Within a week of the revelation that Australia is planning to join the US-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) nuclear fuel cartel, foreign minister Alexander Downer publicly proposed that Australia sell uranium to nuclear-armed India, even though India is not a signatory to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Following a report in the July 26 Australian that Downer had made a cabinet submission to allow Australian uranium exports — dominated by the BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto mining companies — to India, Downer told reporters that if India agreed to inspections of its "civilian" nuclear reactors by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under a deal brokered with Washington, Australia would consider starting negotiations to export uranium to supply India's nuclear power plants.
The next day, Pakistani religious affairs minister Ejaz ul-Haq told ABC TV's Lateline program that his country — which is also a nuclear-armed non-NPT signatory — should be also be allowed to buy Australian uranium in order "to keep the balance of power" in the South Asia region.
Australian Associated Press noted ul-Haq's "comments come after Pakistan successfully test-fired its nuclear-capable radar-dodging cruise missile yesterday. The Pakistan-developed Babur (Hatf-VII) missile has a range of 700km and 'near stealth' properties. Its range means one could eaaily reach the Indian capital New Delhi." India and Pakistan have long been locked a nuclear arms race.
Under the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) — made of the 44 countries, including the US and Australia, that are exporters of nuclear power technology and nuclear fuel — to be eligible to import fissile material from an NSG member, importing states must have in place a comprehensive IAEA inspections regime covering all their nuclear activities and facilities.
The US-India deal would circumvent this. As Dr Joseph Cirincione, director for non-proliferation at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, observed in a March 4, 2006, Asia Times Online article: "The deal endorses and assists India's nuclear weapons program. US-supplied uranium fuel would free up India's limited uranium reserves for fuel that otherwise would be burned in these reactors to make nuclear weapons. This would allow India to increase its production from the estimated six to 10 additional nuclear bombs per year to several dozen a year. India today has enough separated plutonium for 75-110 nuclear weapons, though it is not known how many it has actually produced."
If Downer's cabinet submission is approved, Canberra will follow Washington's lead in assisting India's nuclear weapons program and undermining the IAEA-NSG nuclear non-proliferation safeguards regime.
The July 20 Sydney Morning Herald reported on leaked draft plans that show that cabinet members are urging PM John Howard to announce Australia's involvement in the GNEP during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in September.
The GNEP, which was announced by the US Department of Energy (DoE) in February 2006 and subsequently promoted by US President George Bush, aims to create an exclusive club of "supplier" countries that would lease nuclear fuel rods to other countries and then accept back the spent fuel rods for reprocessing and waste storage.
GNEP supplier countries include the US, France and Japan although both Australia and Canada, as the biggest uranium exporters in the world would be strongly considered for membership. Recipient countries would have to pledge to forego the development of enrichment or reprocessing technology.
According to a US Department of Energy fact sheet the GNEP is a "comprehensive strategy to increase US and global energy security, encourage clean development around the world, reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and improve the environment".
However the entire premise of the GNEP is reliant upon yet-to-be-developed advanced reprocessing technology and nuclear reactors.
Current reprocessing technology enables separation of plutonium from used nuclear fuel (enriched uranium). Plutonium is an essential ingredient for nuclear weapons, along with weapons-grade enriched uranium.
In a move aimed at subduing fears of nuclear weapons proliferation, then US President Jimmy Carter declared a ban on reprocessing in the US in 1977, in favour of the long-term storage of unseparated, highly radioactive nuclear waste. The US ban had a worldwide flow-on effect of stifling reprocessing.
The ban was also motivated by the disastrous experience of the only US commercial reprocessing facility — the West Valley reprocessing plant in New York State, which was operated from 1966 to 1972. It was beset by chronic breakdowns and accidents, only managing to reprocess one-sixth of the projected volume of waste.
As a result, the West Valley suffered severe radioactive contamination and, according to the DoE, the still unfinished clean-up has cost in excess of US$6 billion.
The GNEP relies upon the development of reprocessing technology that would not separate out the plutonium, which would instead remain mixed with uranium and other nuclear waste, thus making it unusable for nuclear weapons. The reprocessed waste could then be used as fuel in new nuclear reactors that are projected to be developed in the future.
While Bush is promoting the GNEP as helping to reduce the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation, the scheme could have the opposite effect. The fact that the supplier countries would gain access to and control over a huge amount of plutonium could spur countries outside the GNEP cartel to pursue reprocessing technology in order to create their own stockpiles of plutonium (for their existing or possible future nuclear arsenals).
In a July 19, 2006 report, Dr Edwin Lyman of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists argued that a "reversal of the de facto moratorium on reprocessing in the United States" will give a boost to "conventional reprocessing programs worldwide, [that] may well result in a vast increase in the worldwide flow of weapon-usable nuclear materials, and a corresponding increase in the threat that such materials will fall into the hands of rogue states and terrorists".
According to the July 20 SMH, the ministerial notes submitted to Howard argue that Australian participation in the GNEP "would help to open the way for valuable nuclear energy cooperation with the United States" and would "also be consistent with the government's strategy for a nuclear industry in Australia".
In a July 20 media release, the Wilderness Society condemned the government's plan to join GNEP. TWS argued that Howard is setting Australia up to "become the world's nuclear waste dump".
TWS noted that the proposal to join the GNEP flows from a Liberal Party federal council meeting in June that voted to allow an international nuclear waste dump to be built in Australia and also from legislative changes the government rushed through on the last day of parliament last year that made it possible to import radioactive waste from overseas.