Australian Uranium to China, a Worry for Many Reasons

November 19, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

The banks of the Yangtze River. An uranium mine employee claims that mine employees have poured improperly-handled radioactive materials into the Yangtze River, effectively contaminating the water. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The banks of the Yangtze River. An uranium mine employee claims that mine employees have poured improperly-handled radioactive materials into the Yangtze River, effectively contaminating the water. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
AUSTRALIA—Sun Xiaodi, a warehouse manager at China’s No. 792 uranium mine in Gansu Province, was ignored when he first began to report on corruption and radioactive contamination by mine operatives in 1988.

The military-run mine, located in Gansu’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one of China’s most important bases for uranium, was pouring radioactively contaminated water into the Bailong River, Sun said, selling contaminated equipment, and ignoring safety guidelines for workers.

In 2006, after finally gaining serious attention by being detained for eight months, Sun was still petitioning and reporting on the mine’s frightening practices. Nothing had changed there.

"We have collected hard evidence,” Sun told Sound of Hope Radio at the time, "We took the samples of the water at about one in the morning one day. The samples indicate that residents near and downstream of the Bailong River, as well as residents in cities along the Yangtze River, are in for big trouble. Ores soaking into the water are being washed by the water, which means that uranium is moving through the water and thus contaminating the water."

Although the mine had been officially closed in 2002—allegedly resources had been exhausted—it had only changed hands and continued to pump out uranium illegally.

"All of their written reports were false,” Sun said,” They simply changed a military enterprise into a civilian enterprise, and continued with large-scale mining. They are still mining the uranium on a large scale."

Sun has since been arrested again, but this time his 26-year-old daughter, Sun Dunbai, was implicated and the prison term was longer. Non-government organization, Human Rights in China (HRIC) reported in July this year, that both father and daughter were sentenced to a year and half of re-education through labor (RTL). They were accused of inciting the public “with libelous slogans of ‘nuclear pollution’ and ‘human rights violations.’” Sun Xiaodi was also accused of stealing information from the mine and giving it to his daughter to supply to overseas organizations.

Australian Uranium

It is into this world that Australia has just sent its second shipment of uranium, its first from Olympic Dam in South Australia.

The first shipment to China, from the Rio Tinto Ranger mine in the Northern Territory, was sent last year.

Both deals were made possible by a 2006 agreement between the previous Howard government and Beijing on a nuclear safeguards pact. They have occurred way in advance of the agreed date for the first shipment, which was not anticipated to take place until 2010.

The Rudd government is not holding back in pushing uranium exports to China. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith accidentally let slip in April this year that negotiations were underway to export more uranium to China from the BHP Billiton-owned Olympic Dam.

Documents, which the minister later admitted were tabled to Parliament in error, said Australian officials had attended talks in Beijing earlier in the year to discuss a proposal by BHP Billiton to sell uranium-infused copper concentrate to China, the ABC reported.

The sale will require expanding the Olympic Dam mine, and will need Federal government permission to do so. The expansion is expected to increase output six-fold.

According to the Australian Uranium Industry Association, Olympic Dam is the world's largest uranium deposit and presently the world’s third largest uranium mine. Australia is considered to have nearly 40 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium but only 19 percent of the world market.

Australian resource minister, Martin Ferguson, is blunt about where the Australian government’s interests lie.

"Expansion of the uranium industry could generate up to $17 billion in GDP for Australia to 2030 and avert up to 15 billion tons in carbon emissions through the use of uranium in the global power sector,” he said in a statement.

For David Noonan, spokesperson for the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), this sort of statement sounds alarm bells.

“We believe it is unacceptable for the Australian government and BHP to look the other way and to claim that they can conduct trade simply for profit, particularly the uranium sector, and ignore all those human rights and transparency issues that are so apparent in China,” Noonan told The Epoch Times.

The case of Sun Xiaodi highlights just some of the concerns the ACF has with the China deal.

Whistleblowers like Sun Xiaodi and his daughter are being punished for raising legitimate concerns about the environment, in this case nuclear contamination and slack environmental and workplace safety practices, Mr. Noonan said, adding that it “demonstrates clearly that China is not going to be accountable in what may happen with Australian uranium in the future.”

Ferguson said the Rudd government sees Australia's economic relationship with China as “mutually very important” and a means of “government-to-government dialogue on many fronts.”

When asked to respond to concerns about Sun Xiaodi’s case he said the “bilateral safeguards agreement Australia has with China is the strictest in the world and we have measures in place to ensure and monitor compliance with the safeguards agreement.”

The Australian Greens say China cannot be trusted to abide by international safeguards, and it is impossible to monitor how Australia’s uranium is used in China.

Noted by Greens senator, Christine Milne, is the secrecy surrounding China’s military industrial processes.
Under the joint agreement Australia’s uranium is only to be used at “declared facilities,” but Senator Milne said, declared facilities are only declared at Chinese discretion.

“The Chinese government can withdraw these facilities from IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) oversight at any time simply by stating concerns about national security,” she said.

The Greens say they want Australia to withdraw from the 2006 deal because of China’s failure to comply with Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty disarmament obligations; its failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and its failure to separate its military and civilian nuclear sectors.