They say that you always remember where you were when you heard certain items of momentous news, like the death of President Kennedy, or Princess Diana. In my case this principle also applies to when I first became aware that shipping containers of refined uranium ore (yellowcake) were passing through New Zealand ports. It was on 11May 1998 and I was sitting in a conference room of the Cooperative Monitoring Centre of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hosts were demonstrating, to a small audience of academic and diplomatic persons from the Asia-Pacific region, technology they had developed for the continuous GPS monitoring of the transportation of sensitive material. In this case it was container loads of yellowcake from South Australia. We watched a moving light on a large computer screen as the cargo left Adelaide and moved along the Victorian coast to Melbourne and thence on to Sydney. I should say at this point that we were mostly well-known to each other (having met together on previous occasions) and the fact that I was from ‘anti-nuclear’ New Zealand was also well-appreciated.
Thus, as the shining light started to cross the Tasman Sea, my colleagues began to smile, and their smiles became very broad indeed, as it came to rest on Auckland. The general appreciation of the situation was only heightened, as the light paused briefly on Napier, Wellington and Lyttleton, before starting out eastwards across the Pacific. I have to confess that I could have ‘broken’ this story twelve years ago and put the wind up a supposedly nuclear-phobic New Zealand. But I didn’t. Because I didn’t think then, and I don’t think now, that it was anything to get excited about. The stuff is carried in robust steel drums, in very secure shipping containers and well down amongst the other cargo, which might well include other material that has its own danger. There is really no plausible scenario in which it is released to the environment and there would be little danger if it was. Uranium ore, which is 99% uranium-238, has a half life of four and a half billion years, which means that it is only very feebly radioactive.
Does the shipment of this material through our ports, otherwise constitute an affront to our anti-nuclear credentials? Again, I don’t think so. The link between uranium ore and nuclear weapons is a very long one. For the most part the material passing through our ports is destined for European manufacturers of fuel rods for power reactors. Certainly, none of it is going to North Korea, Iran, or Syria and, as far as the existing nuclear weapon states are concerned, there is a palpable surplus of weapons-grade material. Indeed, both the United States and Russia are reducing their stockpiles by turning them into power reactor fuel.
Some anxiety has been expressed that a by-product of the further processing of uranium ore, depleted uranium, is used in weapon manufacture. This, again, is a very long link. Uranium metal is certainly one of the densest materials know and it is used to add mass (and thus penetrating-power) to artillery projectiles and, incidentally, for ballast in civilian jet aircraft. Specifically, depleted uranium, which is the remaining uranium-238 after the immediately useful, fissile, uranium-235 has been removed, tends to be used for this purpose since there is a lot of it left-over from enrichment processing. As noted earlier, it is only slightly radioactive and thus does not constitute a particular danger on the battlefield, relative to all the other hazards that are there.
Insofar as our acquiescence with these shipments suggests support for civilian nuclear technology, I have no problem with that. As I have said before, nuclear power is a reliable, efficient and environmentally-friendly energy source and we should make more use of it. Non-power reactors (which also use uranium fuel) also supply medical isotopes and semi-conductors and surely we don’t object to this. Even if we can’t bring ourselves to consider nuclear technology for ourselves, we will still want these products. We might also respect those (including major trading partners) who need nuclear power to ensure their energy security.
Now that the facts of these regular shipments have become known, perhaps we can relax again and focus on the many human security issues that are of importance to us. There are plenty to choose from and I shall certainly continue to have a few suggestions of my own in the weeks and months ahead.