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Australian and Indian nuclear trade

Adding Australian uranium into India’s energy mix would have serious fallouts on prevailing strained relations between India and its nuclear-armed neighbours

Australia is expected to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India during the visit of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott early next month. Negotiations have been concluded to smooth the path for uranium imports from Australia. The news came out when hundreds of thousands of Indian men and women protested against the expanding nuclear industry. These protests have been a regular feature in Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu), Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Gorakhpur (Haryana), and at least five activists have lost their lives since 2010 in their struggle against the Indian government’s decision without taking the affected parties on board. Radioactive waste from uranium mining in the country’s east is reportedly affecting adjacent communities. Thousands of Indians suffer from the effects of uranium mining  related to poor technical and management practices.
Australia controls the planet’s largest known uranium reserves. Uranium is a controversial and debatable subject in Canberra because it can be used both for civil and military purposes. Australia had previously cancelled plans to sell uranium to India as it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but it was the Indo-US nuclear deal that paved the way for the ban’s lifting. The move of lifting the ban came despite a parliamentary report on nuclear safety regulation in India emphasising grave nuclear safety concerns and organisational flaws when compared to international norms. India’s auditor general in this report has designated the country’s nuclear industry as insecure, disordered and, in many cases, unregulated. The report underlined the fact that there is no national policy on nuclear and radiation safety after almost 30 years.
It is an unpredictable and unjustified security situation into which Australia is selling uranium. The Australian government’s idea to sell uranium to India was strongly criticised by Australians but the government seems inclined to disregard it. Analysts in Australia are opposing the uranium sale without preconditions and any meaningful concessions from India, like the Indian ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and stopping the production of nuclear bomb making material.
Seen from the perspective of adherence to non-proliferation norms and commitments, if Australia exports uranium to India, Australia would violate its obligations of the treaty of Rarotonga that binds it to not indulging in such trade. Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty requires India to comply with the safeguards requirements of Article III (1) of the NPT. Article III (1) of the NPT is about reaching a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Instead, India has only acknowledged safeguards on certain foreign supplied reactors and facilities. India’s safeguards agreement is based upon the IAEA’s “facility specific” safeguards.
Australian uranium sale to India will be subjected to weak monitoring safeguards or facility specific safeguards of the IAEA contrary to nuclear deals Australia has with other countries. Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute highlighted IAEA’s inability to screen exactly where uranium sent to India from Australia goes if comprehensive monitoring safeguards are not applied. “For example, if 100 tonnes go into a civilian nuclear programme and 90 tonnes of products come out, they do not know where the missing product was diverted from,” he convincingly argues.
A defence research group, IHS Jane’s, has revealed that India is increasing its uranium facility that could support the expansion of nuclear weapons. India is trying to buy foreign sources of uranium so she can use its domestic reserves for a nuclear arms race with Pakistan. India is expanding its nuclear power programme to use its own uranium for the production of more nuclear weapons. Adding Australian uranium into India’s energy mix would have serious fallouts on prevailing strained relations between India and its nuclear-armed neighbours. Can Australia trust India to not use Australian uranium for weapons manufacture?
Non-proliferation is a top agenda item when it comes to Pakistan, Iran or North Korea but it is an inoperable standard when it is India or Israel. The commencement of nuclear trade with India, first by Washington in 2008 and currently by Canberra, has immense repercussions. It will profoundly upset the proliferation equation for other countries in the region. The India-Australia nuclear deal will aggravate India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry and exacerbate Pakistan’s security dilemma. Both countries have nuclear weapons and so this commitment by the Aussies will no doubt intensify India-Pakistan tensions. Nuclear trade with India will profoundly upset strategic stability in the South Asian region.


The writer has done his MSc in Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid e Azam University

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Aaj Kal