Despite widespread controversy around planned uranium sales to India, including from the government's own former Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, the Federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties moves to Melbourne this week taking evidence from groups concerned about security, safety and environmental impacts.
Independent security analysts and representatives of the Uniting Church will join national environment groups Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation to highlight concerns over the contested sales plan.
First some background. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed a uranium deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last September, he praised India's "absolutely impeccable non-proliferation record". This praise came despite the reality that India is actively expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and its missile delivery capabilities.
Mr Abbott declined to answer serious questions about India's nuclear weapons program or the inadequate safety standards in and inadequate regulation of its civil nuclear program.
The proposed India uranium agreement is currently being considered by federal parliament's treaties committee, and it has yet to be ratified by parliament. Submissions to the treaties committee have raised many serious concerns − and not just from the usual suspects.
Those raising concerns and objections include John Carlson, former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office; Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors; Prof. Lawrence Scheinman, former Assistant Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Princeton University physicist Dr M.V. Ramana; and nuclear arms control expert Crispin Rovere.
The uranium agreement with India weakens Australia's nuclear safeguards standards, increases the chances of Australian uranium finding its way into Indian weapons and would lead to further undermining of nuclear checks and balances. If the uranium agreement is approved there will be sustained pressure for Australia to apply equally inadequate standards to other uranium customer countries. As John Carlson notes in his submission: "If the Government does compromise Australia's safeguards conditions, inevitably this will lead to other agreement partners asking for similar treatment."
Mr Carlson's critique carries particular weight given that for over two decades he was the head of Australia's nuclear safeguards office. In his submission he states "In all the circumstances, anything less than the full application of Australia's established safeguards conditions should be unthinkable. ... The proposed agreement represents a serious weakening of Australia's established safeguards conditions. Weaknesses in this agreement, combined with loopholes in the IAEA agreement, mean Australian material could be used in support of India's nuclear weapon program."
Even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create intractable problems through uranium exports freeing up India's domestic reserves for weapons production and by providing uranium to a country that is actively expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Australian nuclear standards have been gradually eroded over the years and we now has uranium export agreements with all of the 'declared' nuclear weapons states – the US, U.K., China, France, Russia – even though none of them are complying with their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith.
Australians take pride in our leadership role in the development of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the 1990s. Yet Australia sells uranium to countries that have not ratified the CTBT (the US and China) and the government now plans to sell uranium to India, which also refuses to ratify the treaty. The CTBT has no legal force because eight countries − including the three just mentioned − will not ratify it.
In these and many other ways, the safeguards standards established in the late 1970s are dying the death of a thousand cuts. And while the politicians and miners might have eyes only for the dollar signs, the Australian public in growing numbers clearly see the danger signs.
In many public polls conducted around the issue of uranium sales to India the majority of Australians are consistent in their opposition. A 2012 opinion poll found that 61% of Australians opposed uranium sales to India, nearly double the number in support (33%). A 2008 poll found that 88% agreed that Australia should only export uranium to countries that have signed the NPT.
Successive governments have dug Australia into a deep hole by systematically weakening nuclear safeguards standards. In the shadow of Fukushima, a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium, such indifference to the lived consequences of our uranium trade is profoundly irresponsible.
To its credit, parliament's treaties committee seems to be taking the problems with the India agreement seriously. If the committee recommends the deal be revised or rejected the onus will be on the government to take the problems seriously.
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