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The Lowy Institute's dangerous nuclear propaganda

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 28 December 2012


The Lowy Institute portrays itself as an independent think-tank. But a close looks at the Institute's work in relation to uranium sales to India suggests it is a dangerous, reactionary propaganda outfit.

First to briefly recap the debate over uranium sales to India (as discussed in Online Opinion earlier this year). India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the four nuclear weapons states outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Five countries are 'declared' nuclear weapons states within the NPT − the USA, Russia, UK, France and China. The declared weapons states are obliged under the NPT to seriously pursue nuclear disarmament, though none of them do so and nothing is done to hold them to account.

For many years it was bipartisan policy in Australia to permit uranium sales to NPT states (including declared weapons states) but not to countries outside the NPT. The Howard government reversed that policy in 2007, the Rudd Labor government held firm on the principle of refusing uranium sales to non-NPT states, but Julia Gillard orchestrated a policy reversal at the 2011 ALP National Conference. Bilateral uranium export negotiations are slowly progressing between Australia and India.

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The problems and risks of opening up uranium sales India are many. It legitimises India's nuclear weapons program and could materially support that program (by diversion of nuclear materials or by 'freeing up' domestic uranium resources). It makes it difficult to maintain bans on nuclear trade with other non-NPT states. It encourages other countries to abandon previous nuclear export norms (for example China is using the India precedent to justify nuclear sales to Pakistan). It could encourage non-weapons states to pull out of the NPT, to build nuclear weapons and to do so on the assumption that civil nuclear programs will not be seriously disrupted by bans on nuclear imports or exports. It makes it more difficult to deal with problems like Iran's suspected weapons program when double standards are clearly being applied.

To join the NPT, India would need to dismantle its nuclear weapons. For Australia, there were two defensible options. One was to maintain the ban on uranium sales to non-NPT states. The other was to make uranium sales conditional on concrete disarmament concessions such as India ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), stopping the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and stopping its missile development program. There is now bipartisan policy to pursue the third of those two options − uranium sales with no disarmament concessions from India.

It's a complicated debate − still more complicated by the fact that in recent years some other countries have abandoned bans on nuclear exports to India. The Lowy Institute, a well-resourced think-tank with considerable foreign policy experience, ought to have played a constructive, educational role. Executive Director Michael Fullilove claims the Institute is "independent, non-partisan and evidence-driven; that we encourage the widest range of opinions but are the advocate of none." Bollocks. The Institute − led by staff member Rory Medcalf − has run a disgraceful propaganda campaign in support of uranium sales to India.

All the rhetoric about using uranium sales to leverage disarmament concessions has been quickly forgotten. In 2007 Medcalf proposed a "political price" from Delhi in return for uranium sales. India would acknowledge Australia's right to cease supply if India tested another nuclear bomb; affirm its moratorium on nuclear tests; state that it will support negotiation of a global treaty to ban producing fissile material for weapons; proclaim its determination to help thwart efforts by any other state to acquire nuclear weapons; commit India's navy to interdicting illegal nuclear trade; and reiterate that India has a strictly defensive nuclear posture based on no first use, along with a moral commitment to global nuclear disarmament.

Some of those proposed conditions are useless or worse than useless − for example India's 'moratorium' on weapons testing is no substitute for ratifying the CTBT. And the conditions that have any substance have been ignored by Medcalf himself, to the point that in recent years he has campaigned furiously for uranium sales to India with no concessions whatsoever.

In 2008, Medcalf said that an "invitation to India to work with Australia on arms control would test India's highsounding rhetoric on nuclear disarmament and restraint, and could change the context for an eventual review on uranium sales." But there has been no invitation for joint work on arms control, and the uranium agreement is progressing with no disarmament concessions.

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India and Pakistan continue to produce fissile material for weapons, to expand their nuclear weapons arsenals, to expand their missile capabilities, and to thumb their nose at the CTBT. Yet Medcalf wants us to be reassured about India's "relatively small" and "strictly defensive" nuclear weapons program. He is impressed that India's "pacifist traditions" held it back from testing a nuclear weapon until 1974 − but by that logic we ought to reward Pyongyang for holding out until 2006.

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 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections in China are tokenistic and inspections in Russia are very nearly non-existent. He says that IAEA safeguards will "confirm" that uranium exports are used for civilian purposes only and that safeguards "ensure" that Australian uranium will not end up in Indian warheads. But IAEA safeguards inspections in India are at best tokenistic and are quite incapable of confirming or ensuring anything. And Australia has neither the authority nor the wherewithal to carry out independent safeguards inspections.

Medcalf dismisses proliferation-based objections to nuclear trade with India as "false" and "fallacious". He wants us to believe that we can play a more effective role promoting nuclear disarmament in India by first permitting uranium sales. But the US, Australia and some other suppliers have conspicuously failed to use their bargaining chip − the opening up of nuclear trade − to leverage disarmament outcomes. According to Medcalf's logic, we're in a better bargaining position after giving our bargaining chip (for nothing) than before. It's a nonsense argument.

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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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