The federal government's plan to permit uranium sales to India has been subjected to a strong critique by the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), John Carlson.
Others to have raised concerns include former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt, and Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. But Carlson's critique carries particular weight given his 21 years experience as the head of Australia's safeguards office.
Carlson notes that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed by Australia and India in September contains "substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions" which suggest "that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India."
Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. ... The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. They have long applied to close and trusted partners such as the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea. There is absolutely no case to waive them for India.
The failure to provide regular reports "will also expose the agreement to potential legal challenge under the 1987 Safeguards Act", Carlson writes. (Another problem, not mentioned, is that nuclear material could be diverted and reports falsified. There is little likelihood that the falsification of reports would be detected.)
Carlson notes that provisions for 'fallback safeguards' in the event of IAEA safeguards ceasing to apply are vague and open to differing interpretations.
There are many concerns other than those noted by Carlson. The IAEA−India safeguards agreement is on the public record, if only because it was leaked, and it is clear from the agreement that safeguards inspections are few and far between. A leaked IAEA document states that the IAEA "will not mechanistically or systematically seek to verify" information obtained from India.
Underpinning this entire debate is an infuriating secrecy. For example, it seems reasonable that we should be able to find out how often IAEA safeguards inspections are carried out in India, which facilities have been inspected, and whether any accounting discrepancies were detected. But national governments refuse to supply that information and the IAEA itself only releases aggregate information on the number of inspections carried out across three countries −India, Pakistan and Israel.
Carlson notes that the 'administrative arrangement' which will append the nuclear cooperation agreement may be "even more consequential than the agreement itself" as it sets out the working procedures for the agreement. But the Australian public will never get to see the administrative arrangement. And the Australian public will never be able to find out any information about the separation and stockpiling of weapons-useable plutonium in India; or nuclear accounting discrepancies ('Material Unaccounted For'); or even the quantity of Australian uranium (and its by-products) held in India.
Even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create an intractable problem: uranium exports freeing up India's domestic reserves for weapons production. K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India's National Security Advisory Board, has said 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 refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production."
And even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create another intractable problem: we are setting a poor precedent by selling uranium to a country that is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities, and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
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