THE recent decision to overturn a long-standing ban on selling uranium to India has divided Australian opinions along the lines of politics, economics and security. While the uranium industry praised the decision, a chorus of outraged politicians and anti-nuclear campaigners are working to make their voices heard. Three weeks prior to the Australian Labor Party’s 46th National Conference in Sydney in early December, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced plans to abolish the uranium sales ban.
The decision was made despite India being one of just a handful of countries that has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – a landmark international treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, and to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
At the National Conference, Ms Gillard’s proposition to overturn the ban was supported: 206 votes to 185. Discussions between Australia and India are set to begin in 2012, with Australia to confirm the application of safeguards to any sales of uranium to India.
The ALP claims that sales to India are a reasonable consideration due to India’s 2008 civil nuclear agreement with the US, which required the country to separate its civil and military facilities, and place all its civil facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
India gained a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group when it entered the agreement with the US, allowing it to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world despite its status as a NPT country in possession of nuclear weapons. India is now reportedly ready to test its newest nuclear-capable missile Agni V, nicknamed by the media ‘the China killer’ for its ability to carry a nuclear warhead 5000km, not only to Beijing and Shanghai, but to all of northern China.
Although Indian officials have reiterated the country has a ‘no first strike’ policy, the new missile is feeding regional anxiety.
Australia India Business Council Australian Capital Territory chapter president Deepak-Raj Gupta said individuals were entitled to their views and opinions, but reiterated that India had behaved at all times as “a responsible nuclear state”.
“In past there has not been a single incident where Australia may have reason to think otherwise,” Mr Gupta said. “With adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong transparency measures, [Australians can be assured] that Australian uranium is for peaceful purposes, not for the military.”
The uranium industry has supported the movement to overturn the sales ban, with Australian Uranium Association (AUA) chief executive officer Michael Angwin marking it “a sign of increasing maturity of the national conversation about uranium mining and
“We believe the ALP’s decision is one guided by practical considerations in the national interest and that is a welcome advance beyond the automatic responses of the past,” Mr Angwin said in a statement. “The uranium industry encourages the Australian Government to develop legal and treaty arrangements with India that are much like those we have with other nations to whom we sell uranium and who are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” However, Mr Angwin said he expected that this may take a number of years to achieve and that export sales to India, estimated to be able to generate about $300 million by 2030, were not guaranteed.
“India already has access to uranium from countries who are competitors of ours, such as Kazakhstan,” he said.
“Australia will have to work hard to ensure we can compete with countries that already have uranium trading relationships with India.”
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA (CME) has also lent its support to stopping the ban.
CME chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said in a statement that uranium was a low-emission, high volume, long-term energy source that must be included in future export operations.
According to Mr Howard-Smith, selling to India would broaden WA’s resource export base, deliver more jobs for WA and help reduce global carbon emissions.
“Federal ALP made a sensible, long-term decision to broaden uranium sales to India and I especially congratulate the Federal Resources minister Martin Ferguson for his commitment to training and job creation,” he said.“The Australian uranium industry has
an excellent track record of managing the product in a safe and sustainable way, and there should be no reason why Western Australia is not developing and selling uranium.”
However, anti-nuclear campaigners have questioned Ms Gillard’s eagerness to push ahead with overturning the sales ban; Australian Conservation Foundation nuclear free campaigner Dave Sweeney described the move as “an absolutely diabolical, appallingly
conceived piece of policy”.
Mr Sweeney said the decision to overturn the ban greatly undermined Australia’s national ability to be “a credible voice” when it came to issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction. “We believe that there have been clear statements, at a high level, from Indian officials that are eager to source foreign uranium in order to free up domestic uranium for use in weapons programs,” he said. “India is a nuclear weapon state, and we think Australia is stepping unhelpfully into an area where there’s already a lot of concerns”.
Mr Sweeney also said that based on legal advice prepared by Professor Don Rothwell from the Australian National University School of International Law, “any sale of Australian uranium to India would breach Australia’s obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty [also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga].” Mr Sweeney said that, according to this treaty, “signatory countries will not sell nuclear materials, including uranium, to other nations that signed the treaty, unless they have agreed to full scope independent safeguards.”
This was a condition India had not and would not agree to, he said. According to Mr Sweeney, the majority of India’s nuclear facilities and all of its military facilities were off-limits to international inspectors and, as a result, were clearly not consistent with full-scope independent safeguards. “In order to sell a fuel that…can power a reactor or power a weapon, into an already unstable region, Australia will be breaking a significant, long-standing international treaty,” Mr Sweeney said. WA Leader of the Opposition Eric Ripper went one step further in his opposition of sales to India, putting WA uranium developers on notice that the sales would not come from their projects, should the ban be overturned.
“WA Labor has had this policy for decades…and we don’t want to contribute to a dirty, dangerous, global industry,” he told The Australian Mining Review. “There will be no operating uranium mines at the time of the next election; if WA Labor is elected we will not grant approvals for the development of uranium mining projects,” Mr Ripper said.
While some analysts have claimed that denying uranium approvals would pose a sovereign risk to investment and make the Government subject to compensation claims, Mr Ripper said this was not of great concern. “It is a government’s right to withhold approvals. If the government doesn’t have the right to say ‘no’ then the term ‘approval’ loses all meaning,” he said, quick to point out that WA Labor had a separate and distinct policy from Federal Labor on the issue. Meanwhile, Ms Gillard’s desire to sell to India has ignited Pakistan’s interest in accessing Australian uranium. Pakistan’s high commissioner to Australia Abdul Malik Abdullah told media that if Australia was willing to sell to India, then in the future it should also sell to Pakistan. He said that this would be an equitable and non-discriminatory decision that would make the policy fair.
“If Australia is going to lift the ban on a country which has not signed a non-nuclear proliferation treaty, it is hoped it is also applied to Pakistan the same way,” Mr Abdullah said.
At the time of writing, the Federal Government had not responded on the subject of selling uranium to Pakistan.
By Rachel Seeley