Uranium: dealing with devils

The nuclear industry certainly makes for strange bedfellows and if we’re going to maintain ‘energy security’ with nuclear power, it’s going to mean getting into bed with some very ugly characters indeed.

One of the reasons given for the push for nuclear power is that it will help wean us off reliance on Middle Eastern oil. The problem is that, with only 18 countries in the world who mine uranium, it means replacing one reliance with another.

To be sure, some of the uranium producing nations are nice, friendly democracies. Others, unfortunately, are unstable, violent states with human right records that would make the Devil wince. Are we going to tolerate their abuses to get our hands on their uranium just as we tolerate the floggings and beheadings in Saudi Arabia so we can get our hands on their oil? The depressing answer, right now, seems to be: Of course we are.

Take Kazakhstan for example. Apart from gas and petroleum resources, the country is the world’s second largest uranium producer after Australia. As the demand for uranium increases in a nuclear future, Kazakhstan can expect to become a major player on the world stage.

But take a look at the country’s human rights record. Despite backslapping photo opportunities with George Bush, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbayev rules a corrupt legislature where opposition parties are not represented. His own election was criticised by the US State Department as falling ‘far short of international standards’. You can see why Nursultan and George might have things in common.

As documented by Human Rights Watch, arbitrary arrest, torture, beatings and mistreatment are widespread within Kazakhstan’s criminal justice system. Freedom of expression is largely suppressed. Libel is a criminal offence. ‘Unapproved’ religious practices will penalised under the terms of a new draft law.

Kazakhstan isn’t alone. Third largest uranium producer, Niger, supplies up to 32 per cent of France’s requirement. And yet the country is near the bottom of United Nations Human Development Index revealing catastrophic levels of life expectancy. While France is reaping the benefits, the dividends of Niger’s enormous uranium resources simply haven’t been passed on to its people. Couple that with a violent conflict between Tuareg rebels and the government and stability and security aren’t words that readily spring to mind.

And coming up fast is Uzbekistan, It turns out Uzbekistan has the seventh largest uranium reserves in the world. Good news for the kleptocrat Karimov but not so good for those hoping for democratic change in the country any time soon. The country is being actively courted by South Korea. Relations with the US, frosty since the Andijan massacre in 2005 when hundreds of protesters were gunned down by government troops, are said to be, unsurprisingly, warming up again.

These are the issues that the world will turn a blind eye if they decide to go down nuclear road. The price of so-called clean and cheap energy is, and will continue to be, blood. This is yet another unintended consequence of nuclear power. It doesn’t just pollute the environment, it’s also polluting people’s human rights.