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Selling uranium to India could make world safer


Crispin Rovere

Australia should tie exports to ratification of test ban treaty, Crispin Rovere writes

The question of uranium exports to India has cut fissures in Australian society almost as deep as the mines from which the mineral is extracted. Nevertheless, exporting uranium to India may actually help nuclear disarmament.

It is true that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ranks among the most successful arms control agreements in history. Only three states refuse to sign (India, Israel, and Pakistan) with one withdrawn (North Korea). Yet the NPT is not an end in itself. It is a means to a much higher objective; the emancipation of humanity from the dangers of nuclear war.

The 2005 US-India nuclear deal seriously undermined the bargain inherent in the NPT. Since then, nine other countries have negotiated or are in the process of negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements with India, including four of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This means that when it comes to exporting uranium to India, Australia is no longer a partner in a global effort, but is instead sitting isolated out in the cold. The belief that Australia should refuse uranium exports to India, however nobly intended, promises to be an unmitigated failure.

A no-exports policy is based on three myths:

Myth 1 - India's need for Australian uranium can influence India to sign the NPT.

Both parts of the above statement are untrue. India may like to purchase uranium from Australia, but this will not be an imperative for India for the foreseeable future. At present, nuclear power accounts for only 2.5 per cent of India's total energy production. Nor will India ever sign the NPT. Article IX.3 of the NPT makes clear that only states that exploded a nuclear device before 1967 are considered Nuclear Weapons States for the purposes of the treaty. India would have to completely disarm itself of its nuclear arsenal before acceding to the NPT. Faced with two threatening nuclear powers on its borders (China and Pakistan), asking India to disarm unilaterally is not realistic.

Myth 2 - Exporting Australian uranium to India, even under safeguards, frees up other uranium to expand India's nuclear arsenal. As former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office , John Carlson, succinctly pointed out; an average nuclear power reactor consumes about 200 tonnes of natural uranium per annum; whereas nuclear bombs need only about five tonnes before enrichment. Therefore a state will always be able to procure the uranium required for a weapons program; the challenge of developing nuclear weapons is largely technical. Moreover, uranium is an interchangeable currency when it comes to electricity generation. In this respect, Australia exporting coal to India has exactly the same impact of ''freeing up uranium reserves'' as exporting uranium.

Myth 3 - Australia not exporting uranium to India is a matter of principle, regardless of what other countries may do.

Not entirely. We export uranium to China, which is a member of the NPT and permitted nuclear weapons under the treaty, even though China was instrumental in the development of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. It is small wonder then that New Delhi has been so scornful of Australia's position; we export uranium to China which has failed to meet its obligations, while refusing India which maintains an excellent non-proliferation record, despite having no formal obligation to do so. The Australian government should demand, as part of a uranium export deal, that India ratifies the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after the US Senate. While India won't sign the NPT, a commitment tying India's ratification of the CTBT to the US Senate would be both politically digestible for India domestically, as well as being an important step toward nuclear weapons abolition. This is because decisions regarding the expansion of nuclear forces are largely made in response to actions taken by other nuclear states. China expands its arsenal in response to the nuclear superiority of the United States; India responds to China, which in turn influences Pakistan. These interconnected relationships make a nuclear arms race in this region both likely and frightening. If the United States ratifies the CTBT, China has said that it will follow suit. If China and India both ratify the CTBT, it will be politically difficult for Pakistan to resist. Without the right to test, nuclear modernisation becomes more difficult and an unrestrained nuclear arms race made less likely.

Australia's responsibility to promote non-proliferation transcends any individual policy, including the NPT, and must be adapted to evolving circumstances. If New Delhi commits to tying ratification of the CTBT to the US Senate, the government can truthfully tell the Australian people that our export of uranium to India has advanced global disarmament objectives.

Crispin Rovere is a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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