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Should Australia sell uranium to India?

An activist from the BJP party injured during a protest demanding more reliable electricity supply in Bihar state. AAP/EPA/STR.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced she wants the Australian Labor Party to change its policy of not selling uranium to countries that have not signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ms Gillard wants uranium exported to “dynamic, democratic” India, despite the nuclear armed nation not having signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Resources Minister Martin Ferguson told the ABC that India was a “responsible nation” needing the uranium for electricity generation that would help the poor, although there have been reporting and documenting of serious human rights abuses against indigenous people in rapidly industrialising areas.

Experts respond below.

Bruce Arnold, Lecturer in Law, University of Canberra

Life would be so convenient if we could pick and choose which laws to obey. Given Australia’s pretensions to leadership in our region and our stated respect for international law we cannot blithely disregard international agreements such as the NPT simply because we can make a quick buck or because a trading partner is prepared to engage in global street theatre.

India wants to be treated as a major member of the international community. Membership involves responsibilities, not just recurrent selective claims of victimhood. Irrespective of debates about whether nuclear power is ‘green’, whether nuclear will allow India to lift a hundred million people out of poverty (and reliance on use of dried cow dung as fuel in poorly ventilated huts), and whether use of uranium will benefit the environment and public health by reducing emissions from coal-fired power stations, we should not be endorsing a ‘pick & choose’ approach to international law.

Indulging India’s refusal to sign up to restrictions on nuclear proliferation is patronising. It makes a mockery of the notion of international law. Australia might well operate on the basis of a hardheaded realpolitik, deciding not to posture about human rights and the wide range of agreements that make up international law. An explicit commitment to realism - policymaking driven only by considerations of power and national advantage - might be advantageous merely because it would force Australian voters to grapple with some hard decisions. As things stand we are however committed to a rule of law, rather than the rule of the cash register (a cash register that ultimately doesn’t result in large-scale employment or enhancement of social capital). If we take law seriously, want to be taken seriously as a nation and want other nations to take law seriously - something that is in our long-term interest - we cannot ignore the NPT. Prime Minister Gillard should not succumb to short term expediency. She’ll gain more credibility as a conviction politician and as a national leader if makes the uranium sale conditional on adherence to the NPT.

The site of the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia that Environment Minister Peter Garrett approved in 2009. AAP/Quasar Resources

Dr Peter Gale, Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies, University of South Australia

Relations with India have not been at a high point in recent years with both the treatment accorded to Dr [Mohamed] Haneef and the widespread media reporting of violence against Indian students in Australia.

Australia is not in a position to comment on domestic politics and human rights issues in India. Similarly, issues confronting indigenous communities in Australia with significant ongoing disparity in health, education and employment, [mean that] it is difficult for Australia to raise any concern for Indigenous rights in India. The Northern Territory intervention has also highlighted that Australia has a long way to go to address indigenous rights in Australia and that consultation with indigenous communities in Australia remains an ongoing crucial issue.

Dr Aiden Warren, Lecturer, School of Global Studies, Social Science & Planning, RMIT University

While Australia’s physical position on 40 to 60 per cent of the world’s uranium presents vast economic opportunities, Gillard’s push to overturn uranium sales to India poses greater (in)security ramifications.


India has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and does not have International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on all of its nuclear material. While the United States created the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a direct response to India’s test in 1974 and halted nuclear exports to India a few years later, under Bush it agreed in September 2008 to exempt India from some of its export guidelines. In essence, this decision has effectively left decisions regarding nuclear commerce with India almost entirely up to individual governments. Since the NSG decision, India has concluded numerous nuclear cooperation agreements with foreign suppliers and it looks as though Australia may be next – should Gillard’s policy come into action.

In saying this, it must be noted that U.S. companies have not yet started nuclear trade with India and may be reluctant to do so if India does not resolve concerns regarding its policies on liability for nuclear reactor operators and suppliers. Taking a step to placate such concerns, India signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which has not yet entered into force, October 27, 2010.

Additionally, the Obama Administration has continued with the Bush Administration’s policy regarding civil nuclear cooperation with India. According to a November 8, 2010, White House fact sheet, the United States “intends to support India’s full membership” in the NSG, as well as other multilateral export control regimes. It appears that Gillard may indeed be following in the same pedestrian steps as Obama – compromise, ambiguity and a huge policy backflip for the ALP. What our No. 1 trading partner – China – will think of this is of course another matter.

A fast breeder reactor under construction at the Madras Atomic Power Station is partially submerged after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The operation was brought to safe shut down and there were no leakages of radiation, the officials said. AAP/EPA/Stringer

Associate Professor Peter Mayer, Politics Department, University of Adelaide

The central issue is non-proliferation. India has a spotless reputation for not proliferating but a consistent and understandable objection to one aspect of the existing treaty. That is: the treaty creates a ‘club’ of OK nuclear powers which tested before 1967; anyone else is banned from ever possessing the Bomb.

Since i) India now has the bomb and ii) agrees with all the other aspects of the NPT, it seems logical to me that we could sign a treaty with them which includes all the non-proliferation safeguards of the treaty but which doesn’t contain the ‘discriminatory’ section which India has always objected to. We couldn’t, I feel, cut the same deal with Pakistan which has a clear record of proliferation. If we took the other matters you raise [human rights abuses] into consideration (as well we might) we wouldn’t sell uranium to China … or anyone.

Associate Professor Wayne Reynolds, History (specialising in Australian defence and foreign relations), University of Newcastle

The deal with India supposes that Australian uranium will be safeguarded so that it will not be used in that country’s nuclear weapons program. It is a nonsense however to argue that it will not therefore contribute to New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program. Dedicated military nuclear facilities will be able to access their share from the stockpile to continue to build nuclear weapons in line with the decision to adopt an overt nuclear weapons program in 1998.

Australia moreover agreed to changes in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow the transfer of nuclear technology which will also enhance its nuclear weapons capability. The real issue, however, is that the Gillard position is not based on a comprehensive review of the NPT. If it were then at least there would be a semblance of logic in calling for a revision of the list of Nuclear Weapons States that dates to 1968. The Gillard position is explicable entirely by the ongoing shaping brought about by changes in US strategy, and especially with respect to the containment of China. It is, therefore, a reflex action that parallels the commitment to the so-called Trans Pacific Partnership which excludes China but foreshadows a move towards the incorporation of India. Such a narrow view of security, quite apart from its dismissal of international instruments such as the NPT and the World Trade Organisation, threatens this nation’s vital interests.

Dr David Palmer, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, School of International Studies, Flinders University

Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement that Australia will sell uranium to India is unfortunately consistent with a number of her recent policy decisions. There is a new trend with the Gillard government to disregard international treaties and law when convenient, as we see with her ignoring concerns of the UN over Australian policy on asylum seekers (refugees).

There are many problems with this decision, but we must ask just why was PM Gillard motivated to make this controversial move? My view is that it has two components. First, it is her attempt to extend Australia’s “mining boom” at a time when the markets indicate it might be slowing down. Just yesterday the two biggest mining companies in Australia lost on the local share market over worries that demand from China might be slowing as the global economy slows due to the economic crisis in Europe. Mining companies also have a huge influence on government in Australia due to their substantial contribution to the GDP. The extreme polarization between mining companies and the government over the carbon tax would have made PM Gillard more open to this arrangement with India also - a way to placate these corporations and perhaps modify their opposition to her.

The dangers of the decision obviously relate to the India-Pakistan rivalry, which has descended into war many times in the last half century. Both countries have nuclear weapons, so this decision will no doubt aggravate the India-Pakistan tensions. But PM Gillard clearly has put “business” ahead of “politics” this month - with her pushing the US-Australia free trade arrangement and agreeing to allow U.S. Marines to permanently be stationed in Darwin, as these decisions are welcomed by big business and defense contractors. The Australian public apparently does not have a voice in questioning these moves, as her response to the Greens’ scepticism clearly indicates. The uranium decision also coincides with the SA Labor government decision to allow expansion of the Olympic Dam uranium mine to become the world’s largest. Customers are needed, and India is a major one.

The issue of non-proliferation is a top agenda item if it is Iran or North Korea, but somehow disappears when it is India or Israel. We’ve even seen the news this week that former PM Kevin Rudd urged the US to retain its nuclear stockpile even as he and President Obama publicly called for nuclear disarmament.

The reality is that the agenda is being driven by uranium sales and the prospect of continued Australian economic growth, without consideration of political or environmental consequences. However, PM Gillard’s policy runs counter to what many in the Labor Party have considered wise policy. That Labor Left-faction leader Doug Cameron opposes the move indicates that PM Gillard’s policies may continue to create hidden divisions in the ALP, and will further erode the traditional electoral base of the party. What will probably sustain the ALP’s support will be the view among many that “Liberals are worse” - which is an echo of what is currently happening in the US with President Obama’s base among traditional Democrats.

This brings us to the second component of this decision: it is linked to growing Australian dependency on the US in military terms. Uranium sales, as the controversy over North Korea and Iran make obvious, are not just economic decisions. They also are military decisions. This move by PM Gillard would most likely have been discussed with and endorsed by the Obama administration. We must then ask to what extent Australia’s “uranium policy” is our own - and to what extent is it in fact an extension of US global interests, with Australia playing a subordinate though “cooperative” role.

Assistant Professor Robin Tennant-Wood, Faculty of Business and Government, University of Canberra

Almost one quarter of the world’s uranium is under Australian soil and as the issue of nuclear power as a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuel energy continues to grow, the question over who to sell or not to sell the raw material to continues to be a vexed one for the ALP. Fresh from APEC, however, and chanting the familiar mantra of jobs and economic growth, the Prime Minister has announced that she is taking a new proposal to the ALP National Conference: that the government overturn its ban on selling uranium to India.

Why not sell uranium to India? It is a developing country, the second most populous country in the world and most populous democracy. As a rapidly modernising state its energy needs are huge and it is a ready market for Australia’s uranium. Australia’s ban on the sale of uranium to India has been a sore point in our sometimes prickly bilateral relationships with India in the past and opening up this new and growing market would provide not only greater trade revenue but facilitate closer ties with the sub-continental giant. While India’s human rights record remains a stumbling block, it must be remembered that we already sell uranium to China, which has a similarly bad human rights record.

However, India’s trenchant refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) means that uranium could be used for weapons. This is a big deal and alone it should stop the ALP in its tracks on this. The NPT clearly sets out the responsibilities of each party and in selling uranium – ‘source material’ – to a nuclear capable, non-party to the Treaty, Australia is in danger of violating the terms of the Treaty ourselves. The NPT is not just a relic of Cold War realpolitik. It is a constantly updating, binding agreement aimed at “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.”

India is known to have nuclear weapon capability, as does Pakistan, another non-party to the NPT. Relations between the two countries are tense and both have exploded underground nuclear devices in tests in recent years. The uranium for India’s currently operating nuclear power plants is locally-sourced, while that used for their weaponry is believed to come from material sourced from Canada in the 1960s, before the 1970 enacting of the NPT.

There is more at stake here than just expanding the mining boom. Economic growth can be ethical, but selling uranium to a non-NPT state is not.

Comments welcome below.

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