A lot of hullaballoo about Australia’s agreement to sell uranium to China.
The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office has everything you wanted to know about the deal, including the Transfer of Nuclear Material Agreement, Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy Agreement, and a helpful FAQ (Sample question: “Won’t supply of Australian uranium free-up China’s own uranium for military use? No.”).
The last point is an important one. This deal does not matter from a weapons perspective—if the Chinese were to restart fissile material production, they would use national deposits and facilities not subject to IAEA safeguards. The Chinese have plenty of uranium to churn out bombs.
The Chinse do not, however, have enough uranium for the masive expansion of civilian nuclear power plants central authorities are planning. The OECD estimates that, by 2020, China will require between 3,960-5,760 metric tons of uranium each year to fuel its reactors. (You may see higher numbers—some proponents of the deal are being very optimistic about how much uranium China will buy and, therefore, how much money Australia will make.)
Just comparing the size and cost of China’s Reasonably Assured Resources (RAR) of uranium with those of Australia reveals why China would rather import uranium for a large expansion of nuclear power .
Reasonably Assured Resources (1000 tons) in China and Australia by Cost (USD/kg U)
|Country||Less than $40||$80||$130|
Source: Uranium 2003: Resources, Production and Demand (“Red Book”), A Joint Report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (OECD, Paris, 2004).
The agreement with Australia secures for China a large, economically viable source of uranium to sustain it’s civilian nuclear energy plans.
I am generally supportive of China’s efforts to generate more energy with nuclear power plants, if only because I’ve breathed the so-called air in Beijing. (Having moved to Boston, where it is frickin’ snowing in April, I am going wobbly on my opposition to global warming).
I also hope access to a secure, affordable source of uranium will reduce the interest within China for reprocessing spent fuel.
China currently fuels its reactors with low-enriched uranium (LEU) but has made noises about developing a a “closed” fuel cycle based on plutonium extracted from spent reactor fuel, in order to get the most out of China’s uranium resources. This agreement should remove one important incentive for China to invest in a so-called “closed” fuel cycle. (The economics of reprocessing are dreadful by the way.)
I don’t worry about China breeding plutonium to burn in its reactors from a weapons perspective—as, I noted, China has a stock of military Pu and can resume production anytime with national deposits and unsafeguarded facilities. But I am not crazy about legitimizing reprocessing and breeder reactors as a part of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, especially in Asia (I am looking at you, Japan and India).
I think we can all see the problem with large stockpiles of plutonium sitting throughout Asia. (And no, ASIATOM won’t help).
I am also pleased that Australia retained the right to block China’s reprocessing of any spent fuel that used the exported uranium. If China reprocesses the spent fuel without Australia’s express written permission, Australia has the right to stop uranium sales to China. That gives the international community some leverage on this question, though one would probably want to be careful about threatening to cut-off the flow of uranium. After all, the reliability of the supply, by upright fellows named Bruce, is what obviates reprocessing.