Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:47 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:47 | SYDNEY

India uranium: We're selling out our principles

This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

18 November 2011 09:09

This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ron Walker is a former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the IAEA and author of the Lowy institute  Policy Brief 'Uranium for India'

Some oppose selling uranium to India because they are against uranium mining.

My objection is quite different, as I support the policy introduced by Malcolm Fraser and upheld by all subsequent Australian governments until late Howard and now Gillard: that uranium mining in Australia is only defensible if it strengthens the non-proliferation regime.

Thanks to our control of over a quarter of the world's known uranium reserves we are in a position to impose tougher elements to that regime. We have used that leverage to set non-proliferation standards that have been applied world-wide. Now the prime minister proposes to exempt India from our rules.

I am horrified that the media have not explained the enormity of this proposal. Perhaps even the public service has been so degraded, marginalised and cowed that the prime minister has not been told of the far-reaching consequences.

The reason I know something of it is that I worked for decades on these issues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, serving inter alia as head of the Nuclear Division (now renamed 'International Security Division') and as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, so will the risk of their being used. For countries to maintain the ability to incinerate each other's cities promotes mutual distrust and is inimical to peace. Australia's relations with Indonesia have been very difficult at times: how much worse would they be if each knew that millions of its citizens could be killed in minutes by the other? And all around the world delicate relationships between neighbours could easily be worsened.

All countries on earth except for three have signed the NPT and thereby committed themselves to work against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and towards nuclear disarmament. They have also undertaken, under the NPT and associated instruments, a whole raft of specific measures towards those ends. The commitment is not only to their own people but also to each other.

Yes, North Korea and Iran have cheated on non-proliferation and Syria may have attempted to do so, but that is no reason to trash the NPT regime: it provides important restraints on other countries and reassurances to their neighbours, as well as a route back for miscreants such as South Africa and Iraq. Yes, the nuclear disarmament effort is less advanced than most countries would like, but neither is it trivial. The US and Russia are destroying nuclear weapons as fast as is physically possible and other programs are making some headway.

Many countries see the NPT and the regime built around it as of vital importance to their security. But it would be stronger if all countries participated. Only India, Israel and Pakistan have held out against it. India and Israel alone oppose nuclear disarmament. India alone opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The international regime on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has many deficiencies but most countries see it as vital to their security. They have pleaded for decades with India (and the other two hold-outs) to join. India's rejection of multilateral commitments on non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament  is at least as contemptuous of the concerns of all other countries as India claims those countries are of its security concerns. If it were willing to accept commitment similar to those undertaken by NPT countries, this could easily be negotiated (my Lowy Institute Policy Brief gives one option).

India's non-proliferation slate is not clean: its A-bomb increased Pakistan and Iran's incentive and confidence to follow suit. Unlike the other two holdouts, Israel and Pakistan, it is not known to have helped other countries proliferate but it adamantly refuses to give treaty commitments to all other countries.

Yes, India is a democracy and yes we want to be in their good books, but that is no reason to drop our principles and our interests. To make an exception for them would be crass cronyism. If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?

Selling uranium to India might create a few more jobs (in a sector where there is no shortage of jobs), but if job creation were the overriding concern there are plenty of other currently prohibited activities where far more jobs could be created by scrapping current restrictions. And declaring that these economic benefits trump our interests in world peace and regional security would be an admission of venality deserving of widespread contempt.

Photo by Flickr user Alberto OG.