Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nuclear Issues: Red Cross Movement Wants Nukes Abolished

By Neena Bhandari
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SYDNEY (IDN) - Even as Australia's ruling Labour revoked early December its long standing party policy banning uranium sales to India and Pakistan was swift to stake its claim too, the disarmament movement received a boost with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopting a resolution to work towards a legally binding global convention on nuclear abolition.

The Australian Red Cross (ARC) had worked with the Japanese and Norwegian Red Cross to draft the resolution early 2011, which was passed in Geneva on November 26. The decision to support the initiative was taken by the Council of Delegates of the Movement comprising representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the 187 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and the International Federation.

"We were overwhelmed by our colleagues in a range of countries from Iran, Jordan and Lebanon to Mozambique, Malaysia and Samoa amongst others, who co-sponsored and supported the Red Cross Movement’s resolution to urge governments to never use these horrible weapons again. It shows that the resolution has traction and there is a global sense that the Red Cross Movement needs to speak out on this vital issue of nuclear abolition," ARC's Head of International Law and Principles, Dr Helen Durham, told IDN.

The historic resolution appeals to all states to "pursue in good faith and conclude with urgency and determination, negotiations to prohibit the use of and completely eliminate nuclear weapons through a legally binding international agreement."

A record number of states had called for work to begin on a Nuclear Weapons Convention at the May 2010 review conference of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York.

The resolution is of critical importance as it challenges the legitimacy of nuclear weapons ever being used as a weapon of war because of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences, in particular on civilian populations, and the threat to the environment and world food production.

Humanitarian imperatives

"There are real legal and humanitarian imperatives for the world to work in a more focused way on nuclear disarmament. The proliferation of these weapons in an increasing number of countries and the threat of other groups gaining capacity to use nuclear weapons should be a wake-up call to the world. The Red Cross will be carrying the message to governments and the wider community," said Dr Durham.

On August 6 (Hiroshima Day) 2011, the ARC had launched the 'Target Nuclear Weapons' campaign calling for the use of nuclear weapons to be made illegal. It asked 'Baby Boomers' to reconnect with the cause that defined a generation in the 1960s and 1970s, and called for a whole new generation to get involved. The campaign has reached over 565,000 people and counting through Facebook posts and tweets.

Today there are at least 20,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, around 3,000 of them on launch-ready alert. The potential power of these would roughly equate to 150,000 Hiroshima bombs.

"If we can achieve treaties to control the use of landmines and cluster munitions then we cannot turn our backs on the need to get agreement on a global convention to outlaw this evil weapon forever," said Australian Red Cross CEO, Robert Tickner. The ARC is working towards deriving bi-partisan support in Australia for a convention to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.

Since 1945, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have consistently voiced deep concerns about these weapons of mass destruction and the need for the prohibition of their use. Its role in developing the International Humanitarian Law led to the creation of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, the universal rules of war, in 1977. As many as 194 nations of the world, including Australia, have ratified the four Geneva Conventions.

No Nukes But the US and Uranium

While Australia doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, it does have arrangements in place in relation to defence with the US in which the supposed protection afforded by US nuclear weapons is seen as key to Australia's national security. It also has almost 40 per cent of the world's known uranium reserves and supplies 19 per cent of the world market.

Canberra has forecast uranium exports to rise from around 10,000 tonnes a year to 14,000 tonnes in 2014, worth around A$1.7 billion. Australia currently exports uranium to China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

As Dr Tilman Ruff, Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Australia, told IDN, "ICAN focuses on issues that are related to weapons and proliferation and there are clearly substantial connections to nuclear power as the starting fuel and basic processes are the same. Any country that can enrich uranium to reactor grade to use for nuclear power generation also has everything it would need to enrich the uranium little bit further to weapons grade, and that is why there is so much concern about Iran's nuclear programme. And any country that has a nuclear reactor could extract plutonium from used reactor fuel and use that to build a nuclear weapon."

"From ICAN’s perspective our principal role in relation to nuclear power generation is to draw attention to the fact that the starting material is the same and the effects of radiation are completely indiscriminate and identical whether it is radiation from a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb and to highlight that it is simply not possible to continue business as usual on the nuclear power side. It will not be possible to abolish nuclear weapons while there are no constraints on countries enriching uranium or extracting plutonium from spent reactor fuel." Dr Ruff added.

Advocates for a nuclear-free world argue that there are problems with all uranium exports, even if there are safeguards agreements in place with the countries receiving uranium, as there is always a risk that it will be used in weapons. Even if it isn’t used in weapons, it will be freeing up domestic reserves of uranium for that purpose.

New analysis by Washington-based independent research organisation, Worldwatch Institute, indicates that countries are turning to other energy sources as a result of high costs of nuclear electricity production, low demand, lower natural gas prices and concerns about health and safety since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

Despite reaching record levels of 375.5 gigawatts (GW) in 2010, global installed nuclear capacity – the potential power generation from all existing plants – declined to 366.5 (GW) in 2011, according to the Institute's latest Vital Signs Online (VSO) report.

In what was a passionate and at times heated debate on Prime Minister Julia Gillard's motion to allow uranium exports to India, nine delegates spoke against the motion, receiving standing ovation, while seven delegates spoke in favour amidst jeers from those opposed to uranium mining and exports.

Until now the ALP (Australian Labour Party) policy had allowed uranium exports only to countries that have signed the NPT. The Prime Minister's motion was endorsed by delegates with a thin margin of just 21 votes (206 voted in favour and 185 against), revealing deep dissensions even amongst ministers in the Gillard Government on the issue.

Speaking at the 46th ALP national conference in Sydney on December 4, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese said, "Until we have resolved the issues of nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste, we should not change our platform to further expand our commitment to the nuclear fuel cycle."

Although construction on 16 new reactors began in 2010, the highest number in over two decades, that number fell to just two in 2011, with India and Pakistan each starting construction on a plant. In addition to this dramatically slowed rate of construction, the first 10 months of 2011 saw the closing of 13 nuclear reactors, reducing the total number of reactors in operation around the world from 441 at the beginning of the year to 433, according to the VSO report.

Together, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and South Korea have contributed around 5 GW of new installed capacity since the beginning of 2010. During this same period, nearly 11.5 GW of installed capacity has been shut down in France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent resolution to work towards an overarching legal convention that sets a comprehensive foundation for the prohibition of nuclear weapons should be adopted by all states as a matter of urgency. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 10, 2011]

Picture: The Australian Red Cross campaign reached more than 565,000 people through social media. | Australian Red Cross