Plans to export uranium from Australia to India may have hit their most significant hurdle so far in the form of Report 151 of the federal Parliament's influential Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT). After much deliberation and expert testimony, the Committee has put forward a number of recommendations that India has to abide by before Australian uranium is sold to India. The history of India's nuclear programme and the country's stand in various diplomatic fora suggest that there is little chance of India agreeing to these conditions.
The first three recommendations laid out in the JSCOT report are particularly important. The first and second recommendations pertain to India acceding to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and negotiating a fissile material cut-off treaty as well as a nuclear arms limitation treaty for the Indian subcontinent region. The third recommendation is focused on the safety and efficacy of the safeguards and standards of nuclear facilities in India arguing that a series of key checks and balances must be put into practice and proven to work before any uranium sales. If taken seriously, these recommendations will make it all but impossible for the Australian government to sell any uranium to India.
Diplomatically, for nearly two decades successive Indian governments have opposed India signing the CTBT, offering only a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. By definition such an arrangement can also be unilaterally reversed. As noted in the JSCOT report, the Indian government is unlikely to change this position. There has been a long-standing demand from several quarters – strategists, former defense personnel and even some retired chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission – to conduct one or more nuclear weapon tests. In 2009 a senior member of India's Defense Research and Development Organization revealed that the yield of the thermonuclear device tested in 1998 was "much lower than what was claimed" and argued that this meant, "India should not rush into signing the CTBT".
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1172 calls "upon India and Pakistan immediately to stop their nuclear weapon development programmes, to refrain from weaponisation or from the deployment of nuclear weapons, to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons". Nevertheless, both countries continue to pursue all of these activities and have resisted calls for limiting their nuclear and missile programs.
Of particular relevance to the question of uranium exports is the continued production of fissile material for nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan; cessation of these activities in the near term seems politically infeasible. In India, an important source of demand for fissile material is the expanding naval wing of India's nuclear triad. India is in the process of deploying its first nuclear submarine, Arihant; a second nuclear submarine is reportedly ready and a third vessel under construction. These submarines are said to be designed to carry up to 12 ballistic missiles, with a range of 700 to 750 kilometers, each armed with one nuclear warhead. Naval planners have called for ballistic missiles of at least intermediate range (3,000 - 5,500 km). The first test of a 3000 km range submarine-launched ballistic missile was carried out last year. This February, the government approved the construction of six nuclear powered attack submarines. To fuel all these submarines, India is setting up a new uranium centrifuge plant (expelling villagers who live in the area in the process) in order to significantly expand its enrichment capacity. Implementing these plans will require substantial quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium; it is hard to imagine the Indian government negotiating-in good faith-a treaty to ban their production.
There are also good reasons to be worried about the risk of severe accidents at Indian nuclear facilities. Most nuclear facilities in the country have experienced small or large accidents. Fortunately none of these has been catastrophic. Many were caused by inattention to recurring problems or other warnings and, to the extent that those responsible for safety have tried to fix them, they have not always been successful. Disturbingly, the latest reactor to be commissioned, Koodankulam-I, a Russian designed light water reactor, has had a spotty operating record since it became critical. Safety concerns have been at the heart of intense local opposition in various parts of India to nuclear power plants.
An added concern, highlighted by the JSCOT report, is the absence of an independent regulator. In the last few years, two government bodies in India, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General, have recommended that the government effect a true separation, but to date this has not been done. The lack of separation between the regulator and the regulated industry is not an accident, but a choice made and preserved by the nuclear establishment over decades. The attempt to restructure the regulatory system in response to widespread concern following the Fukushima accident has been marred by various weaknesses, including that the planned process calls upon the head of the nuclear establishment to play a part in appointing members.
Given the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear accident in India, let alone the use of nuclear weapons, the need to end nuclear fissile material production and significantly improve the safety and regulation of nuclear facilities is urgent. JSCOT's recommendations are the minimum precautions required before any Australian uranium is exported. The question now is will the Abbott government meet its responsibilities?
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