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The think tank that didn't

By Jim Green - posted Thursday, 16 February 2012


The Lowy Institute has been under fire for its role in encouraging the Labor Party to reverse its policy of banning uranium sales to India, a nuclear-armed country that has steadfastly refused to ratify either the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The first person to publicly raise concerns about the Institute's role was N.A.J. Taylor, a PhD student at Queensland University, in a number of articles published in Al Jazeera, Crikey and elsewhere. Taylor's broad complaint is that "well-funded and resourced lobby groups successfully denied Australians of a debate, and a complacent and shameful standard of media proliferated falsehoods and empty rhetoric".

Strong words − perhaps a little too strong. The Institute didn't deny Australians a debate, but it did seriously debase the debate.

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Sam Roggeveen, a 'Fellow' at the Institute and editor of its publication 'The Interpreter', wrote a rebuttal to Taylor, claiming that the Institute staged an open debate and provided a platform (primarily its blog) for the expression of numerous perspectives from numerous people. And so it did.

The problem was that by far the most prominent voice was that of Lowy staffer Rory Medcalf, and his contribution to the debate was, to put it politely, deeply problematic.

Medcalf is much concerned with the "hypocrisy" and "discrimination" of allowing nuclear trade with some nuclear weapons states (those that have ratified the NPT) but not others (those that haven't, in particular India). He wrote: "India's pacifist traditions held it back from an all-out effort to build the bomb. Delhi's eventual decisions to test in 1974 and 1998 thus came too late to allow it a recognised nuclear-armed status under the treaty."

But by that 'logic', we ought to congratulate Pyongyang and reward it with uranium sales − after all, its pacifist traditions run so deep that it didn't test a nuclear weapon until 2006. By Medcalf's logic, Australia (or any other country) could give expression to its pacifism by building and testing nuclear weapons.

Medcalf's mantra about the "hypocrisy" and "discrimination" of refusing to allow uranium sales to non-NPT states misses the point that discrimination in favour of NPT states, and against non-NPT states, is precisely the purpose of the Treaty. If that's "hypocrisy" and "discrimination", if that's "nuclear apartheid", then bring it on.

Medcalf complained about Labor's "refusal even to talk about uranium with India". So the government is expected to negotiate uranium sales with non-NPT states even when it has a long-standing principled policy position of not negotiating uranium sales with non-NPT states? Go figure.

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Let's get to the main problem: Medcalf dimisses weapons proliferation-based objections to nuclear trade with India as "false" and "fallacious". Nothing could be further from the truth.

The opening up of nuclear trade with India − which began with the 2008 US-India agreement − is problematic on several levels. For starters, Medcalf wants us to believe that we can play a more effective role in promoting non-proliferation and disarmament in India by first permitting uranium sales. The US, Australia and some other suppliers have conspicuously failed to use their bargaining chip (the opening up of nuclear trade) to leverage outcomes such as Indian ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. According to Medcalf's 'logic', we'll be in a better bargaining position after we've given up our bargaining chip (for nothing) than before.

Nuclear trade with India also alters the proliferation equation for other countries. Ron Walker, a former Australian diplomat and former Chair of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said: "Yes, India is a democracy and yes we want to be in their good books, but that is no reason to drop our principles and our interests. To make an exception for them would be crass cronyism. If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?"

Medcalf's response to such arguments is that opening up nuclear trade with India won't necessarily lead to proliferation elsewhere: "Neither the US-India deal nor Australian uranium sales will determine whether third countries opt for nuclear arms." And this: "But the most mistaken claim is that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal to end the blanket ban on civilian uranium exports to India will somehow lead to the catastrophic spread of nuclear weapons ..."

Of course no country will build nuclear weapons as a direct result of the US-India deal or the Labor government's uranium policy reversal at its national conference last December. But those events certainly encourage proliferation and fundamentally alter the political equation for some countries.

If, for example, either Japan or South Korea pulled out of the NPT and built nuclear weapons prior to the 2008 US-India deal, they would have been excluded from international nuclear trade and that would have killed their domestic nuclear power industries and their nuclear export industries. Now, the equation is fundamentally altered − based on the Indian precedent, both countries could realistically expect to be able to build weapons with minimal impact (or manageable impact) on their nuclear power programs and their nuclear export industries.

The flip-side of Medcalf's disingenuous, straw-man argument about proliferation is a disingenuous, straw-man argument about disarmament: "Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel have long pursued nuclear weapons regardless of how the world treated India. It is absurd to suggest that their leaders are on the verge of nuclear disarmament if only Australia would steer clear of India's nuclear energy program."

Problems are already evident in the wake of the 2008 US-India agreement, not least China's use of the precedent to justify its plan to sell more reactors to Pakistan.

Medcalf says that safeguards applying to uranium sales to India would be at least as strong as those applying to uranium sales to China and Russia. But IAEA safeguards inspections in China are tokenistic and inspections in Russia are very nearly non-existent − one inspection of one plant in 2001, and another in 2010. Medcalf surely knows that.

And he surely knows about the controversy surrounding uranium sales to Russia. The Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office (ASNO) misled parliament's treaties committee in 2008 by claiming that "strict" safeguards would "ensure" peaceful use of Australian uranium and by conspicuously failing to tell the committee that there had not been a single IAEA safeguards inspection in Russia since 2001. The treaties committee made the modest recommendation that some sort of a safeguards system ought to be in place before uranium exports to Russia were approved, only to have its recommendation rejected. Interestingly, the head of ASNO at the time was John Carlson, who has since left ASNO and is now a 'Visiting Fellow' at the Lowy Institute.

The Lowy Institute takes money from Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, the two companies that stand to profit most from the Labor government's policy change. I've never once seen that funding disclosed in relevant Lowy Institute publications. However I suspect Medcalf's role in the India uranium debate has more to do with his extensive links with India than it has to do with funding from uranium mining companies. And there seems to be a disproportionate number of former government officials (Medcalf and Carlson among them) working for the Lowy Institute.

Whatever the explanation, it remains the case that Medcalf has seriously debased public debate on an important policy issue. The Lowy Institute should be held in contempt for so long as it continues to provide a platform for him to peddle his propaganda.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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