Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:06 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:06 | SYDNEY

Selling uranium to India, responsibly II


Martine Letts

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

25 November 2011 12:52

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

In my previous post I suggested that Australian uranium sales to India might strengthen the non-proliferation regime. We are not only known as a reliable supplier of uranium, but a strict one, and this need not change with India.

Australia has agreements to supply uranium to non-nuclear weapons states and to peaceful facilities in nuclear weapon states. Both types of agreements ensure that Australia's nuclear exports remain in exclusively peaceful use, and may only be re-transferred to a party with a bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia.

All Australian safeguards agreements have provision for the full accounting of all Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM). The importing party needs Australia's prior written consent to transfer the material to any third party. AONM is not to be enriched beyond 20% U-235. No reprocessing of AONM is allowed without Australian consent. Why is this important? Because high levels of enrichment or reprocessing technology are needed for nuclear weapons.

For historical reasons India fails to qualify as an officially recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT, though it is obviously a nuclear weapon state in practical terms. Any agreement with India will therefore be modelled on the types we have with China and Russia. Any Australian government should ensure that an Australian safeguards agreement with India incorporates, as a minimum, a renewed commitment from India to adhere to the international non-proliferation and arms control conditions it made to the US and to the NSG in 2008 which exempted India from NSG controls.

These include: an Additional Protocol on India's civil nuclear facilities; a  voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons; working with others towards the conclusion of a multilateral fissile material cutoff treaty in the Conference on Disarmament that is universal, non-discriminatory, and verifiable; an existing, comprehensive system of national export controls and a commitment to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime and NSG guidelines.

Japan is negotiating a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India on this basis. A deal with Japan is crucial because major US suppliers like GE and Westinghouse, which have either Japanese owners or partners, can only do business with India if Japan does away with nuclear and high-technology export controls. These negotiations are stalled because Japan is not satisfied India is honouring the 2008 NSG conditions. News reports say that Japan intends to put more pressure on India to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as a condition for a nuclear cooperation agreement. The US Atomic Energy Act also requires the US to halt nuclear exports to India if it resumed nuclear testing. 

In 2011, the NSG also toughened its export conditions for sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology needed for nuclear weapons programs ('ENR'). While nuclear suppliers in France and Russia believe this will not affect their planned nuclear cooperation with India, these additional criteria should help prevent the further proliferation of weapons making technology, a core Australian security objective.

Yes, the single greatest development putting pressure on Australia's non-proliferation policy was the nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the United States in 2006 and the subsequent decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 to issue a waiver for India subject to certain conditions.  Australia was a party to the NSG decision. But Australia maintains its own, additional stringent supply conditions through the bilateral safeguards agreements it concludes with customers for its uranium.

The sale of Australian uranium to India therefore has the potential to strengthen the non-proliferation regime through best practice standards and by taking the Japan and US approach. Whether an Australian government can deliver such an outcome is not certain. Had we moved earlier, we may have been able to impose tougher conditions than our Canadian and Kazakh competitors.

For the current government a change in ALP policy is just a very small, but necessary first step in this direction.

Photo by Flickr user Bigod.