns, and the inability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out safeguards inspections in regions annexed by Russia.

However, it is obvious that Australia will take action when it wants to. In 2014, Australia banned uranium sales to Russia, with then prime minister Tony Abbott stating: “Australia has no intention of selling uranium to a country which is so obviously in breach of international law as Russia currently is.”

Australia’s uranium supply agreement with China, concluded in 2006, has not been reviewed despite abundant evidence of inadequate nuclear safety standards, inadequate regulation, lack of transparency, repression of whistleblowers, world’s worst insurance and liability arrangements, security risks, and widespread corruption.

Civil society and NGO’s are campaigning to wind back Australia’s atomic exposures in the uranium trade with emphasis on uranium sales to China.

China’s human rights abuses and a range of strategic insecurity issues warrant a cessation of uranium sales. China’s ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet and mass detention and forced labour against Uyghurs in Xinjiang are severe breaches of international humanitarian law and UN Treaties.`

China is obviously in breach of international law on numerous counts. Uranium sales to Russia were suspended because of breaches of international law and the same standard should be applied to China.

Scant regard for nuclear risks

China has exported nuclear weapons know-how to Pakistan, targets Australia in cyber-attacks, and is causing regional insecurity on the India border, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in the Pacific.

BHP’s Olympic Dam is the only company still selling Australian uranium into China. There is a case for the ‘Big Australian’ to forego uranium sales overall and an onus to end sales to China.

Australia supplies uranium with scant regard for nuclear safety risks. Likewise, proliferation risks are given short shrift.

Australia has uranium export agreements with all of the ‘declared’ nuclear weapons states – the US, UK, China, France, Russia – although not one of them takes seriously its obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue disarmament in good faith.

Australia claims to be working to discourage countries from producing fissile (explosive) material for nuclear bombs, but nonetheless exports uranium to countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and refusing to sign or ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

And Australia gives Japan open-ended permission to separate and stockpile plutonium although that stockpiling fans regional proliferation risks and tensions in North-East Asia.

Despite liberal export policies, Australian uranium sales are in long-term decline and now represent only 8.9 per cent of world uranium usage.

With the Ranger mine shut down and no longer processing ore for uranium exports, there are only two operating uranium mines in Australia: BHP’s Olympic Dam copper-uranium mine and the smaller General Atomics’ Beverley Four Mile operation ‒ both in South Australia.

Rio Tinto: ditch the colonial baggage and get with a 21st-century program

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter.

An edited version of this article was first published in The Ecologist on March 9, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Noonan

David Noonan

David Noonan B.Sc., M.Env.St is an independent environment campaigner with 25 years' experience on Olympic Dam public interest issues.

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