Skip to content
Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office

Annual Report 1999-2000

Safeguards on Australian Uranium Exports

It is fundamental to the Governments uranium policy that exports are permitted only under stringent safeguards. Uranium exports are made only to selected countries and are covered by a bilateral safeguards agreement. Bilateral safeguards are concluded between the supplier and the recipient of nuclear items and serve as a mechanism for applying conditions additional to IAEA safeguards: for example, restrictions on retransfers, high enrichment, and reprocessing. The safeguards requirements Australia applies to uranium exports are bilateral; they are elaborated in a series of treaty-level agreements with each country involved. These requirements are outlined below.

The key point is that Australias safeguards requirements are superimposed on IAEA safeguards.

IAEA safeguards provide the basic assurance that nuclear material is not being diverted from peaceful to non-peaceful purposes.

It should be noted that IAEA safeguards are generally not concerned with origin attribution, that is, the flag and conditions attached by suppliers (for the IAEA there are limited exceptions, e.g. under certain non-NPT safeguards agreements). This is the purpose of bilateral safeguards agreements.

Australias safeguards requirements are intended to ensure that:

  • AONM is properly accounted for as it moves through the nuclear fuel cycle;
  • AONM is used only for peaceful purposes in accordance with the applicable agreements;
  • AONM in no way enhances or contributes to any military process.

Australias Safeguards Conditions

The application of Australias requirements starts with a careful selection of those countries eligible to receive AONM:

  • it is a minimum requirement that, in the case of non-nuclear-weapon States, countries must be subject to NPT full scope safeguards, that is, IAEA safeguards must apply to all existing and future nuclear activities; and
  • in the case of nuclear-weapon States, there must be a treaty level assurance that AONM will only be used for peaceful purposes, and arrangements must be in place under which AONM is covered by IAEA safeguards.

A basic requirement is the conclusion of a safeguards agreement between Australia and the country concerned, setting out the various conditions which apply to AONM. The principal conditions for the use of AONM set out in Australias bilateral safeguards agreements are summarised as follows:

  • an undertaking that AONM will be used only for peaceful purposes and will not be diverted to military or explosive purposes, and that IAEA safeguards will apply;
  • none of the following actions can take place without Australias prior consent:
    • transfers to third parties
    • enrichment to 20% or more in the isotope uranium-235
    • reprocessing[13];
  • provision for fallback safeguards or contingency arrangements in case NPT or IAEA safeguards cease to apply in the country concerned;
  • an assurance that internationally agreed standards of physical security will be applied to nuclear material in the country concerned;
  • detailed administrative arrangements between ASNO and its counterpart organisation, setting out the procedures to apply in accounting for AONM;
  • regular consultations on the operation of the agreement; and
  • provision for the removal of AONM in the event of a breach of the agreement.
Table 10 Australias Bilateral Safeguards Agreements and their Dates of Entry into Force
Country[14][15][16] Date of EIF

Republic of Korea (ROK)

2 May 1979


24 July 1979


9 February 1980


16 January 1981


9 March 1981


22 May 1981


12 September 1981


15 January 1982


11 May 1982


17 August 1982


27 July 1988


2 June 1989

Russian Federation[19]

24 December 1990


17 July 1992

New Zealand[20]

1 May 2000

Australian Obligated Nuclear Material

A characteristic of the civil nuclear fuel cycle is the international interdependence of facility operators and power utilities. Apart from the nuclear-weapon States, it is unusual for a country to be entirely self-contained in the processing of uranium for civil useand even in the case of the nuclear-weapon States, power utilities will seek the most favourable financial terms, often going to processors in other countries. Thus it is not unusual, for example, for a Japanese utility buying Australian uranium to have the uranium converted to uranium hexafluoride in Canada, enriched in France, fabricated into fuel in Japan, and reprocessed in the United Kingdom. The international flow of nuclear material enhances safeguards accountability, through transit matching of transfers at the different stages of the fuel cycle.

The international nature of nuclear material flows means that uranium from many sources is routinely mixed during processes such as conversion and enrichment. Uranium is termed a fungible commodity, that is, at these processing stages uranium from any source is identical to uranium from any otherit is not possible physically to differentiate the origin of the uranium. This is not unique to uranium, but is also the case with a number of other commodities. The fungibility of uranium has led to the establishment of conventions used universally in the industry and in the application of safeguards, namely equivalence and proportionality. These are discussed below.

Because of the impossibility of physically identifying Australian atoms, and also because Australian obligations apply not just to uranium as it moves through the different stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, but also to material generated through the use of that uranium, e.g. plutonium produced through the irradiation of uranium fuel in a reactor, the obligations under Australias various bilateral safeguards agreements are applied to Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM). AONM is a shorthand way of describing the nuclear material which is subject to the provisions of the particular bilateral agreement.

This approach is also used by those other countries applying bilateral safeguards comparable to Australias, principally the US and Canada. These countries attach a safeguards obligation to nuclear material which they upgrade, hence giving rise to the situation of multi-labelling, for example, AONM enriched in the US will also become US obligated nuclear material (USONM), and its subsequent use will have to meet the requirements of both Australian and US agreements. This is a common situation, that is, a significant proportion of AONM is also characterised as USONM and is accounted for both to ASNO and its US counterpart (the DOE).

The equivalence principle provides that where AONM loses its separate identity because of process characteristics (e.g. mixing), an equivalent quantity is designated AONM, based on the fact that atoms or molecules of the same substance are indistinguishable, any one atom or molecule being identical to any other of the same substance. In such circumstances, equivalent quantities of the products of such nuclear material may be derived by calculation or from operating plant parameters. It should be noted that the principle of equivalence does not permit substitution by a lower quality material, e.g. enriched uranium cannot be replaced by natural or depleted uranium.

The proportionality principle provides that where AONM is mixed with other nuclear material, and is processed or irradiated, a proportion of the resulting material will be regarded as AONM corresponding to the same proportion as was AONM initially.

Some people are concerned that the operation of the equivalence principle means there cannot be assurance that Australian atoms do not enter military programs. This overlooks the realities of the situation, that uranium atoms are indistinguishable from one another and there is no practical way of attaching flags to atoms. The objective of Australias bilateral agreements is to ensure that AONM in no way materially contributes to or enhances any military purpose. Even if AONM were to be in a processing stream with nuclear material subsequently withdrawn for military use, the presence of the AONM would add nothing to the quantity or quality of the military material (NB as noted elsewhere in this Report, those nuclear-weapon States eligible for the supply of Australian uranium have ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons).

Accounting for AONM

Australias bilateral partners holding AONM are required to maintain detailed records of transactions involving AONM, and ASNOs counterpart organisations are required to submit regular reports, consent requests, transfer and receipt documentation to ASNO. ASNO accounts for AONM on the basis of information and knowledge including:

  • reports from each bilateral partner;
  • shipping and transfer documentation;
  • calculations of process losses and nuclear consumption, and nuclear production;
  • knowledge of the fuel cycle in each country;
  • regular liaison with counterpart organisations and with industry;
  • reconciliation of any discrepancies with counterparts.

[13]. Consent has been given in advance to reprocessing on a programmatic basis in the case of five Agreements: Euratom, France, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland.

[14]. The above list does not include Australias NPT safeguards agreement with the IAEA, concluded on 10 July 1974.

[15]. In addition to the above Agreements, Australia also has an Exchange of Notes constituting an Agreement with Singapore Concerning Cooperation on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, which entered into force on 15 December 1989.

[16]. The texts of these Agreements are published in the Australian Treaty Series. The Australia/IAEA Agreement is also reproduced as Schedule 3 to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987.

[17]. Euratom is the atomic energy agency of the European Union. For further details see Glossary.

[18]. In the case of the Philippines and Egypt, Administrative Arrangements pursuant to the Agreements have not been concluded, so in practice the Agreements have not entered into operation.

[19]. The Australia/Russia Agreement covers the processing (conversion, enrichment or fuel fabrication) of AONM in Russia on behalf of other partner countries, but does not permit the use of AONM by Russia.

[20]. The Australia/New Zealand agreement covers the supply of uranium for non-nuclear use.

Return to the ASNO Annual Report Index | Freedom of Information Act 1982  Section 8 Statement

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade