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Australia is Selling Uranium to India Without Safety Nets

Last month Australia decided to sell uranium to India. The details of the deal have now been released, and a lot of people are worried.

by Julian Morgans
Oct 27 2014, 3:43am

A barrel of 'yellow cake' uranium. Image via Flickr user IAEA Imagebank

On May 18, 1974, India detonated an eight kiloton nuclear bomb named Smiling Buddha. The international reaction was swift, abject condemnation. This was the first bomb to be built from uranium sold as nuclear fuel, and it was the first bomb detonated by a country other than the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, China, England, France and the US. In essence, the world had entered a frightening new era in which non-superpowers could cobble together nuclear weapons in complete violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

The UN Security Council responded the following year with a body called the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This group mandated that countries who’d signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, wouldn’t sell uranium to unsigned countries. India refused to sign, so the 48 members of the Suppliers Group - including Australia – refused to sell. India still hasn’t signed, but in September this year, Australia decided to sell them uranium anyway. The details of the deal have only now been released, and needless to say, a lot of people are worried.

One such person is John Carlson, who is a nuclear expert at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “Now that the text of the agreement has been quietly made public,” he wrote for The Interpreter, “some substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions are evident. These suggest, disturbingly, that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India.” Interestingly Carlson was the Australian Government nuclear advisor until 2010, where for 21 years he'd supported other controversial sales to countries such as Russia. On this deal however, he wrote that “it is not good enough to simply say that we trust India because it has an 'impeccable' non-proliferation record (and India's record in any case is not 'impeccable')”.

So what’s wrong with the deal? According to Carlson, the terms differ in four ways to Australia’s previous uranium agreements with the EU and Japan. Firstly, Australia has no clear directive on how spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed. In the cases of Japan and Europe, Australia was able to approve how plutonium was separated from spent fuel and managed. The second modification on the India agreement is that if they somehow use the uranium outside of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards, there’s no framework to create new ones. Likewise, there’s no assigned way to resolve a negotiation deadlock, should it eventuate. And finally, if India breeches the existing deal in any way whatsoever, there’s no clause that enables Australia to reclaim its uranium. Essentially, once uranium arrives in India, Australia—and the rest of the world—will have no say in what happens next.

Agni-2 Missile on parade at Republic Day 2004. Image via Antônio Milena

Australia agreed to these dubious terms because India insisted on special treatment as a sale requisite. Canada, which is also a major uranium exporter, also agreed to India’s conditions. So why would countries such as Canada and Australia agree, aside from the economic benefits of the sale? Many claim it’s because India does genuinely deserves special treatment.

“India has a fairly credible argument that the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty is a form of nuclear apartheid,” says Rory Medcalf, who is the Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and a former diplomat to India. “That is, in the 1960s the five countries that by then had tested and developed nuclear weapons, were essentially closing the door behind themselves. Any country that hadn’t tested by an arbitrary cut-off date were automatically forbidden from possessing nuclear weapons.” Medcalf explains that at the time, China and India had been at loggerheads over disputed eastern territory, which had resulted in China’s first nuclear test in 1964. India’s then Prime Minister tried to convince the US to extend them its nuclear security umbrella, but the US declined, leaving India defenceless to an aggressive, nuclear empowered neighbour. “So the Indians actually turned to nuclear weapons in sorrow rather than in anger, after exploring all other avenues,” explains Medcalf. “Living in a dangerous neighbourhood, I can understand why India would want to leave the nuclear option open.”

Ranger uranium mine, Northern Territory, Australia. Image via Flickr user Aaron Booth

India therefore never signed the non-proliferation treaty, and has subsequently been able to create their own sale terms. Medcalfe, like Carlson, doesn’t believe that history validates Australia’s decision to sell, but it certainly provides some context. “In principal, I broadly support Australia doing nuclear commerce with India,” he says, “although I share Carlson’s concern that this should be a bipartisan position; that it should have the same standards of safeguards applied to other customers.”

India claims the uranium will be used purely for “peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” This means power generation, but most experts maintain that even if that were the case, importing uranium will irrespectively amplify regional disputes. “India has had a perpetual arms race with Pakistan,” says Dr Adam Broinowski, who is a specialist in Asia Pacific relations at the Australian National University. “Then you also have ongoing boarder conflicts with China. Neither of those nations are the most stable neighbours, and selling uranium will definitely ratchet up pre-existing tensions.” Broinowski highlights India’s ongoing guerrilla insurgency as another source of risk, as well as the nation’s under-resourced emergency capabilities. “If a rich, technologically advanced democracy such as Japan can’t cope with a nuclear accident, what chance does India have? Basically, if Australia is serious about non-proliferation, it doesn’t make sense to do this.”

In Australia, the age-old argument that if they don’t sell to India, someone else will, remains the central justification. They could purchase uranium from France, Russia, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, as well as Canada, which as mentioned is a previous vendor. But according to Brionowski, Australia has an advantage over competing countries, which it should have used to its diplomatic leverage. “Australia is a reliable source, whereas the other countries might be a little less stable, and unable to produce to such high-grade standards. It’s in India’s interests to go with Australia, so it’s a shame that we’ve missed this opportunity for negotiation.”

As of writing, Australia is yet to set an export date.

Follow the author on Twitter: @MorgansJulian

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Smiling Buddha
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Rory Medcalf
Lowy Institute for International Policy