Last week, without much fanfare, the Federal Parliamentary Treaties Committee recommended the conditional ratification of the nuclear co-operation agreement with Ukraine — a plan initiated by Tony Abbott and advanced by Julie Bishop.
At first glance, a uranium sales deal between the country that fuelled Fukushima and the one that gave the world Chernobyl doesn’t sound like a good idea.
And all the subsequent glances confirm that it’s not.
There are serious and unresolved nuclear security, safety and governance concerns with the plan — putting more unstable nuclear material into a deeply politically unstable part of the world, that is experiencing active armed conflict, is force-feeding risk.
The assumptions about safety and safeguards underpinning the proposed sales plan have not been tested, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's (DFAT) National Interest Analysis (NIA) was deeply deficient.
In relation to key safeguards and security concerns and the implications of the Russian conflict, the NIA noted that:
‘ ... political tensions currently exist between Ukraine and Russia’.
This banal assessment completely fails to recognise or reflect the gravity of the situation.
Unlike DFAT, Dr Kulinich was clear:
'There is a war in the middle of Europe right now...'
The ABC report concludes with an assessment of the current conflict that should be required reading for Australia’s atomic decision makers:
'It is small, it is relatively contained. But it could spread by accident or design. And even far away Australia may not be immune to what could come next.’
In addition to the present conflict, historical experience would also suggest a cautionary approach.
Three decades 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 new concrete shield the latest 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.
This threat is more than a theoretical possibility. In September 2016, a report in The Times documented concerns about high level Russian plans to destabilise the Zaporizhia administrative region.
Earlier acts of apparent sabotage have already seen the dangerous practise of emergency power unloading at nuclear power plants in Ukraine — including the Zaporozhskaya and South Ukrainian reactors.
Australia has already suspended uranium sales to Russia and it makes scant political or security sense to now start selling uranium to Ukraine. Along with security concerns, there are serious and unresolved safety and governance issues with the proposed sales plan.
The Treaties Committee’s report found:
‘Australian nuclear material should never be placed in a situation where there is a risk that regulatory control of the material will be lost.’
Yet this could happen under the inadequate checks and balances that apply to exported Australian uranium.
The report clearly states the Australian Government must undertake a detailed and proper risk assessment and develop an effective contingency plan for the removal of "at risk" Australian nuclear material. There can be no justification for seeking to fast-track uranium sales based on this report.
Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors — four are currently running beyond their design lifetime, while a further six will reach this in 2020. Two-thirds of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors will then be past their use-by date.
When quizzed on this by the Parliamentary Committee, a senior DFAT bureaucrat attempted to reassure committee members by saying:
"Yes, they [Ukrainian authorities] are seeking to upgrade them [Ukrainian nuclear reactors] to 21st century standard."
Oh, that’s okay then.
The current deeply contested series of license renewals, and the related European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) financing of a programme to upgrade safety features at Ukrainian nuclear facilities, has highlighted serious deficiencies in governance, operations and compliance with contemporary international standards.
On top of that, there is growing regional concern about the risks associated with the Poroshenko Administration’s 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 April 2013, the UN Espoo monitoring group found that licence renewals at the Rivne nuclear facility were not compliant with Espoo procedures.
In 2013, the Eastern Partnership, a leading East European civil society forum, declared 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.'
Nearby nations, including the governments or Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, have formally and unsuccessfully called for Ukraine to provide further detail on its nuclear projects and to facilitate increased regional dialogue on this unresolved issue of concern.
These concerns have been amplified after a series of recent shutdowns, fires and safety concerns at Ukrainian nuclear facilities.
The Ukrainian Government’s response to continuing domestic and international disquiet over the operations of its nuclear sector was a 2015 decree preventing the national nuclear energy regulator from carrying out facility inspections on its own initiative.
This, coupled with increased pressure on industry whistleblowers and critics, has done nothing to address the real risks facing the nation’s ageing nuclear fleet.
None of these issues have been meaningfully identified, let alone addressed, in the treaty action or analysis to date.
Any plan to supply Australian uranium to such a fraught region deserves the highest level of scrutiny. Instead, we have tick-a-box paperwork, cut-and-paste assurances and a profound retreat from responsibility.
This piece was first published by Independent Australia