November 2002

Canberra's plutonium plan lambasted

Sydney Morning Herald, November 2, 2002
By Clinton Porteous, in Santiago and agencies

Original address:

[Posted 04/11/2002]

As Argentina's politicians prepare to vote on whether to accept spent fuel from the new $300 million Sydney research reactor, the nuclear deal has attracted international criticism.

Two United States academics have urged Australia to reconsider the Argentine option, saying it could lead to a build-up of material and expertise for the development of nuclear weapons.

Hundreds of protesters from Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other groups demonstrated outside Argentina's parliament yesterday against the legislation.

They claim the legislation violates Argentina's constitution, which forbids "the entrance of dangerous or potentially dangerous residuals and radioactive materials".

If Australian spent fuel was sent to Argentina the contract would partly open a plant designed to separate plutonium that was shut in 1990 due to international pressure and a lack of funds.

"Australia is facilitating the creation of a possible source of weapons-useful material," said Frank von Hippel, of the Science and Global Security Program at Princeton University. "I think it is an unnecessary extra burden to the world nuclear security system."

Under the nuclear treaty, the Australian Government will have the right to demand Argentina oversee treatment of spent fuel from the new Sydney reactor that its state-owned company, INVAP, is building.

Argentine nuclear authorities plan to process the spent fuel at the Ezeiza atomic centre on the outskirts of Buenos Aires before it is returned to Australia as radioactive waste in glass and concrete blocks.

While Argentina would only partly open the $540 million Ezeiza plant, and not separate plutonium, Professor von Hippel said Australia was creating an unnecessary risk.

"If Argentina wanted to acquire plutonium for weapons again, this is the plant it would use. It would be a very minor change to their process to separate out the plutonium. Australia, being holier than the Pope as far as non-proliferation, really should take this into consideration."

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear terrorism expert and research associate at Harvard University, said the Australian contract could help develop expertise useful in weapons production.

"Anytime you are chemically processing spent fuel at a big facility, you are gaining valuable experience. I believe Argentina is committed to a non-nuclear weapons path, but one never knows about the future."

Not all US nuclear experts are critical of the deal. Fred McGoldrick, a former senior executive with the US State Department's non-proliferation branch, said he was not concerned, as long as plutonium was not separated. The US State Department declined to comment.

The head of nuclear fuels at the Argentine National Commission of Atomic Energy, Pablo Adelfang, said that although the Ezeiza plant was originally built to separate plutonium, this was no longer an option. "At that time, being a reprocessing plant, it was designed to produce plutonium. Nowadays that is impossible. Now we have modified everything."

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