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Safeguarding uranium exports to India

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 2 December 2011

A big part of the PR pitch for uranium sales to nuclear-armed India is the assertion that 'strict' safeguards will 'ensure' peaceful use of Australian uranium. Sadly, it's just PR.

The claim sits uncomfortably with the reality that safeguards are based on occasional inspections of some nuclear plants by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The claim sits even more uncomfortably with the observations of recently-retired IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei that the Agency's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and efforts to improve it have been "half-hearted", and the system operates on a "shoestring budget…comparable to a local police department".

To give an illustration of the contrast between reality and rhetoric, the Gillard Government takes credit for insisting that all of Australia's uranium customer countries must have an 'Additional Protocol' in place with the IAEA – an agreement which provides for expanded inspection rights. The genesis of that policy is revealing. Australia waited until all of Australia's uranium customer countries had an Additional Protocol in place before announcing that it was a requirement for all customer countries. We weren't driving improvements in the international safeguards regime but merely indulging in a cynical, retrospective PR exercise.

What about safeguards in India? Australia has no capacity for independent monitoring and verification. We are entirely reliant on the IAEA. The safeguards agreement between the IAEA and India is on the public record and it certainly doesn't provide for strict safeguards. It provides for safeguards that will be tokenistic or non-existent.

Arms Control Today thoroughly dissected the IAEA-India safeguards agreement and noted that: "Reporting provisions…not contained in India's agreement cover information such as nuclear fuel-cycle-related research and development, nuclear-related imports, and uranium mining. The Indian additional protocol also does not include any complementary access provisions, which provide the IAEA with the potential authority to inspect undeclared facilities."

A leaked 2009 IAEA document states that the IAEA "will not mechanistically or systematically seek to verify" information obtained from India. It makes another statement of relevance to uranium suppliers: "The verification activities in question are not linked to quantitative yardsticks such as inventories of nuclear materials."

The IAEA document also states: "The frequency and intensity of IAEA inspections shall be kept to the minimum consistent with the aim of improving safeguards." That is standard diplomatic jargon – it means that safeguards will be infrequent or non-existent except in circumstances where the IAEA wants to test novel safeguards technologies or procedures and India agrees to take part.

Proponents of nuclear trade with India argue that it will bring 65 per cent (14 out of 22) of India's reactors under safeguards. But it does not curtail India's nuclear weapons program by 65 per cent − it does not curtail India's weapons program at all. Nuclear trade will do more to facilitate India's nuclear weapons program than to curtail it. Safeguards apply only to that part of the nuclear program that India considers surplus to military 'requirements'. India is free to build new, unsafeguarded reactors or other facilities for its weapons program. The opening up of nuclear trade with India has clearly escalated the South Asian nuclear arms race.

Will safeguards in India be tokenistic or non-existent? No point asking the IAEA or the Australian safeguards office – both organisations are notorious for their secrecy and for failing to respond to questions. What little information is on the public record seems designed to confuse rather than to clarify – specifically, the IAEA provides some aggregate data on the number of inspections carried out in India, Israel and Pakistan but no India-specific information. From 2005-09, 44–50 safeguards inspections were carried out each year in those three countries, but the figure increased to 67 last year. So perhaps safeguards in India will be tokenistic rather than non-existent?

Even if a credible safeguards regime were established to ensure peaceful use of Australian uranium in India – and it won't – that would in no way undo the damage done to the nuclear non-proliferation regime by permitting uranium sales to countries refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Nor would a rigorous safeguards regime address another key problem: uranium exports to India freeing up domestic reserves for weapons production. K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India's National Security Advisory Board, has said that: "Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production."

Which leaves advocates of uranium sales to India with the drug-dealer's defence: some other countries have abandoned the principle that nuclear trade should be restricted to Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories so Australia might as well follow suit. Yet, as Ron Walker, former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors, argued last week: "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?"

The alternative course for Australia is to side with the large majority of the world's countries who want to re-establish and reinforce the principle that nuclear trade should be restricted to countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and take seriously their non-proliferation and disarmament commitments.

We could take a principled rather than an unprincipled approach. We could lead rather than follow.

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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