Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 20:09 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 20:09 | SYDNEY

Uranium to India: The rethink rethought


Rory Medcalf


18 March 2011 14:03

The international political consequences of the post-tsunami nuclear crisis in Japan will play out for a long time, but one of the first might well be the early abandonment of the Australian Labor Party's — and thus the Government's — review of its nuclear policies.

It has been widely expected that, at its national conference late this year, Labor would open debate on a possible future role for nuclear power in Australia's energy mix. In addition, there has been serious talk of the party overturning its ban on uranium exports to India. This would bring Australia into line with most other nuclear-exporting countries and the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, add a new pillar of strategic enmeshment to a very important bilateral relationship, and moreover end India's (false) perception that Australia does not trust it as a rising power.

It would also signal Australia's appreciation of the fact that India needs to meet massive energy needs while managing its carbon footprint, and show our recognition that India – unlike, say, China — has a good record of not proliferating nuclear weapons technology or know-how to others. I have supported this overall position and still see its merits.

But if I was advising the Indian Government now I would urge strongly against making wider progress in the Australia-India strategic partnership conditional on a near-term Australian policy shift on uranium exports. Like India, Australia is a democracy, and much of the Australian public has long been uncomfortable with nuclear energy. The tragic events in Japan in the past week, including the clearly inadequate nuclear safety precautions for a worst-case scenario, will obviously deepen those concerns.

It may well prove unrealistic and unreasonable to now expect Julia Gillard's minority Government to expend substantial political capital on any issue which contains the words 'nuclear' or 'uranium'.

Australians will note also that the Fukushima disaster is prompting India to review its own nuclear safety. As some Indian environmentalists have told me, the US-India nuclear deal's separation plan (which finally placed most of India's civil nuclear infrastructure under international safeguards) was a good thing partly because it meant that the authorities could no longer cite national security grounds to prevent public scrutiny of the safety standards at most of India's nuclear reactors. Following the crisis in Japan, and in the glare of the Indian media, the intended expansion of India's nuclear footprint may well slow or even stall.

In any case, India does not need Australian uranium any time soon. Its frustration at Australia's export ban is mainly about symbolism over perceived discrimination, instead of some pressing material need.

So what can we expect' A policy change on uranium to India this year is not impossible. But New Delhi and Canberra would be well advised to focus on finding other ways of building a bilateral relationship of strategic indispensability — such as in Indian Ocean maritime security, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism, coal and gas trade and investment, and well-funded joint scientific research on renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Even if Australia still proceeds to sell uranium to new markets, such as India or the UAE, there could well be political pressure to add environmental safety conditions to bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements (such as this one) that would previously have focused solely on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

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