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Daily Media Quotation

China Will Do What It Likes With The Uranium We Sell It

April 6, 2006

by Mike Steketee - The Australian

John Howard is sparing in his use of superlatives but this week he was moved to describe as "remarkable" the transformation in the relationship between Australia and China.

Indeed. It was only two Liberal governments ago that Australia refused to recognise Red China, as it was commonly referred to. Howard entered parliament in 1974, 18 months after the Whitlam government extended diplomatic recognition and three years after conservatives saw political capital in Gough Whitlam's visit to China as Opposition leader for talks with premier Zhou Enlai.

"Australia has gained a Chinese candidate, if not a Manchurian candidate, for the prime ministership," fulminated the National Civic Council's Bob Santamaria. "In no time at all Mr Zhou had Mr Whitlam on a hook and he played him as a fisherman plays a trout," said Liberal prime minister William McMahon.

Thirty-five years later, a conservative Government has agreed to sell uranium to China, a country with nuclear weapons which remains a communist dictatorship, albeit a changed one. And Howard, the self-styled most conservative leader the Liberals have had, concedes that, although the safeguards negotiated with China are "very rigorous", in selling uranium to any country "we have to assume a certain degree of good faith".

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer claimed the safeguards agreements signed by China this week would ensure that Australian uranium would be used "exclusively for peaceful purposes". The agreements themselves give the lie to that.

As explained in the annual reports of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, uranium is routinely mixed from many sources when it is converted into nuclear fuel, making Australian atoms indistinguishable from the rest. The safeguards agreements do not cover the conversion plants: instead, they require that an equivalent quantity of converted uranium is allocated to a facility, such as an enrichment plant, which is covered by the safeguards. So the argument goes that if Australian uranium were used to make materials for a bomb, it would have no practical effect because an equivalent amount would have been removed.

This is the same agreement we have struck with other countries, including the US, to which we now sell almost 40 per cent of our uranium and which remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons. The safeguards may be strict on paper but enforcement is another matter.

China has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, bringing it under international safeguards, as well as the bilateral ones agreed with Australia.

In fact, it has gone further than the US in bringing into force, as well as signing, the additional protocol that requires increased access to nuclear facilities and more information about nuclear activities.

But China's history is hardly that of a model nuclear citizen. It has transferred nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and Libya. To adapt Howard's words, we have to assume a degree of faith that it behaves better in future. As a nuclear weapons state, China chooses which of its facilities are subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection.

The international non-proliferation regime is far from watertight, as the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei readily acknowledges. He said in a speech last month that IAEA verification operated on an annual budget of about E100 million ($170 million), "a budget comparable to that of a local police department. With these resources, we oversee approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. When you consider our growing responsibilities - as well as the need to stay ahead of the game - we are clearly operating on a shoestring budget."

This is just one of the many challenges ElBaradei identified in policing nuclear safeguards. Terrorists had expressed a clear desire to acquire nuclear weapons, he said. In the past decade, the IAEA had recorded more than 650 cases of attempted smuggling of nuclear material. Of 189 signatories to the NPT, 118 still had not brought into force the additional protocol meant to beef up the safeguards. Though disarmament was supposed to be a key goal of the NPT, ElBaradei estimated that there were still 27,000 nuclear warheads around the world.

As with other safeguard agreements Australia has negotiated, China cannot enrich uranium greater than 20per cent or reprocess nuclear material - both steps towards making weapons-grade material - without Australian permission. But Australia has never refused a request for reprocessing.

How willing would we be to blow the whistle on China if we suspected it was breaching the safeguards? Not very, judging by how far we are prepared to go to cater to Chinese sensitivities. Police this week went to extraordinary lengths to prevent Falun Gong protesters from polluting the line of sight of visiting Premier Wen Jiabao, even wheeling out the Canberra booze bus to park in front of their banners. If that seems like a small matter, it betrays a larger government attitude.

Of course, Australia already is up to its armpits in the world uranium trade. Refusing to sell to China would not close down its nuclear weapons program, any more than would withholding supplies from the US. Even if we stopped all uranium exports, the world would not quickly become a safer place, given the amount of nuclear material sloshing around. In fact, cutting back access to Australian uranium might have the perverse effect of encouraging more reprocessing and increase the stock of weapons-grade material.

But we should not pretend that we have any control over China's behaviour. We would be better off putting our efforts into supporting ElBaradei's proposals to take enrichment and reprocessing out of the hands of individual nations and provide them through international facilities.

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