It may seem anomalous that Australia, with a third of the world's uranium reserves, does not have a uranium enrichment industry to value-add on uranium exports. This was seriously considered in the 1970s, when a consortium of four major Australian resource companies conducted an enrichment feasibility study. For a number of reasons, including Labor's adoption of an anti-nuclear stance, this study was never taken further. The most recent commercial involvement was the laser-based enrichment R&D project undertaken by Silex Systems Ltd. Due to lack of development funding here, in 2006 the Silex technology was sold to General Electric in the US.
Today, with the Asia Pacific a major growth area in nuclear power, it might be asked whether there is any prospect of renewed interest in uranium enrichment in Australia.
This is not a simple question. Enrichment is not a normal commercial activity but has strategic implications – enrichment is an essential step in producing fuel for most reactor types, but also provides a capability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Second, companies will not proceed with a multi-billion dollar investment unless there is bipartisan political support, not possible while Labor continues to oppose a nuclear industry in Australia. Third, a commercial project would require access to state-of-the-art technology, so is dependent on agreement with an established technology holder.
The proliferation risk associated with the spread of uranium enrichment is highlighted by Iran’s enrichment program, which started in secret during the Iran-Iraq war and proceeded in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. While Iran is now seeking to legitimise this as a purely peaceful program, enrichment capability gives Iran a nuclear weapon option. The question is whether Iran will be content or can be persuaded to remain in a position of nuclear latency (ie. having the potential to produce nuclear weapons but not taking this any further). Some commentators suggest that countries such as Japan and Brazil have established nuclear latency too, and Iranians argue they should be able to do likewise. [fold]
Another manifestation of the enrichment/latency issue is South Korea's seeking of consent under the US-Korea nuclear cooperation agreement to develop enrichment and reprocessing, consent which the US has not given. In recent nuclear negotiations the US has promoted a 'gold standard' − represented by the US-UAE agreement − by which the other party foreswears enrichment and reprocessing.
Against this background, it might be thought that any prospect of uranium enrichment in Australia has now passed. Certainly, proceeding with a wholly national enrichment program would be seen internationally as a retrograde step, playing into the hands of Iran and others, and raising regional concerns about Australia's strategic ambitions.
Yet the international context is changing. In response to the Iranian problem, international efforts are going into the development of multinational approaches providing alternatives to national enrichment and reprocessing programs. These include international partnerships to provide long-term nuclear fuel supply guarantees, fuel leasing, and international collaboration on spent fuel management. The idea is to establish conditions such that no country has a legitimate reason to proceed with a wholly national program in proliferation-sensitive areas.
One important concept is for sensitive facilities (enrichment and reprocessing) to be operated on a multinational basis. Russia has established a precursor of such a facility, the International Uranium Enrichment Centre in Angarsk, Siberia. Although the facility is operated under Russian control, customer countries are able to take equity in the operation (thus having the opportunity for profit-sharing), and they have fuel supply guarantees overseen by the IAEA.
Russia appreciates that fuel guarantees, even with IAEA oversight, might not be convincing where the facility remains under the control of a major power, and envisages that further international enrichment centres might be established in other countries. This opens the possibility of truly multinational facilities where there is a separation between the technology holder and the host country. Technology would be provided on a 'black box' basis, making it very difficult for the host country to misuse the facility. Such a facility would be operated in partnership between the technology holder and the host with participation by regional customers, thereby obviating other enrichment programs in the region.
If Australia hosted such a project, there would be commercial and national security benefits, the latter through forestalling other enrichment projects that could develop in our region. We could help establish the practicability of multinational facilities as a new international non-proliferation norm. This idea is discussed further in my article in the latest issue of Security Challenges.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.