In a stunning turn of events, John Howard’s Australian federal government has decided in principle to sell uranium to India. As expected, there is already a chorus of opposition to this decision, from nuclear non-proliferation hard liners to dogmatists who seek to keep India confined to an India-Pakistan box. Unfortunately, most of the arguments against selling uranium to India are clichéd and inconsistent with today’s reality.
The primary line of reasoning in opposition to uranium sales to India is that the country has not acceded to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is considered by many to be the indispensable framework for global nuclear non-proliferation efforts: however, this argument is simplistic because it glosses over the fact that the NPT essentially allows five countries (US, UK, France, Russia and China) to keep their nuclear weapons in perpetuity while condemning the rest of the world to second-tier status.
While it is true that NPT’s Article 6 requires the five recognised nuclear powers to work towards eventual disarmament, the fact these nations still maintain thousands of nuclear weapons suggests that the treaty’s fundamental bargain was essentially a lie. From the Indian point of view, the hard-line NPT-centric non-proliferation opinions long advocated by powerful Western nations were always hypocritical.
A former Indian official once told this author, “These countries pontificate to us on nuclear weapons while sitting safely under the American and NATO nuclear umbrella. If they are so opposed to nuclear weapons, why did they feel the need to accept a nuclear shield?”
It is interesting to note that many of the NPT-centric critics of an India-Australia nuclear agreement are not consistent in their approach. Australia currently supplies uranium to the US, France and the UK. In the strictest sense, these nations are violating their NPT Article 6 commitments on disarmament.
Britain recently announced a policy to build nuclear missile carrying submarine fleet that would preserve and modernise the country’s nuclear arsenal for another few decades. The US has recently spoken of new uses for nuclear weapons including in “bunker buster” bombs. China is the only NPT nuclear weapon state to currently build nuclear warheads, some of which are aimed at India.
Australia recently signed an agreement to sell uranium to China without requiring Beijing to commit to an end to nuclear weapons testing or to stop making more nuclear warheads. It would be fair to ask India uranium opponents if they are not displaying hypocrisy by opposing sales to India, citing the NPT, while being quiet on Australia’s uranium sales to the US, UK, France and China in the light of their defiance of the NPT Article 6.
Simply put, if Canberra is committed to the NPT over everything else, it should immediately cease co-operation with all nuclear weapon states pending their immediate disarmament.
Another school of thought argues that by supplying uranium to India’s civilian reactors, Australia would help free up India’s “scarce” indigenous uranium sources to be used to make atomic bombs. This is a misrepresentation of India’s nuclear behaviour to date.
Currently, other than the two dedicated weapons-grade plutonium producing reactors, India has 11 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) that are un-safeguarded and could potentially be used for bomb-making. A simple calculation reveals that India could have produced over 18,000 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for about 4,000 warheads, had it used all these 11 PHWRs for that purpose over the years.
In comparison, India’s current fissile stockpile is estimated at a few hundred kilograms or about 80-100 warheads. This is why this line of “India should be forced to make a choice” reasoning is absurd. Any country that has chosen to make less than 5 per cent of the number of bombs it could have produced could not have done so because of resource constraints.
The above reasoning also shows why welcoming India into the global non-proliferation mainstream is a net positive for the efforts to curtail nuclear weapons. Most India critics take India’s historical restraint for granted. One American expert observed that India’s commitment to not proliferate nuclear technology and maintain a testing moratorium as part of the Indo-US nuclear deal is not valuable because India will likely do so with or without a nuclear deal.
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