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Monday, 4 June 1984
Page: 2406

Senator JESSOP —Does the Minister for Resources and Energy recall statements made by Senator Mason in a Press release on 13 July 1983 which were re-stated at a peace rally in Adelaide recently by Dr Bill Caldicott and again by this person on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program Pressure Point on 17 May 1984 ? Is it a fact, as has been claimed, that spent fuel resulting from nuclear power generation in Finland based on uranium supplied by Australia has been reprocessed for the extraction of plutonium in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? I ask the Minister whether he is aware that Senator Mason said in his Press release:

It has been clearly shown that Australian-mined uranium eventually winds up in Soviet and American nuclear arms and that the best way Australia can stop this madness is to immediately stop the mining, milling and export of Australian uranium. Australia already has contracts to supply uranium to other countries until 1996. These contracts include one with Finland on the basis of reprocessing our uranium in the USSR.

I ask the Minister, in view of the unremitting nature of these statements: Firstly, which countries, if any, have reprocessed spent fuel originating from Australian uranium; secondly, under the requirements of article 7 of the agreement with Finland, has any written consent been given to that country to reprocess spent reactor fuel uranium originating from Australia; and, finally, if written consent has not been given what action is being taken by the Australian Government if in fact reprocessing is taking place?

Senator WALSH —There were a large number of subsidiary matters in that question. I am not sure I can deal with all of them, but if I neglect to deal with some now I will get Senator Jessop an answer in writing at a later time. Firstly, I do not recall the statement made by Senator Mason in July last year, nor am I aware of it having been repeated by Dr Bill Caldicott on a couple of occasions recently.

As to the question of whether Australian uranium has ever been reprocessed for the production of nuclear weapons, the answer to that is probably yes; that is, uranium supplied from Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory was, as I recall it, explicitly supplied to the United Kingdom for the production of plutonium and ultimately nuclear weapons. Certainly, as far as I am aware, no uranium supplied in recent times has been used for that purpose. The accountancy checks which operate would quickly detect the misuse for weapons purposes of any uranium supplied from Australia.

It might be worth mentioning here-I will be brief-that if anybody were considering misusing Australian uranium supplied for use in a power reactor for the production of weapons it would be necessary for technical reasons to operate that reactor in a manner which was grossly inefficient in terms of the production of electricity, and also in a manner which would be quickly detected if it were so misused or misoperated. There are very fundamental technical reasons for that; that is, that plutonium 239, which is not the most fissile isotope of plutonium but is the isotope which is used in the production of plutonium bombs, is produced by the common uranium isotope 238 capturing an additional neutron. When fuel rods are left in a power reactor for a long period , the uranium 238, the common uranium in the fuel rods, becomes heavily contaminated by higher elements or isotopes of plutonium 240 and 241. Plutonium 240 is fissile but so unstable that it is unsuitable for the production of weapons or for inclusion in weapons in substantial quantities. Plutonium 241 is not fissile. If there are significant or substantial concentrations of plutonium 241 in plutonium 239 it is not technically possible to produce an efficient weapon from it. That is a very important technical point which is not disputed by anyone who knows anything about the subject, which has relevance to this debate and which ought to be more widely known.

Some people, and I am talking about people who are technically competent to do so, will dispute whether it is even technically feasible to produce an explosive device from plutonium extracted from fuel rods irradiated in a power reactor operated for the optimum production of electricity. It is disputed whether it can be done at all. It is beyond dispute that an efficient atomic nuclear weapon cannot be made from that grade of plutonium.