As Manic Times foreshadowed last week with our front cover story, while not explicitly stating the case, this amendment gives Australia the potential to develop a nuclear power industry.
Richard Broinowski, a former senior Australian diplomat and author of Fact or Fission – The Truth about Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions, said the amendment “clearly could open the way to nuclear weapons-related research at ANSTO.”
He’s not alone. Academic and Friends of the Earth Nuclear campaigner Jim Green agrees that the amendment is intriguing. “I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that the explicit ban on weapons research/production in previous legislation has been replaced by a statement that ANSTO can work on nuclear weapons.”
Steven Freeland, Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Western Sydney was more moderate in qualification, “In an extreme reading the words are extremely broad. Though this is typical in matters regarding security and defence [related legislation], because we just don’t know what is going to happen.”
While ANSTO could develop nuclear weapons for the nation’s safety, it may well provoke our neighbours rather than protect us. Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand all plan on developing nuclear reactors, and if weapons development goes ahead in this country it could force neighbouring nations to step up to the next level. It could be a case of Mutually Assured Destruction ASEAN Style.
“Any or all of them would feel threatened if Australia embarked on an enrichment program, and would be prompted to develop their own weapons-capable programs. We couldn’t possibly keep such an endeavour secret, and as soon as it leaked, our neighbours would put the worst possible interpretation on it,” said Broinowski.
Australia has quite a record regarding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty it signed in 1973. Most recently, Prime Minister John Howard announced an intended commitment to sign an “in-principle” agreement to sell uranium to India, a country that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and detonated its first nuclear weapon in 1998.
Australia’s disregard for nuclear non-proliferation grows with this latest ANSTO amendment. “In my view, the amendment to the ANSTO Act is clearly in breach of Australia’s obligations under the NPT. We are treaty-bound not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons, yet this amendment gives us the right and capacity to pursue such a course under domestic law,” said Richard Broinowski.
Luckily Australia doesn’t have to worry about repercussions outside the region. Yet.
Dr Mohamed El Baradei, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General, realised the potential for a nuclear insurance policy under the NPT in a December 2005 lecture: “Under the current [NPT] regime, there is nothing illegal about any State having enrichment or reprocessing technology, or even possessing stocks of weapon-grade nuclear material.”
“If a country with a full nuclear fuel cycle decides to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, a nuclear weapon could be only months away,” said Dr El Baradei in expanding on the theme that this backdoor to nuclear insurance was a dangerous loophole under the Treaty.
Even without the push for a tightening of the Treaty by the International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General, Australia’s nuclear insurance policy is under threat. Many are concerned locally. The Wilderness Society sought advice from the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), seeking clarification as to what the amendment actually meant as “there is no corresponding definition” of what purposes relate to the defence of the Commonwealth when it comes to ANSTO’s nuclear research activities.
EDO made clear in its response that ANSTO has no military power, and could only provide advice to Australian State and Federal Governments in the event of a terrorist attack.
It would seem that the amendment would most likely be used to allow ANSTO to clean up after a terrorist attack. Both EDO and Associate Professor Freeland have come to a similar conclusion. EDO said: “it would be contingent on the need to respond to a threat to national security from nuclear waste.” For Steven Freeland: “[The amendment] is highly unlikely to do with nuclear weaponry. It probably has more to do with combating attacks against Australia.”
It is unlikely the Federal Government will want to clarify the intention of its policy until after the election, but, for now, Australia has acquired a level of nuclear insurance through the legal system. When the legislation will be addressed again by a future Government, be that Labor or Liberal, remains to be seen. As Steven Freeland explained: “This law could later be challenged in the courts to rectify any concerns”.
I don’t have the cash for that, but I think we all deserve some assurance.