Friday, August 19, 2005

Nuclear research terror risk: inquiry


August 19, 2005 - 6:24PM
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Private research at Australia's sole nuclear reactor would make it easier for terrorists or rogue governments to build their own atomic weapons, a federal parliamentary inquiry has been told.
The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) told the inquiry that research by Silex Systems Ltd at Sydney's Lucas Heights reactor breached Australia's nuclear weapons non-proliferation principles.
Silex's research into uranium enrichment would make it possible to produce weapons material on a small-scale without the massive infrastructure, costs and technical sophistication normally required, MAPW spokesman Tilman Ruff said.
"It could make it possible for a terrorist group, a government, in a space that's probably a quarter the size of this room ... to enrich sufficient material for the production of a couple of nuclear weapons per year," he said.
"This is entirely incompatible with Australia's non-proliferation objectives and should be closed forthwith."
Associate Professor Ruff said Australia should not support the development of technology that made production of nuclear weapons "easier or more concealable" by groups with "non-legitimate motives".
The University of Melbourne academic said the Silex work was the only private research allowed in the publicly-owned reactor.
The company had announced plans this year to construct a pilot plant and the US energy department had given the enrichment technology the highest level security classification.
Prof Ruff was giving evidence before a parliamentary inquiry into the strategic importance of Australia's uranium industry.
Australia has about 40 per cent of the world's uranium resources and supplies about 20 per cent of the world market.
The inquiry is looking at the development of Australia's uranium resources and the implications for global greenhouse gas reduction.
Liberal backbencher Geoff Prosser, who heads the inquiry, said nuclear power was one way of solving the problem of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
"The committee is worried about the emissions and global warming," he said outside the hearing.
"So it's looking at alternatives to fossil fuels."
Mr Prosser said Australia could double its uranium exports to $1 billion annually.
Western Australia and Queensland has banned uranium mining, but it is allowed in the Northern Territory and South Australia.
"If the country has the view that we should export uranium, it would seem sensible that all states, if they wish to, participate in it."
In its submission to the inquiry, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) warned uranium mining was harmful in Australia and dangerous abroad, creating hazardous waste and nuclear weapons proliferation.
"We need to find new ways to create energy but nuclear isn't the answer," ACF campaigner Dave Sweeney said outside the inquiry.
"It's not the silver bullet. There is no single one-size-fits-all and it will be a whole range of issues and a whole range of technologies and techniques that we use."
The inquiry also heard submissions from CSIRO, exploration company Southern Gold and Heathgate Resources, which runs the Beverly Mine in South Australia.


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