India uranium exports red-light a test for Government

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A range of experts suggest the uranium agreement with India weakens many Australian safeguards and opens the way for Australian uranium to find its way into Indian weapons, writes Dave Sweeney.

While Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have been strong supporters of selling Australian uranium to India many others, including key Australian diplomats and insiders, remain far more circumspect.

The plan has drawn sustained opposition and concern, most recently from the federal Parliament's influential Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) which has unambiguously stated that much more work is required before any Australian uranium makes a passage to India.

That Committee’s recent report urges that 'Australian uranium not be sold to India' at this time. It’s hard to get much clearer than that. This is a considered and credible red light to commencing any uranium exports before serious and unresolved domestic and international concerns are addressed.

The JSCOT report followed a detailed examination and expert testimony and states that while the Federal Government can ratify the deal it must not advance uranium sales or supply to India before key checks and balances are put into practice, and proven to work.

In short, the committee charged with advising the Government on Indian uranium sales has reached the unambiguous conclusion that the Government can sign but not sell.

The question now is whether the Abbott Government will follow due parliamentary process and act in the public interest or will it ignore these concerns and JSCOT’s advice and seek to fast-track the agenda of the under-performing uranium sector?

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed a uranium deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in September 2014, he praised India's "absolutely impeccable non-proliferation record". Yet India's record on nuclear proliferation tells a quite different story. 

India acquired its nuclear arsenal by breaking a promise not to use a Canadian reactor for military purposes. It remains outside the globe’s key non-proliferation frameworks and the region remains on nuclear high alert amid tensions with nuclear rival Pakistan.

Instead of addressing real questions about India's nuclear weapons program and inadequate nuclear safety standards Mr Abbott resorted to cricketing clichés, declaring that Australia and India trust each other on issues like uranium safeguards because of

"... the fundamentally ethical principle that every cricketer is supposed to assimilate — play by the rules and accept the umpire's decision."

The JSCOT process received strongly critical submissions from a who's who of nuclear arms control diplomats and experts including John Carlson (former long serving Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office from 1989 to 2010), Ron Walker (former chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Professor Lawrence Scheinman (former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency). These are veteran players in global nuclear diplomatic and regulatory regimes, not anti-nuclear activists.

Nuclear arms control expert Crispin Rovere noted that in his submission:

'... this treaty appears less like the deepening of a bilateral partnership and more like one of a client state being dictated to in an expanded Indian empire. It is a major display of weakness on the part of the Australian Government, and a failure to stand up for Australia's national interests in this area.'

John Carlson concluded that the agreement was 'very weak' and that 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.'

The agreement with India weakens many of Australia's nuclear safeguards and standards and opens the door for Australian uranium to find its way into Indian weapons. If the uranium sales agreement is advanced by the prime minister against the advice of JSCOT there will also be sustained pressure for Australia to apply equally inadequate standards to other uranium customer countries. It would create a dangerous and irresponsible precedent for Australia’s already risky uranium exports.

In 2012, a review of the Indian nuclear sector by the Indian Auditor General found profound failures in safety, governance and regulation and warned of

'... a Fukushima or Chernobyl-like disaster if the nuclear safety issue is not addressed.'

Australian uranium directly fueled the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis and there are unique and compelling reasons not to supply Australian uranium to India — especially not at this time or on these terms.

As it currently stands, the Government has inked an agreement that puts absolutely no constraints on India's nuclear weapons program, fails to advance non-proliferation outcomes and doesn't even provide effective scrutiny of Australian uranium.

One thing we can all agree on is that Australia has a key role to play in supporting India’s legitimate energy aspirations, but this cannot be advanced by a retreat from responsibility on nuclear safeguards and security. The Government must read and heed the JSCOT report and Australia’s uranium must remain away from India’s nuclear reactors and weapons — to do otherwise would be profoundly irresponsible.

JSCOT has just clean bowled this dangerous and deeply deficient sales plan. Mr Abbott must now heed his own words, "accept the umpire's decision" and start the long walk back to pavilion for a serious re-think.

Dave Sweeney is the nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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