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Australia's uranium agreement with India under attack

By Jim Green - posted Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The federal government's plan to permit uranium sales to India has been subjected to a strong critique by the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), John Carlson.

Others to have raised concerns include former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt, and Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. But Carlson's critique carries particular weight given his 21 years experience as the head of Australia's safeguards office.

Carlson notes that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed by Australia and India in September contains "substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions" which suggest "that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India."


Carlson writes:

Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. ... The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. They have long applied to close and trusted partners such as the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea. There is absolutely no case to waive them for India.

The failure to provide regular reports "will also expose the agreement to potential legal challenge under the 1987 Safeguards Act", Carlson writes. (Another problem, not mentioned, is that nuclear material could be diverted and reports falsified. There is little likelihood that the falsification of reports would be detected.)

Carlson notes that provisions for 'fallback safeguards' in the event of IAEA safeguards ceasing to apply are vague and open to differing interpretations.

There are many concerns other than those noted by Carlson. The IAEA−India safeguards agreement is on the public record, if only because it was leaked, and it is clear from the agreement that safeguards inspections are few and far between. A leaked IAEA document states that the IAEA "will not mechanistically or systematically seek to verify" information obtained from India.

Underpinning this entire debate is an infuriating secrecy. For example, it seems reasonable that we should be able to find out how often IAEA safeguards inspections are carried out in India, which facilities have been inspected, and whether any accounting discrepancies were detected. But national governments refuse to supply that information and the IAEA itself only releases aggregate information on the number of inspections carried out across three countries −India, Pakistan and Israel.


Carlson notes that the 'administrative arrangement' which will append the nuclear cooperation agreement may be "even more consequential than the agreement itself" as it sets out the working procedures for the agreement. But the Australian public will never get to see the administrative arrangement. And the Australian public will never be able to find out any information about the separation and stockpiling of weapons-useable plutonium in India; or nuclear accounting discrepancies ('Material Unaccounted For'); or even the quantity of Australian uranium (and its by-products) held in India.

Even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create an intractable problem: uranium exports freeing up India's 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 categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production."

And even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create another intractable problem: we are setting a poor precedent by selling uranium to a country that is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities, and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Ron Walker, former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors, wrote in a 2007 paper: "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?"

US-led efforts to open up international nuclear trade with India have already weakened the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime − for example, it has encouraged China to openly and actively support the nuclear program of Pakistan, another nuclear weapons state that has not signed the NPT or the CTBT.

India's Public Accounts Committee said in a report last year that the country's nuclear safety regime is "fraught with grave risks" and that the nuclear regulator is weak and under-resourced. In 2012, India's Auditor-General found that 60 per cent of safety inspections for operating nuclear power plants were either delayed or not undertaken at all.

The pay-off for going down this dangerous path will be negligible. Claims of mega-profits from uranium exports to India ignore readily-available facts. According to the World Nuclear Association, India's uranium demand this year will amount to just 913 tonnes – just 1.4 per cent of world demand. If Australia supplies 20 per cent of that demand, uranium export revenue will increase by 3 per cent.

Likewise, claims that the nuclear cooperation agreement will indirectly boost bilateral trade by fostering trust and goodwill ignore readily-available facts. Bilateral trade grew from $3.3 billion at the turn of the century to more than $20 billion in 2011, despite Australia's ban on uranium exports to India and other countries that have not signed the NPT. Since the uranium policy was overturned in 2011, bilateral trade has gone backwards and now stands at $15 billion.

The nuclear cooperation agreement will be scrutinised by federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. The Committee may rubber-stamp the agreement, but that is not certain. The Committee rejected a similar agreement to sell uranium to Russia when it learnt that IAEA safeguards inspections in Russia are nearly non-existent. The Committee said it is "essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle" Australian uranium and that uranium exports "should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out." That doesn't seem much to ask yet the Labor government −with Coalition support −ignored the Committee's recommendations.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.

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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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