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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 955

(Question No. 1608)


Senator Margetts asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 10 August 1994:

  (1) Please provide details of any reports that indicate that Westinghouse has sold nuclear materials to an individual who is going to on-sell the material in the open market outside the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

  (2) Please provide information on the safeguards available to stop nuclear material from getting to countries which are not signatories to the NPT, from individuals.

  (3) What is the Government's assessment of this issue.

  (4) What can the Government do to prevent an Australian individual buying nuclear material from overseas and on-selling it to a country that is a NPT signatory.

  (5) Please supply details of recent reports that weapons-grade plutonium found its way illegally to a German warehouse from Russia.

  (6) Please supply details of recent reports that Russian organised criminals with ties in Macau and Hong Kong have been smuggling red mercury, which is a trigger for nuclear arms.

  (7) What action can the Australian Government take to counter criminal trafficking of nuclear material.

  (8) What role does the United Nations have in countering criminal trafficking of nuclear materials, and through what structures and funding.


Senator Gareth Evans —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

  (1) The Government has seen media reports that in June 1993 the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, which at the time was operated under contract by EG&G Idaho Inc. and Westinghouse Idaho Nuclear Co., sold certain components of an unused nuclear fuel reprocessing plant as scrap to a private individual in the United States. This equipment is classed as "nuclear technology" under the United States export control system. The U.S. Department of Energy has stated that no export permit will be granted for this equipment.

  (2) States party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) employ a variety of national controls to regulate the possession and safe custody of nuclear material, as well as nuclear commerce. In countries conducting significant nuclear activities these measures typically include a system of licensing, physical protection, national safeguards to conform with the requirements of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and export and import controls. Such measures are undertaken to fulfil the obligation of NPT parties not to contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation.

  In general the controls governments exercise over the safe and secure custody and the export and import of nuclear material would apply to all persons in the territory of the relevant state, whether they are corporate citizens or individuals, and irrespective of nationality.

  In Australia, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987, permits are required for the possession or transport of significant quantities of nuclear material and associated items. Exports of nuclear material and associated items are controlled through a permit system under the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations to ensure that the Government's safeguards conditions are fully met. The Australian system does not distinguish between individuals and corporations except in the form of the penalties applied for non-compliance.

  (3) As one of the most active and supportive proponents of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime based on the NPT, Australia is concerned about reports that individuals have attempted to circumvent national nuclear control systems. In the first instance it is for the countries involved to ensure that their national control systems are functioning effectively. This has been an issue of particular concern since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in view of the substantial amounts of nuclear material in former Soviet states. It has also been the subject of international attention and cooperation. International assistance has been provided through the IAEA and bilaterally to strengthen the control, accountability and physical protection of fissile material in these countries. The United States and Russia have concluded bilateral agreements covering the control and inspection of excess stocks of fissile material in former military use, and the purchase from Russia of highly enriched uranium from dismantled weapons for eventual civil power use.

  Australia has contributed to international efforts to strengthen nuclear export controls and safeguards in former Soviet states by participating in an international export control mission to eight newly-independent states (NIS) in 1992. Australian officials also attended a workshop on safeguards in the NIS in Vienna last year, and in May 1994 the Australian Safeguards Office (ASO) conducted a training course in conjunction with the IAEA on national safeguards systems. Although this course was primarily aimed at the East Asian region, the Australian government funded six participants from the NIS (3 from Kazakhstan, 2 from Uzbekistan and 1 from Azerbaijan).

  (4) In the case of nuclear material which is never imported into Australia, the nuclear material would be subject to the national export control regime of the exporting state. The material would be subject to IAEA safeguards in the importing country, as an NPT Party. In the case of supply from or through Australia, the nuclear material would be subject to the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987 and the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations. In the case of undeclared or smuggled nuclear material such activity would also be subject to normal customs surveillance and interdiction. The Government is considering the introduction of legislation in the area of non-proliferation which would have extra-territorial effect.

  (5) The incident to which the question refers involved 62 grams of material found by police in May in a garage in Tengen, Germany. Analysis showed that the material was a powder mixture composed of a number of elements and containing glass fragments. About 10 percent, 6 grams, was plutonium.

  Of greater concern is the discovery at Munich Airport on 10 August of 560 grams of material containing 350 grams of plutonium. A third incident on 12 August resulted in the arrest of a German national at Bremen Railway Station and the recovery of 2 grams of material containing 0.05 milligrams of plutonium.

  Although these amounts are significantly less than would be required for a nuclear weapon, this evidence of weaknesses in the national nuclear control systems of one or more countries is a very serious development. The Government is encouraged that Russian and German officials met on 20-22 August to discuss this issue and agreed on a set of practical cooperative measures to prevent illegal trafficking of nuclear materials in advance of the visit by President Yeltsin to Germany in early September. This issue is also expected to be taken up during the forthcoming summit meeting between Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton.

  (6) In recent years there have been numerous reports of purportedly nuclear material described as "red mercury" smuggled from countries of the former Soviet Union. Information available to the Government indicates that the various materials which have been described as "red mercury" have no proliferation significance, and schemes for the sale of such material appear to have been confidence tricks.

  (7) As indicated in the answer to question (3), Australia has joined international efforts to strengthen national nuclear control regimes in the former Soviet states. Australia is a staunch advocate of measures to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. As the most recent incidents show, we cannot afford to be complacent about this and must continually work to strengthen the international community's capacity to deal with actual or threatened proliferation, whether by countries intending to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, or by individuals or groups seeking to exploit weaknesses in national nuclear control systems. Through its participation in international organisations, such as the IAEA, and international police and intelligence networks, Australia is well-placed to receive information about nuclear smuggling and to develop measures to counter it. Within Australia, nuclear activities are controlled under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987. The Act provides for fines and/or prison terms, for individuals and organisations that breach the Act's provisions. Standards for the safe and secure storage and use of nuclear material in Australia follow those laid down under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Australia's export control commitments are administered under the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations. Australia will continue to work energetically for the indefinite extension in 1995 of the NPT as the key international framework for nuclear non-proliferation.

  (8) The safe and secure custody of nuclear material is primarily a national responsibility. The IAEA has a coordinating role in assisting the development of national systems for nuclear accountancy and control as a basis for the application of IAEA safeguards. This essentially preventive role is an integral part of the IAEA's safeguards program and is funded as part of the safeguards budget of the IAEA. The total safeguards budget for 1994 was equivalent to approximately $94 million (US$67.5 million). In addition, the IAEA sets standards for the physical security of nuclear material under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. Almost all countries, including Australia, with the technical ability to supply significant quantities of nuclear material, equipment and technology are members of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group and the Zangger Committee which set export control guidelines governing nuclear supply. Countering unauthorised trafficking when it occurs is essentially a matter for international police liaison and investigation outside the United Nations system.