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The prime minister's uranium u-turn

By Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Prime Minister Julia Gillard's arguments in favour of uranium sales to India are dangerous and dishonest.

She fails to even acknowledge the crucial problem – India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is the main international nuclear treaty and is routinely described by Australian political leaders as the "cornerstone" of the non-proliferation system. The NPT has its flaws, not least the failure of the nuclear weapons states to take seriously their disarmament obligations, but that is no reason to junk the Treaty or to disregard it.

On the contrary, the NPT needs much greater support. The least we should expect is that Australia maintains its policy of requiring uranium customer countries to be NPT signatories and to take seriously their NPT obligations.

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The United States and some other countries have opened up nuclear trade with India in recent years. Thus the NPT has already been damaged and weakened. But that is no justification for Australia to weaken it further. According to the nuclear lobby Australia is now isolated in its stance. Nothing could be further from the truth – only a minority of countries support the opening up of nuclear trade with countries that refuse to sign the NPT. The 118 countries of the Nonaligned Movement voiced strong objections during the NPT Review Conference in New York last year.

The events set in train by the opening up of nuclear trade with India have been disastrous from a non-proliferation standpoint. They have led to an escalating nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and a weakening of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime which others are now exploiting (e.g. China's plan to supply reactors to Pakistan).

Another serious problem is that the precedent set by nuclear trade with India increases the risk of other countries pulling out of the NPT and building nuclear weapons with the expectation that nuclear trade would continue. As former Australian Ambassador Prof. Richard Broinowski notes: "The sale of Australian uranium to India would signal to some of our major uranium customers, such as Japan and South Korea, that we do not take too seriously their own adherence to the NPT. They may as a result walk away from the NPT and develop nuclear weapons without necessarily fearing a cut-off of Australian supplies."

Prime Minister Gillard argues that "we must, of course, expect of India the same standards we do of all countries for uranium export – strict adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong bilateral undertakings and transparency measures that will provide assurances our uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes."

Such claims are uninformed or dishonest. The International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement with India does not provide for comprehensive or full-scope safeguards. Safeguards apply only to that part of the nuclear program that India considers surplus to military 'requirements'. IAEA safeguards inspections in India will at best be tokenistic and will most likely be non-existent (as they are in Russia – another of Australia's uranium customer countries).

Moreover, even if a rigorous safeguards regime was in place in India (and it most certainly is not), that would in no way undo the damage done to the NPT by opening up nuclear trade with countries that refuse to sign and abide by the Treaty.

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Prime Minister Gillard argues that "as in other areas, broadening our [uranium] markets will increase jobs." However if Australia supplied one-fifth of India's current demand, uranium exports would increase by a measly 1.8 per cent. Even if all reactors under construction or planned in India come on line, Australia's uranium exports would increase by just 10 per cent.

That level of uranium exports might – might – support one very small, additional uranium mine employing a few dozen people. Much more likely, exports would come from existing mines and no additional jobs would be created. Moreover, there are plenty of jobs going in the mining industry – uranium sales to India would not generate additional jobs but, at most, transfer a few jobs from one part of the mining industry to another.

Uranium exports will do nothing to reduce greenhouse emissions in India, twice over. Firstly, because uranium supply is no constraint to nuclear power expansion in India. Secondly, because renewables and energy efficiency could very easily substitute for India's nuclear program – providing low-carbon energy solutions without all the problems that attend nuclear power.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson talks up the greenhouse 'benefits' of nuclear power, but in fact nuclear power is the quickest route to catastrophic climate change. Prof. Alan Robock from Rutgers University and Prof. Brian Toon from the University of Colorado summarise recent research on the climatic impacts of nuclear warfare: "A nuclear war between any two countries, each using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, such as India and Pakistan, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is less than 0.05% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.'

Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapons states flouting their NPT disarmament obligations; countries with a history of secret nuclear weapons research; countries that refuse to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; and undemocratic, secretive states with appalling human rights records. Now the Prime Minister proposes ditching the requirement for uranium customer countries to be NPT signatories.

Delegates to the ALP national conference in December should stop the rot and take a principled stand. Media reports assume that the Right faction of the Labor Party will fall in behind the Prime Minister. But the Labor Right has a history of splitting on uranium debates. Indeed one of the most outspoken MPs opposing a change of policy with respect to uranium exports to India has been Kelvin Thomson from the Right.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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