Federal Politics

Selling uranium to India a blow to arms control

Last weekend's Labor Party conference voted to sell Australian uranium to India, overturning a long-standing ban which had been in place for very good reasons.

Proponents of uranium sales repeatedly claimed that India had an exemplary record on non-proliferation. True, it had not exported nuclear material and know-how in the same way that other nuclear weapon states had, but let's be clear: it gained its nuclear weapons status in a deceptive way, exploiting the peaceful nuclear cooperation program it had at the time with Canada and the US, to build its first bombs.

And even if we accept the ''responsible nuclear weapon state'' argument, are we really happy now to provide uranium to a state which continues production of plutonium for weapons purposes and a fast breeder reactor which has, according to MV Ramana from Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security, the potential to produce weapons-grade plutonium for around 30 Nagasaki-sized bombs every year? India has made no secret of the fact that it actively seeks foreign sources of uranium precisely so that it can devote its native reserves to the production of nuclear weapons. It already has between 60-100 nuclear weapons.

Another prominent argument we heard was that we were already selling it to China and Russia. That claim is perhaps true, although legally, our sales to China and Russia are conducted on the basis that those two states are members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India refuses to sign.

Changing our policy simply because ''everyone else was doing it'' or because ''we already sell to others'' would be a rather craven way to conduct ourselves.

What of the oft-touted argument that we can impose conditions on India's nuclear program? It was thenUS president GeorgeW Bush who, in 2005, blazed the way for selling uranium to India. He did this despite strong objections from arms control specialists. Bush told the world not to worry, and that the US would extract strong concessions from India regarding inspections and accountability.

But six years on, there are still no real concessions from India. The highly regarded Arms Control Association based in Washington DC notes that India refuses to accept full-scope safeguards and will not sign up to a nuclear test-ban treaty or one requiring all states to cease production of fissile material. In effect, India gained enormously, and gave almost nothing in return.

If the US was unable to extract real concessions from the deal, what makes Julia Gillard think that India will accept or comply with the 'strict conditions' on uranium sales asked for by Australia?

India's military nuclear program is strictly off-limits and even its civilian program is not fully open to the IAEA. Any hope that we can use this deal as ''leverage'' in making India a more responsible nuclear power is simply wishful thinking.

There is also the point that assisting even a civilian nuclear program for energy purposes carries with it some risks.

At the grass-roots level in India, villagers are resisting bitterly the building of new nuclear power plants in their vicinities.

This was the state, remember, that gave us one of the world's worst industrial disasters, in Bhopal, 27 years ago. The consequences of a similar lack of care in a nuclear power plant are too terrible to contemplate.

As for our relationship with India, the deal was pushed as important primarily for its symbolic effect in building good ties with a rising power, because India does not really need our uranium, sourcing most of it elsewhere. The intense lobbying from, for example, individuals in the Lowy Institute, would have us believe that Australian-Indian relations would be dealt a devastating blow should we decide to continue with our ban.

Indeed when the deal was passed, one Indian writer tweeted his praise for a ''certain Sydney-based think tank'' for their ''consistent policy advocated'' in favour of sales. (No doubt the Lowy Institute will insist that it encompasses individual viewpoints, but given the level of activity there urging an overturn of the ban, the Indian writer could be forgiven for thinking that this institute held all the cards.)

But how true is it that our relationship with India depended vitally on this sole deal? There are many facets to the relationship, which arguably already is very strong, and which might not be so frail as to be destroyed by this single issue.

Moreover, we need to ask ourselves whether this relationship will continue to be held hostage to a somewhat timorous need on our part to accede to Indian desires when there are other, larger political and security considerations involved. What of our relationship with Pakistan, whose sense of insecurity vis-a-vis India can now only be heightened? And our relationship with China? Relaxing the rules for India could mean that Pakistan and Israel - also NPT non-signatories - will now ask for the same kind of deal. Will we be happy to comply?

Australia's decision to sell uranium to India will make business interests delighted, and it will please those who see our relationship with India as our overriding strategic concern. But it will not help to foster a more positive arms control policy in the region or globally. And let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this means we can now exercise some control over India's nuclear policy.