The Government is hypocritical in its approval of Australia's nuclear research body to work with China on the development of nuclear reactors, writes Noel Wauchope.
PRIME MINISTER Scott Morrison's Liberal Coalition Government seems to remain in silent approval of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's (ANSTO) partnership with a Chinese company to develop Generation IV nuclear technologies such as small nuclear reactors.
But it's a different story when it comes to the Morrison Government's concern to put a stop to the Victorian Labor Government's cooperation with China in developing agricultural, communications and medical research.
We hear very little about the Australian Government's research connections with China, managed under the Australia-China Science and Research Fund (ACSRF), which has the aim of ‘supporting strategic science, technology and innovation collaboration of mutual benefit to Australia and China’.
One remarkable collaboration between Australia and China is in the strategic partnership between ANSTO and the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) to develop the Thorium Molten Salt Nuclear Reactor (TMSR) and other Generation IV nuclear reactor designs.
In March 2019, Dr Adi Paterson, then CEO of ANSTO, welcomed renewal of this agreement and was reported as stating that it was “consistent with ANSTO and Australia’s interest in and support of Generation IV reactor systems”. This statement was made at a time when Australia's federal and state laws clearly prohibited the development of nuclear reactors.
The Age quoted anonymous senior Federal Government sources who reveal that the Australian Government may use its powers to tear up a research agreement between the Victorian Government and China's Jiangsu province. This agreement was signed in 2012 and renewed in 2019.
The sources said the Victoria-Jiangsu Program for Technology and Innovation Research and Development was on a list of agreements the Department of Foreign Affairs had identified as potentially contrary to Australia's national interest. Very recent legislation has given the Federal Government the power to cancel agreements between Australian states and foreign governments.
The Victoria-Jiangsu Program for Technology and Innovation Research and Development has covered a variety of research areas.
On the cooperation between Victoria and the Jiangsu province, the Burnet Institute's deputy director of partnerships, Associate Professor David Anderson said that “the Victorian Government should get lots of credit for embracing genuine collaboration”.
The programme has helped the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute work on a potential cure for hepatitis B. The Burnet Institute has received significant help to develop antibody tests to immediately diagnose medical conditions including COVID-19 and measles.
The background to the new legislation giving the Federal Government the power to axe such state agreements is in the increasing anxiety over China's ‘rapidly growing, high-tech military sector’. According to defence expert Dr Paul Monk, it is all about gaining access to Australian intellectual property, part of increasing military-industrial strength with the aim of winning wars.
The Age quotes Dr Monk:
“[China] is a militaristic, mercantilist country where [strategic] industries are owned by the Government and directed to increasing military power.”
The USA partly funds the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which strongly advises against cooperative research with China. And, of course, Victorian Liberal Opposition leader Michael O'Brien was quick to join in the chorus, condemning the Labor Government for having the deal with China.
All this makes it all the more inexplicable as to why the Australian Government should have an agreement with China to develop nuclear reactors. Under federal law, Australia prohibits establishing nuclear installations.
However, in December 2019, a Senate Committee presented its report on the inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia. This report did recommend that Australia should collaborate with international partners in progressing the understanding of nuclear energy technology. It advised that ANSTO should assess the feasibility of Generation IV nuclear reactors, including small nuclear reactors. The Committee did recommend that Australia should consider lifting its moratorium on nuclear reactor research, particularly in relation to advanced nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors.
Still, the law prohibiting nuclear reactor development still stands. ANSTO seems to have jumped the gun in setting up this agreement with China several years ago, well before there was any move to change this law.
There has been virtually no media coverage of Dr Adi Paterson's deal with China, which goes back to 2015. I have previously written about this and the secrecy under which it was conducted.
Indeed, ANSTO's operations and its funding have been conducted in secrecy, under the comfortable shroud of national security.
Right now, there is a move to corporatise the nuclear medicine facility at Lucas Heights as a separate entity to ANSTO. At the same time, the Government is in an unseemly rush to set up a nuclear waste dump near Kimba in South Australia. In the midst of all this came the sudden unexplained resignation of the CEO, Dr Adi Paterson.
The silence on all this is disturbing. It must be especially so for the small rural community of Kimba and for the Indigenous Title Holders as they wait in limbo for the vexed question of the nuclear waste dump to be solved. For the rest of South Australia, that is a concern, too. Victorians may well wonder why their medical research cooperation with China is seen as so dangerous. Meanwhile, is it okay for Australia's nuclear research body, ANSTO, to work with China on the development of small nuclear reactors?
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