Ukraine

Dancing With The Devil: Australian Uranium in Ukraine

Filed in: Geopolitics Author: Brendan R Hay

In November 2016, a group of Australian federal politicians gathered quietly to take a very quick look at an issue with very long consequences. The outcome was an agreement that has now seen Australia sign a deal to sell uranium to a nation at war with Russia.

Zaporizhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, is in southeast Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper River. © Wikicommons

Zaporizhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, is in southeast Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper River. © Wikicommons

There has been a lack of detailed information to support the safety and safeguards assumptions underpinning the proposed treaty action, and according to some sources the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) National Interest Analysis of the plan is deeply deficient, especially in relation to key safeguards and security concerns and the implications of the Russian conflict. The NIA’s under-stated noting that ‘political tensions currently exist between Ukraine and Russia‘ completely fails to recognise or reflect the gravity of the situation.

Any plan to supply Australian uranium to such a fraught region deserves the highest level of scrutiny.
Instead, we have tick-a-box paperwork and cut-and-paste assurances.

Just over thirty years ago, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster spread fallout over vast areas 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 concrete shield now under construction in an attempt to enclose the stricken reactor complex and reduce the chances of further radioactive releases.

Against this ominous 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 the nuclear plants in the region as pre-deployed nuclear weapons, and there have already been armed incursions during the recent conflict period. 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 an interesting political point to start selling uranium to the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine now. Along with security concerns there are serious and unresolved safety and governance issues with the proposed sales plan. President Petro Poroshenko still refuses to combat the endemic corruption that infuriates Ukrainians and strangles their economy.

Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors, four of which are currently running beyond their design lifetime while a further six will reach this state by 2020.  That means two thirds of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors will be past their use-by date within five years. The currently contested series of license renewals and the related European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) financing of a program 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 over the risks associated with the Poroshenko administration 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 license renewals at the Rivne nuclear facility were not compliant with Espoo procedures.

New life for Ukraine’s aging nuclear power plants?

New life for Ukraine’s aging nuclear power plants?

In 2013 the Eastern Partnership, a leading East European civil society forum, declared that 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.

The Ukrainian government’s response to continuing domestic and international disquiet over the operations of its nuclear sector was a 2015 government decree preventing the national nuclear energy regulator from carrying out facility inspections on its own initiative. This coupled with increased pressure on industry whistle-blowers and critics has done nothing to address the real risks facing the nations aging nuclear fleet.

Apart from any other reason, the Ukraine sales deal should not be advanced in the continued absence of any meaningful Australian government, agency and uranium company response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, which was directly fueled by Australian uranium.

None of these issues have been meaningfully identified, let alone addressed, in Australian treaty action or analysis to date. The Australian government and the rest of the West must recognize this danger, drop its charade of portraying Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as a paladin of democracy, and start forcing him to enact visible, tangible reforms. Anemic recommendations, such as the  US State Department’s vague wish for ‘a new cabinet that is committed to implementing needed reforms,’ aren’t going to cut it. The overturned states of Syria and Libya are straining Europe to the breaking point – consider what a failed state of 45 million people in the middle of Central Europe could do.

MH-17: Australia’s flight into a warzone

In July 2014, the Australian Government found itself embroiled in a complex international situation in one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots after Malaysian Airline’s flight MH17 was allegedly shot down over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board.  All contact was lost with the Boeing 777 around 50 kilometres from the Ukraine–Russian border and then crashed near Torez in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.

9M-MRD

9M-MRD, the aircraft shot down, photographed in October 2011

Immediately, the US and its allies focused the blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Official Washington jumping to the conclusion that Ukrainian rebels and Russia were guilty in the shoot-down of the Malaysian passenger plane. Consequently, the European Union got in line behind the American-backed Poroshenko regime in Ukraine and supported further economic sanctions to punish Russia. According to some independent investigative journalists however, some US intelligence analysts may see the evidence differently.

Robert Parry writes that, “despite US spy satellites positioned over eastern Ukraine, US intelligence agencies have released no images of a BUK system being transferred by Russians to rebel control, shipped into Ukraine, deployed into firing position and then being taken back to Russia. Though the Obama administration has released other images of Ukraine taken by U.S. spy satellites, the absence of any photos of a rebel-controlled BUK missile battery has been the dog not barking in the strident case that Official Washington has made in blaming the rebels and Russia for the July 17 shoot-down that killed 298 people.”

If it was a rebel-operated BUK-1M (also referred to as the SA-11 Gadfly), it would suggest definitive evidence is required to prove that it quickly appeared from Russia, was used for a single shot by Russian-mentored separatist rebels, then just as quickly disappeared back into Russia – but with no satellite photos from the USA proving such a theory. On the other hand, a successful shoot-down of a Russian plane would have been a major coup for the newly installed Kiev regime, which saw the Russian ally President Viktor Yanukovych overthrown last February, providing the catalyst for the current civil war. It is disturbing to note that certain senior Ukrainian politicians, including ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have expressed the desire to see Vladimir Putin killed.

This possibility coupled with the lack of official intelligence seems to have given impetus to competing theories, such as the airliner being shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 or Su-27 fighter jet – as in the opinion of officials such as Michael Bociurkiw, one of the first Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) investigators to arrive at the scene of the disaster, near Donetsk. In a July 29 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Bociurkiw, he said that: “There have been two or three pieces of fuselage that have been really pockmarked with what almost looks like machine gun fire; very, very strong machine gun fire.”

In addition, a Globalresearch.org piece in September 2014 featured retired Lufthansa pilot Peter Haisenko’s conclusion in on the new shootdown theory and pointed to the entry and exit holes centered around the cockpit. The lack of officially released intelligence to support a claim of pro-Russian rebel shootdown, and by extension a lack of credibility over further political isolation and economic sanctioning of Russia prompted the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) to issue a memorandum to the President Barack Obama, urging him to release what evidence the US intelligence community has about the tragedy.

“Twelve days after the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, your administration still has issued no coordinated intelligence assessment summarizing what evidence exists to determine who was responsible – much less to convincingly support repeated claims that the plane was downed by a Russian-supplied missile in the hands of Ukrainian separatists,” the July 29 letter states. “As veteran intelligence analysts accustomed to waiting, except in emergency circumstances, for conclusive information before rushing to judgment, we believe that the charges against Russia should be rooted in solid, far more convincing evidence. And that goes in spades with respect to inflammatory incidents like the shoot-down of an airliner. We are also troubled by the amateurish manner in which fuzzy and flimsy evidence has been served up – some of it via social media.”

In spite of the need to establish proper evidence in such a complex and potentially explosive situation once again the mainstream media plays to the rhetoric of Washington and its Western allies, relying on unverified claims being made by the Kiev regime about something as sensitive as whether Russia provided sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles – capable of shooting down high-flying civilian aircraft – to poorly trained eastern Ukrainian rebels. In October 2014 Australian Prime Minister made the dubious decision to refer to his upcoming G20 meeting with Vladimir Putin – to be held in Brisbane – in the following incendiary manner: “I am going to shirtfront Mr Putin – you bet I am – I am going to be saying to Mr Putin Australians were murdered, they were murdered by Russian backed rebels.”

The leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten was equally as diplomatic, first taking a swipe at the government for “laying out the red carpet” for Putin, as well as accusing the Russian President of knowing “more about what happened with MH17 than he’s let on.” Shorten also went on to state that, ”It’s an international conference, not a conference run by Australia, so if Putin has the arrogance to turn up to visit a nation whose nationals died in this plane crash, he can.”

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin (image via businessinsider.com)

As disturbing as the knee-jerk reaction of conservative and liberal politicians alike, just as alarming is the anti-Russian sentiments increasingly found in the Australian news media. Consider a few NewsCorp headlines: “Ukraine Russia war and MH17: What is Putin really up to?” “Vladimir Putin: I am not autistic” – “Vladimir Putin: Just what is he thinking?” Putin is routinely featured as a comical character, lampooned in the Australian press as an eccentric criminal in a fashion that no other global leader is, almost in a way that suggests he should not be taken seriously. Without doubt, it would be dangerously naive to underestimate the importance of good relations with the Russians to ensure stability in the region.

What many in the media and government seems to misunderstand is that the charges are so serious that it could propel the world into a second Cold War and conceivably – if there are more such miscalculations – into a nuclear confrontation. These moments call for the utmost in journalistic professionalism, especially skepticism toward propaganda from biased parties. Australians are now experiencing more of the American style prelude to economic and military confrontation – that is, the major U.S. news outlets, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, publishing the most inflammatory of articles based largely on unreliable Ukrainian officials and on the U.S. State Department which was a principal instigator of the Ukraine crisis.

In the past, this kind of knee-jerk diplomacy and war-chasing journalism has influenced public opinion and allowed politicians to seek justification for confrontation, both economic and military. In the past, the pretenses given for war with ideological enemies and opposing states have been often misleading and sometimes false. In the case of a volatile conflict involving powerful factions in a far-flung and poorly understood region, it would be wise for Australians to be careful in rushing to judgements based on speculation or unverified facts. This time, the stakes are considerably higher.

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