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Uranium, India and the nuclear non-proliferation regime

By Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2007


The Australian federal government has moved to facilitate uranium sales to India - a move with important implications for the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Within days of the conclusion of a nuclear co-operation agreement between the United States and India, foreign minister Alexander Downer said on July 31 that federal Cabinet would discuss the potential sale of Australian uranium to India "fairly soon". Mr Downer and Prime Minister John Howard have expressed support for both uranium sales to India and the US-India agreement.

A key problem with proposed uranium exports to India is that it will free up domestic uranium in India for weapons production. This is a theoretical possibility with uranium exports to any nuclear weapons state, but in the case of India it is not just a possible outcome but a likely one.

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Indeed, K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India's National Security Advisory Board, said in the Times of India that: "Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production."

Pakistan resents the selective support for India's nuclear program and is well aware of the potential for civil nuclear trade with India to indirectly facilitate weapons production. In April 2006, Pakistan's National Command Authority (NCA), chaired by President Pervez Musharraf, declared that: "In view of the fact the [US-India] agreement would enable India to produce a significant quantity of fissile material and nuclear weapons from unsafeguarded nuclear reactors, the NCA expressed firm resolve that our credible minimum deterrence requirements will be met."

It is possible - some say likely - that China's support for Pakistan's nuclear program will be extended in the wake of the US-India agreement. This is all the more likely given that the agreement is widely perceived be part of a broader strategic policy of containing China.

The US-India agreement contains no commitments from India to curb its weapons program. A recent media release from Mr Downer asserts that the US-India agreement includes commitments by India to continue its nuclear testing “moratorium”. In fact, as Indian political leaders and officials have repeatedly stressed to their domestic audience, no such commitment is contained in the final text of the agreement, released on August 1.

Mr Downer considers himself a champion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He now has a chance to prove it. He could make uranium sales contingent on India signing and ratifying the Test Ban Treaty. He could also insist on a verified stop to the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons in India.

Nuclear trade with India would undermine the fundamental principle of the global non-proliferation regime - the principle that only signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can engage in trade for their civil nuclear programs. The precedent set by nuclear trade with India increases the risk of other countries pulling out of the NPT, building nuclear weapons, and doing so with the expectation that civil nuclear trade will continue given the Indian precedent.

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As former Australian diplomat Professor Richard Broinowski noted last year: "The sale of Australian uranium to India would not just weaken our non-proliferation credentials - it would also 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 Treaty and develop nuclear weapons - against North Korea, China, or perhaps Russia - without necessarily fearing a cut-off of Australian supplies."

It may come as a surprise to learn that the Australian Uranium Association has reserved its position on proposed uranium sales to India. The uranium industry understands that there is very little profit to be made through sales to India. If Australia supplied one quarter of India's current demand, sales revenue would amount to $8.6 million, uranium export revenue would increase by 1.3 per cent, and Australia's export revenue from all products would increase by 0.005 per cent. Even in the unlikely event that India's plan for a five-fold expansion of nuclear power is realised, the economic returns would still be underwhelming.

We should certainly be concerned about India's rising greenhouse emissions, not least because it is the second most populous nation on the planet. However, we ought to get our own house in order before berating India - their per capita emissions are 17 times lower than ours. If global per capita emissions were at India's current, very low level, global warming would be unheard of: the same certainly cannot be said of Australia.

There are much safer ways to help India curb greenhouse emissions than exporting uranium. For example, Leonard Weiss, a former staff director of the US Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Nuclear Proliferation, noted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year that an aggressive program of improved energy efficiency could substitute for all the future power output from nuclear reactors currently being planned in India between now and 2020.

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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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