AUSTRALIA has agreed to sell uranium to the United Arab Emirates as one of the Middle East’s richest oil nations switches to nuclear power.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr signed a safeguards agreement in Abu Dhabi yesterday, intended to guarantee Australian uranium is used only for peaceful purposes.
The deal, potentially worth up to $200 million in yellowcake exports, follows the controversial shift by Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year to overturn Labor’s ban on uranium sales to India.
Senator Carr said the UAE would become the first Middle East market for Australian uranium, in what has been interpreted as a sign of faith in the nuclear industry.
But anti-nuclear campaigners have slammed the deal as out of step with European moves to wind back the reliance on atomic power after the disaster last year at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.
”Germany has committed to get out of nuclear power within a decade and nations such as Switzerland, Belgium and Italy are moving away from nuclear power,” said Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Mr Sweeney also raised concerns over the long-term stability of the UAE while the country remained an absolute monarchy and was yet to go through a democratic revolution along the lines of those that have swept the Middle East.
Tim Wright of the International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons said safeguards agreements only offered ”the illusion of protection” against atomic bomb proliferation and the deal undermined Australia’s support for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.
”Opening up sales to the most volatile region in the world is a deeply troubling development, and should be strongly resisted,” he said.
The UAE, with an official population of 5.3 million but home to many more migrant labourers, needs a huge amount of energy for desalination plants and for air-conditioning in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
It plans to save its oil reserves for export and not use them for electricity.
Senator Carr said the ”strict” guidelines would include safe handling of radioactive material and re-export restrictions.
Australia sells uranium to nations such as Russia, China and France under similar arrangements and has 22 nuclear safeguard pacts covering possible sales to other nations.
The Russian deal was held up in Parliament in 2009 over concerns Australian uranium could not be properly monitored and in what appeared a protest over Russia’s war against Georgia.
The UAE deal will also need to be approved by Parliament’s treaties committee.
Michael Angwin of the Australian Uranium Association said the deal was unlikely to make a large difference to Australia’s uranium exports.
”But what it does do is signal the world’s nuclear industry is growing,” he said, adding that Australia’s uranium sector had been through a difficult time.
He said Canberra provided a warranty to protect the exports with the safeguards arrangements, which carried a lot of weight.
The UAE is expected to build four nuclear reactors, with power generation to begin in 2020.
Senator Carr will also travel to Jordan to discuss the conflict in Syria, and then make his first official visit to Israel.
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