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Australia's retreat on nuclear non-proliferation

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This week marked the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Australia's signing of the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty. Dave Sweeney comments.

AtomicEffects-Hiroshima
The horrifying aftermath of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing (image via Wikipedia)


SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO this week our world changed forever – and tens of thousands of lives instantly ended – when the atomic bomb was unveiled.

The destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) in 1945 heralded the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear age.



It is a long way from Hiroshima in 1945 to election mode Canberra in 2013, but lessons learned and actions taken to stop the chance of further nuclear threats are being forgotten in the rush to advance risky Australian uranium sales.



In December 2011, the Labor Party narrowly voted to overturn a long standing ban on the sale of uranium to countries that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the world’s main check and balance on the spread of the world’s worst weapons.



Labor’s backflip was designed to allow uranium sales to India, a nuclear weapon state that has consistently refused to sign the NPT.



The move was condemned by the Australian Greens but enthusiastically welcomed by the Coalition, which paved the way with its August 2007 decision to support uranium sales to India and is an active supporter of an expanded uranium sector.





But the controversial sales plan is in clear conflict with Australia’s obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty – also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga – and is putting Australia on a collision course with our Pacific neighbours.



Professor of International Law at ANU, Professor Donald Rothwell, has examined the treaty and the planned sale deal and concluded ‘Australia is obligated under the Treaty of Rarotonga to not provide India with nuclear materials until such time as India has concluded a full-scope safeguards agreement.’



The Treaty, signed twenty eight years ago this week in the Cook Islands, bans the use, testing and possession of nuclear weapons within the South Pacific region and places constraints on non-military nuclear activities, including the export of uranium.



The Treaty sent a clear and important message to those nuclear weapons states that saw the Pacific as an easy testing ground.



It remains relevant and important today, but is now under direct threat from the atomic ambitions of Australian politicians and miners.



The Treaty of Rarotonga clearly makes any uranium sales conditional on the receiver nation agreeing to comprehensive or ‘full-scope’ nuclear safeguards — that is, the nation receiving the uranium must open up all of its nuclear facilities to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).



India has declared some of its nuclear facilities to be ‘civilian’ and others ‘military’, with a number of its civilian facilities now open to the IAEA.



But India retains extensive restrictions on international and independent access to its nuclear facilities and its approach in no way meets the requirements of comprehensive safeguards, posing a radioactive risk for the planet and a legal and policy headache for Australian uranium producers and promoters.





The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials currently developing a nuclear cooperation and sales treaty with their Indian counterparts are tight-lipped about the yawning gap between Australia’s uranium ambitions and nuclear obligations.



For its part, India has made it clear that while it will continue developing and deploying nuclear weapons it will not accept full-scope safeguards on its nuclear facilities.



Proponents of the sales deal claim that earlier Indian recognition in a nuclear deal brokered with the United States mean changed circumstances and new rules, but the U.S.-India deal has seen India accept only limited IAEA safeguards and in no way reduces Australia’s obligations under the Treaty of Rarotonga.



As home to around 35 per cent of the world’s uranium, the decisions Australia makes and the positions Australia takes matter.



Uranium is a dual use fuel – it can be used to power reactors or weapons – and the distinction between the civil and military nuclear sectors is often more psychological and semantic than real.



In the week that sees the anniversary of the both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga and in the shadow of Fukushima – a continuing nuclear crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium – it  is time for Australia – and Australian politicians – to choose.



Do we advance the self-interest of the high risk, low return uranium mining sector or are we a nation with the capacity to reflect on the past, respect the future and honour our international commitments?



When it comes to risky uranium sales we really cannot have our yellowcake and eat it too.



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