Julia Gillard's uranium U-turn

November 15, 2011
Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's arguments in favour of uranium sales to India are dangerous and dishonest.

She fails to even acknowledge the crucial problem – India's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT is the main international nuclear treaty and is routinely described by Australian political leaders as the "cornerstone" of the non-proliferation system. The NPT has its flaws, not least the failure of the nuclear weapons states to take their disarmament obligations seriously, but that is no reason to junk the treaty or to disregard it.

On the contrary, the NPT needs much greater support. The least we should expect is that Australia maintains its policy of requiring uranium customer countries to be NPT signatories and to take their NPT obligations seriously .

The US and some other countries have opened up nuclear trade with India in recent years. Thus, the NPT has already been damaged and weakened. But that is no justification for Australia to weaken it further.

The nuclear lobby says Australia is now isolated in its stance. Nothing could be further from the truth – only a minority of countries support the opening up of nuclear trade with countries that refuse to sign the NPT. The 118 countries of the Nonaligned Movement voiced strong objections during the NPT Review Conference in New York last year.

The events set in train by opening up nuclear trade with India have been disastrous from a non-proliferation standpoint. They have led to an escalating nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and a weakening of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime, which others are now exploiting such as China's plan to supply reactors to Pakistan.

Another serious problem is that the precedent set by nuclear trade with India increases the risk of other countries pulling out of the NPT and building nuclear weapons with the expectation that nuclear trade would continue.

As former Australian Ambassador Professor Richard Broinowski said: "The sale of Australian uranium to India would signal to some of our major uranium customers, such as Japan and South Korea, that we do not take too seriously their own adherence to the NPT. They may as a result walk away from the NPT and develop nuclear weapons without necessarily fearing a cut-off of Australian supplies."

Gillard said "we must, of course, expect of India the same standards we do of all countries for uranium export — strict adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong bilateral undertakings and transparency measures that will provide assurances our uranium will only be used for peaceful purposes”.

Such claims are uninformed or dishonest. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement with India does not provide for comprehensive or full-scope safeguards.

Safeguards apply only to that part of the nuclear program that India considers surplus to military "requirements". IAEA safeguards inspections in India will at best be tokenistic and will most likely be non-existent (as they are in Russia — another of Australia's uranium customer countries).

Moreover, even if a rigorous safeguards regime was in place in India (and it most certainly is not), that would in no way undo the damage done to the NPT by opening up nuclear trade with countries that refuse to sign and abide by the Treaty.

Gillard also said: "As in other areas, broadening our [uranium] markets will increase jobs”. However, if Australia supplied one-fifth of India's current demand, uranium exports would increase by a measly 1.8%. Even if all reactors under construction or planned in India come on line, Australia's uranium exports would increase by just 10%.

That level of uranium exports might – might – support one more small uranium mine employing a few dozen people. Much more likely, exports would come from existing mines and no additional jobs would be created. Moreover, there are plenty of jobs going in the mining industry — uranium sales to India would not generate more jobs but, at most, transfer a few jobs from one part of the mining industry to another.

Uranium exports will do nothing to cut greenhouse emissions in India, twice over. First, because uranium supply is no constraint to nuclear power expansion in India. Second, because renewables and energy efficiency could easily substitute for India's nuclear program — providing low-carbon energy solutions without all the problems that attend nuclear power.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson talks up the greenhouse "benefits" of nuclear power, but in fact nuclear power is the quickest route to catastrophic climate change.

Professor Alan Robock from Rutgers University and Professor Brian Toon from the University of Colorado summarise recent research on the climatic impacts of nuclear warfare: "A nuclear war between any two countries, each using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, such as India and Pakistan, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is less than 0.05% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.”

Australia has uranium export agreements with nuclear weapons states flouting their NPT disarmament obligations; countries with a history of secret nuclear weapons research; countries that refuse to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; countries blocking progress on the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; and undemocratic, secretive states with appalling human rights records. Now the PM proposes ditching the requirement for uranium customer countries to be NPT signatories.

Delegates to the ALP national conference in December should stop the rot and take a principled stand. Media reports assume that the Right faction of the Labor Party will fall in behind the PM. But the Labor Right has a history of splitting on uranium debates. One of the most outspoken MPs opposing a change of policy with respect to uranium exports to India has been Kelvin Thomson from the Right.

[Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and author of a detailed briefing paper on uranium sales to India available at www.choosenuclearfree.net/india ]

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