Coal and nuclear safeguards

In the 2006/2007 financial year, Australia exported 244.9 million tonnes of black coal around the world – the nation’s largest export commodity. Hence, as much as 441 tonnes of uranium (at 1.8 ppm) and 1714 tonnes of thorium (at 7 ppm) could conceivably be added to accepted export figures. It’s only a couple of parts per million… but multiply a couple of parts per million by a couple of hundred million tonnes, and what do you have? Such a quantity of natural uranium contains 3.16 tonnes of uranium-235 – the equivalent of 49 simple Hiroshima-style nuclear weapons based on very highly enriched \mathrm{^{235}U}. Of course, this requires having the enrichment technology in place to enrich \mathrm{^{235}U} to the very high enrichment level required – but goes to show that control of uranium export is no barrier to potential nuclear proliferation concerns. If we assume that the 437.8 tonnes of \mathrm{^{238}U} could be entirely converted into plutonium, the result would be 439.7 tonnes of plutonium, if it was all \mathrm{^{239}Pu}. Hence, one year worth of Australia’s coal exports could be enough material, in principle, to produce

43,970 (\mathrm{^{239}Pu} implosion type) nuclear fission weapons, if we assume 10 kilograms of \mathrm{^{239}Pu} is the making of a single nuclear weapon – an ample quantity.

There are no treaties, no safeguards, agreements or controls on any the use of this fissile and fertile material.

Given that foreign nations have access to the technology for uranium recovery from coal waste, and are using it, and given that exports of mined uranium are always accompanied by concerns and outcries over the potential for weapons use, and the need for agreements and safeguards with regards to preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, why don’t we have nuclear non-proliferation safeguards in place for Australia’s coal exports?

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