Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop's announcement this week to sell Australian uranium to Ukraine is an ill-advised and dangerous retreat from responsibility.
With timing and placement that a satirist could only dream of emulating – April Fool's Day, the month of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown and while attending a nuclear security summit - Bishop is set to sign a uranium supply agreement this week with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Australia, the country that directly fuelled Fukushima now plans to sell uranium to Ukraine, the country that gave the world Chernobyl – hardly a match made in heaven.
Thirty years ago the Chernobyl nuclear disaster spread fallout over large swathes of eastern and western Europe and five million people still live in contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
Serious containment and waste management issues remain at Chernobyl with a massive concrete shield now under construction in an attempt to enclose the stricken reactor complex and reduce the chances of further radioactive releases.
Against this backdrop there are deep concerns over those parts of the Ukrainian nuclear sector that are not yet infamous names, including very real security concerns about nuclear facilities being targeted in the current conflict with Russia.
The Zaporizhia nuclear facility is Europe's largest and is only 200 kilometres from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Some commentators have described nuclear plants in the region as pre-deployed nuclear targets and there have already been armed incursions during the recent conflict period.
Australia has already suspended uranium sales to Russia – it makes scant sense to start selling uranium to Ukraine now.
Along with security concerns there are serious and unresolved safety and governance issues that have dropped off the Foreign Minister's radioactive radar with the sales plan.
Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors - four are currently running beyond their design lifetime while a further six will reach this in 2020. That means two thirds of Ukraine's nuclear reactors will be past their use-by date within five years.
On top of that, there is growing regional concern over the risks associated with the Poroshenko administration focus on keeping the reactors running. In rushing to extend operating licences Ukraine is cutting process and safety corners and not complying with its obligations under the Espoo Convention – an international framework agreement around transboundary environmental impact assessment.
In 2013 the Eastern Partnership, a leading East European civil society forum, declared that the absence of environmental impact assessment for nuclear projects posed "a severe threat to people both in Ukraine and in neighbouring states, including EU member states".
These concerns have been amplified after a series of recent shutdowns, fires and safety concerns at Ukrainian nuclear facilities.
Kiev's response was a 2015 government decree preventing the national nuclear energy regulator from carrying out facility inspections on its own initiative. This coupled with increased pressure on industry whistle-blowers and critics has done nothing to address the real risks facing the nations aging nuclear fleet.
None of these issues have even been touched on by Bishop or by the Mineral Council of Australia's yellowcake cheer squad who continue to champion a sector that remains in freefall post Fukushima. Price and production has fallen and the high risk, low return uranium sector has been hard hit with an independent market research report showing there are fewer than 1000 jobs in Australia's embattled uranium sector.
There can be no nuclear business-as-usual in the shadow of Fukushima – a disaster that was fuelled by Australian uranium.
Following Fukushima the UN Secretary-General called for Australia to have a dedicated risk analysis of the impacts of the uranium sector. This has not happened and should take place before any new uranium deals are inked.
This new deal with Ukraine and the recent deal with India – which was signed despite a recommendation by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) that Australia not supply uranium to India at this time or on these terms – are deeply irresponsible policy positions. They put the interests of a small and under-performing mining sector ahead of Australia's national interest and international responsibilities.
And this persistent failure to either respect or reflect the profound human and environmental lessons of past nuclear errors bodes poorly for avoiding future ones.
- This article first appeared at SMH
- Dave Sweeney is ACF's nuclear free campaigner
- Image by Chuck Hagel / Flickr CC