Enriching uranium could impoverish regional security

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Analysts have pointed out that nuclear power in Australia is uneconomical in the absence of a carbon tax. Whatever the Government’s committee of nuclear inquiry recommends in its forthcoming report, and regardless of any other legislative changes that may occur, the Government’s decision to rule out such a tax means that power utilities will not go nuclear unless they are directly subsidised to do so.

Leaks from the inquiry suggest that the nuclear option may prove economical in the long term, by about 2015. All this really illustrates, however, is the nature of the inquiry itself. An impartial and sober inquiry would hardly allow itself to become a tool for political point scoring prior to releasing its findings.

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But there is more to the nuclear debate in Australia than simply building nuclear reactors. The debate on uranium enrichment is getting less attention, despite the fact that Government ministers, including the Prime Minister, have made public statements backing it.

BHP has stated that they ‘do not believe that conversion and enrichment would be commercially viable in Australia for the foreseeable future’. Furthermore, the company argues ‘that there is neither a commercial nor a non-proliferation case for it to become involved in front-end processing or the development of fuel leasing services in Australia.’ Rio Tinto has adopted a similar position.

However, the chairman of the Government’s Nuclear Task Force, Ziggy Switkowski, has waded into the debate, an unusual move for someone in the middle of an inquiry. His positive statements about uranium enrichment arrived precisely at the time when it was widely believed that the Government’s case for it had been seriously dented by both BHP and Rio Tinto’s dissent.

Switkowski has argued that there is a long term economic case for enrichment. ‘If you project that (over) several decades you can see environments where there’ll need to be new enrichment capacity brought on stream and that may provide opportunities for new plants,’ he said.

It is unfortunate that this debate has taken a purely economic focus. There are a number of other important issues that must also be considered and the debate needs to be re-jigged to reflect this.

A major complication is that rational strategic planners in our region, no matter how benign the local security environment, must factor in the potential for nuclear weapons ‘breakout’ that an Australian enrichment capacity would represent.

A uranium enrichment plant would mean that Australia would posses a ‘virtual’ nuclear deterrent. Indonesia has already made some noises about Australian enrichment plans and may feel compelled to follow suit. Dr Dewi Anwar, a former Indonesian Presidential Adviser, has stated to the ABC, ‘Indonesia and the (Association of South East Asian Nations) ASEAN countries would probably be concerned about Australia doing uranium enrichment until we get more details of it.’

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Indonesia has already established an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle, such that if Jakarta were to make a decision to do so, Indonesia could quite conceivably pursue both enrichment and nuclear weaponisation programmes (see here for further information).

Should this occur, we could end up in a relationship of existential nuclear deterrence with our nearest neighbour.

Thanks to Alan Moir

On what basis may we say this?

Well, most of the world’s civil nuclear reactors are light water thermal reactors that typically use uranium enriched to some 3-4% of the isotope uranium (U)-235. Natural uranium (U-238), which is mined at places such as Olympic Dam and Ranger, contains about 0.7% U-235.

Enriched uranium can also be used as the fissile material for nuclear weapons. It is precisely because of this that the debate on uranium enrichment must include wider strategic considerations.

However, in order to use enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, uranium needs to be enriched to 90% or more U-235 (i.e. up to sixty times the concentration of U-235 used in nuclear reactors). This is known as highly enriched or weapons grade uranium as opposed to the low enriched uranium used in power reactors.

Nuclear weapons based on highly enriched uranium are relatively easy to manufacture. The bomb used against Hiroshima was a uranium based gun assembly device that was not even tested prior to its use. Plutonium based bombs are much harder to make, as the North Korean ‘fizzle yield test’ demonstrated, but the fissile material for the core is easier to come by. Recent advances in enrichment technology are lowering the barriers.

Because isotopes of uranium are chemically the same enrichment requires industrial level physical techniques such as gaseous diffusion, gas centrifuges or laser isotopic separation that exploit the difference in mass between U-235 and U-238. Gaseous diffusion plants are some of the largest industrial structures ever built and were first made to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

But the fact is that gas centrifuges, which have risen to prominence since the late 1970s, are much cheaper and much smaller than diffusion plants. The footprint of a centrifuge plant could amount to only 600 square meters. It thereby follows that the barriers to proliferation via uranium enrichment have significantly fallen.

Anyone in possession of low enriched uranium could clandestinely enrich it to weapons-grade level without too much difficulty. Low enriched uranium could be diverted to a clandestine gas centrifuge plant with a plant capacity some 5 times smaller than it would otherwise need to be.

In fact, the job would become much easier because low enriched uranium is already some 80% on the way to being enriched to a highly enriched level. This is because it does not take much additional ‘separative work’ to upgrade light enriched uranium into highly enriched uranium. Just to import enriched uranium now means that one can have a virtual nuclear weapons capability.

It follows from the above considerations that a uranium enrichment plant in Australia would mean that we would possess a virtual nuclear arsenal. Should Indonesia enrich uranium then Jakarta too would have a virtual nuclear arsenal.

If BHP and Rio Tinto’s analysis is correct on the economics of enrichment, then our regional neighbours, may well wonder about the long term thinking behind uranium enrichment in Australia in much the same way as we speculate about Iran.

We are not merely dealing with a hypothetical scenario here. Surely one of the factors of concern for planners in North Korea is the large amount of plutonium stockpiling in Japan, which effectively gives Tokyo a virtual nuclear deterrent.

If Australia is to uphold its professed commitment to nuclear non proliferation then we must reject calls to enrich uranium. Nuclear non-proliferation should outweigh economics especially if the economic argument for enrichment centres upon its purported ‘long term’ benefits.

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