Australia, Argentina Sign Legally Unstable Nuclear Waste Pact

By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia, August 9, 2001 (ENS) - Argentine environment groups are considering the possibility of legal action against the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade after he signed an agreement Wednesday with the Australian Government allowing nuclear waste to be imported into Argentina for processing.

Environmental groups in both Argentina and Australia argue the shipments would be in breach of the anti-nuclear provisions of the Argentine Constitution.

Giavarini

Dr. Adalberto Rodríguez Giavarini, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Argentina (Photo courtesy Mivoto.com)
Argentina's Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Dr. Adalberto Rodríguez Giavarini, co-signed the Nuclear Co-operation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy agreement in Canberra on Wednesday with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, in an event that was not open to the media.

The president of the Environmental Defence Foundation of Argentina (FUNAM), Dr. Raul Montenegro, told ENS he was "astonished" that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina had signed the agreement.

"They are violating the law and ignoring deliberately previous judiciary verdicts. Early this year the Argentine Court of Justice ordered the government to forbid the passage of the cargo Pacific Swan which was transporting radioactive waste from France to Japan," Montenegro said.

The Court of Justice verdict handed down on January 10 upheld the validity of a statute known as Article 41 and ordered "the competent agencies ... to forbid the entrance of the ship Pacific Swan into the national territory and the waters of its jurisdiction."

"There are no doubts. Any shipment of radioactive waste from Australia to Argentina is illegal. Like the Pacific Swan shipment. Both INVAP and ANSTO cannot argue that this radioactive waste it is not radioactive waste," Montenegro said.

Downer

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
In July last year, the Australian government entered into a $US163 million contract with the Argentine company, INVAP, for the construction of a new reactor at the research facilities of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisations (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, in Sydney's southern suburbs.

Faced with strong public opposition to the development of a nuclear waste dump in Australia and with low level storage facilities full, ANSTO pushed bidders to propose measures they would take to handle the radioactive wastes created by the new reactor. INVAP volunteered to accept nuclear waste from the reactor back in Argentina for processing and re-export to Australia if required.

Earlier this year, a French court ruled that nuclear waste from ANSTO could not be unloaded on the docks of Cherbourg for processing at the state owned Cogema nuclear facility. While the decision was later overturned, it prompted the Australian government to search for alternatives as Australia only has contracts in place to handle a few more shipments of spent fuel rods.

"While the government's spent fuel and waste management strategy provides for all irradiated fuel to be reprocessed in France under ANSTO's contract with Cogema, processing facilities in Argentina might be utilised in the event that processing in France was unavailable," the Australian government assessment of the agreement states.

Now that the binational agreement is signed, FUNAM is considering the option of taking legal action before the Federal Court of Justice. "This agreement and the contract signed last year by INVAP and ANSTO is illegal and null. Illegal because they violate Article 41 of Argentina, and null according article 1207 of our Civil Code," Montenegro said.

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The freighter Bouguenais at the dock in Cherbourg, France carrying a shipment of spent nuclear fuel from Australia for reprocessing at the French facility Cogema. March 23, 2001 (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
A document tabled in the Australian Senate by the government argues the agreement binds the Argentine government to support what was previously only a contract between two commercial parties.

"It would ensure that this aspect [processing nuclear waste in Argentina] of the Australian Government's strategy for the management of spent fuel already provided for in commercial arrangements is supported by obligations at governmental level," the national interest analysis bluntly states.

The Australian government cited economic self-interest as a spin-off effect of the agreement. "The proposed agreement will also allow Australian uranium producers to seek contracts to export uranium to Argentina when opportunities arise, and can be expected to facilitate other commercial spin-offs which will bring trade and investment benefits to Australia," the national interest analysis explained.

While the project may have economic benefits for Australian companies, Argentine environmentalists argue the project has the potential to drain scarce government funds from Argentina's budget. On August 1, 2000, Miguel Ricardo from the Ministry of Economy of Argentina wrote to the executive director of ANSTO, Helen Garnett, reassuring her of his "official endorsement of INVAP" and promising the government would financially support INVAP if necessary.

Montenegro considers the offer to underwrite any losses on INVAP contract to build a nuclear reactor in Australia as ludicrous. "We are in the middle of one of our most serious economic crises. The budgets of the nuclear agencies have been reduced, and the high salaries of their top officials diminished. The government cannot guarantee a contract, an illegal contract," he told ENS.

While the proposed reactor is subject to gaining final approvals from Australian authorities, INVAP is scheduled to begin construction of the Lucas Heights replacement reactor in 2002.

But FUNAM has warned that if there is an attempt to import nuclear waste from Australia, they are confident that protests by thousands of people will prevent the nuclear waste from being landed.