Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making an official visit to Australia this week talking free trade and increased resource and defence co-operation. But he should be talking about Australia’s role in fueling Fukushima, says Dave Sweeney.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be courted in Canberra this week. In chats with Tony Abbott both PM’s will no doubt be happy to discuss trade and troops. What is less likely to make the cut – but deserves top billing - is Australia’s role and responsibility in the continuing Fukushima nuclear disaster. Three years on the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has left a legacy of silent towns and shattered lives and continues to dog and derail Abe’s enthusiastic but deeply contested efforts to re-start Japan’s reactors.
It would be fitting for the Australian and Japanese PM’s to acknowledge the October 2011 statement by Robert Floyd, the director general of DFAT’s Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, that confirmed to the parliament that "Australian obligated nuclear material [uranium] was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors".
It would be timely for the leaders to commit to an independent cost-benefit assessment of Australia’s uranium trade, as directly requested by the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon in the wake of the accident and supported by a recent Senate Inquiry as a pre-condition before any planned new uranium sales.
“In the shadow of Fukushima, we need to review the costs and consequences of our uranium trade at home and abroad and act on the UN’s Inquiry call.”
Aptly enough, the Australian uranium sector has been hard hit by the market fallout from Fukushima and low uranium prices have seen existing uranium mines close down. New uranium mining projects are being delayed and the sector is in serious trouble. And that's before mentioning spills such as the December 2013 uranium tank collapse and the leak at Rio Tinto’s Ranger mine in Kakadu. Ranger got the federal go ahead to resume processing operations last month but the troubled site remains under pressure and under-performing.
Australia also continues to uncritically supply our existing uranium customers, despite evidence of unsafe practices in countries like South Korea. Our yellowcake deal with Russia also deserves greater scrutiny, especially in the light of escalating tensions in Ukraine, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has not carried out any inspections there since at least 2001. We aggressively push new uranium deals to countries like India, whose nuclear industry has been called unsafe by its own auditor general, and which point blank refuses to sign the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
PM Abe’s visit is an ideal time to reflect on the very nature of Australia’s uranium – it is not like any other mineral.
Uranium can fuel both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons and it all becomes radioactive waste. Australia is home to around 40% of the worlds’ uranium, and the decisions we make matter. In the shadow of Fukushima, we need to review the costs and consequences of our uranium trade at home and abroad and act on the UN’s Inquiry call.
If our political leaders continue to put the interests of a high risk, low return industrial sector before those of our nation and region, the consequence is that it is likely that Australia’s uranium sector will fuel future Fukushima’s.
It is said that those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them – we must not allow this to happen. It is time for an independent assessment of the domestic and international costs and consequences of Australia’s uranium trade and it is time for our leaders to acknowledge the increasingly obvious - our shared energy future is renewable, not radioactive.
Dave Sweeney is the Nuclear Free Campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation.