In a move that blatantly undermines the cause of nuclear weapon non-proliferation, on PM John Howard announced on August 17 that Canberra had reached an "in principle" agreement with New Delhi to sell uranium to India, one of only three states in the world — along with Pakistan and Israel — that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India is a confirmed nuclear weapons state, having conducted two separate nuclear detonation "tests", one in 1974 and another in 1998. The latter test prompted neighbouring Pakistan, which has been engaged in a decades-long dispute over Kashmir with India, to conduct its own nuclear weapons test. India and Pakistan have fought four wars, most recenmtly over Kashmir in 2001.
In an August 15 On Line Opinion article, Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Jim Green noted that a "key problem with proposed uranium exports to India is that it will free up domestic uranium in India for weapons production. This is a theoretical possibility with uranium exports to any nuclear weapons state, but in the case of India it is not just a possible outcome but a likely one."
According to a March 4, 2006, Asia Times Online report, freeing up of India's domestically produced uranium will allow it to increase production of nuclear bombs from 6-10 per year to several dozen per year.
Canberra's move to sell India uranium follows the signing on July 27 of an agreement between US President George Bush and Indian PM Manmohan Singh, under which the US will supply India with civilian nuclear technology, in direct contravention of the NPT.
The agreement still requires the approval of the US Congress as well as the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group, which will have to change its guidelines to allow an exception for nuclear trade with India.
Under the Bush-Singh deal, the US has committed to ensure that India receives an uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. This has raised the question of whether the US will cut off fuel supplies if India again conducts a nuclear test.
A July 31 Transnational Institute article noted that, "Even in that eventuality, the US's 'right of return' of reactors and materials will not be activated automatically and suddenly. There will be a 'cushion'. Besides, India will be free to import materials from other sources if the US withdraws. At any rate, a repeat of the 1970s Tarapur situation [when fuel supplies were cut off after India's 1974 nuclear test] seems unlikely."
The US will also help India to construct a new national reprocessing facility — another issue of concern for weapons proliferation. Current reprocessing technology allows for the production of separated plutonium which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The Bush-Singh deal is conditional on India negotiating a safeguards agreement with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency that would put India's civilian nuclear reactors under the IAEA's inspection regime to ensure that no materials from these reactors are diverted to India's nuclear weapons program. However, the value of this condition is negated by the fact that New Delhi has insisted that this safeguards agreement be "India specific", implying that if its nuclear fuel supply is disrupted, safeguards can be dispensed with.
Under the deal, eight Indian nuclear reactors will remain dedicated for military purposes outside the purview of IAEA inspections.
According to a July 27 BBC News report, nuclear power currently supplies India with only 3% of its electricity needs but is projected to provide up to 25% by 2050. This would require up to US$150 billion in investment in building nuclear power plants, of which US nuclear equipment makers such as General Electric and Westinghouse want to gain a major share.
However, the US-India deal has more important strategic implications than simply the profits of the US nuclear equipment makers. On July 18, 2005, Bush and Singh signed a joint statement with the aim of creating a "global partnership" that aims to increase economic and military cooperation between the two countries. Washington is also grooming India to become a greater ally in the US "war on terror".
The increasing military cooperation between India and the US is also seen as an attempt to shore up the balance of power in Asia in favour of the US and its allies against China and Russia, which have entered into a "strategic partnership".
According to a July 25 United Press International report, India is one of the biggest arms buyers in the world, having spent over $10 billion on weapons purchases in the last three years. UPI reported that New Delhi is planning to spend the same amount on buying 126 fighter jets from the US. India currently possesses no US-made combat aircraft.
On August 2, Pakistan's National Command Authority, which is chaired by President General Pervez Musharraf and oversees Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, issued a statement warning that the US-India nuclear deal could spark off a new nuclear arms race in the region, with Pakistan feeling compelled to strengthen nuclear ties with China in order to maintain symmetry with India. China has already helped develop a nuclear facility in Pakistan in the province of Punjab.
Islamabad had earlier sought to obtain a similar deal with the US as the Bush-Singh agreement but was refused. Washington maintains the contradictory position that India has a better record at non-proliferation than Pakistan because the latter's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold "dual use" nuclear equipment to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
The US-India deal, and now Australia's announced intention to sell uranium to India, all fit into Washington's strategy of radically reshaping the global nuclear safeguards regime through its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.
The GNEP, which was announced by the US energy department in February 2006, aims to create an exclusive club of nuclear fuel "supplier" countries that would lease nuclear fuel rods to other countries and then take back the spent fuel rods for reprocessing (extraction of plutonium) and waste storage.
The GNEP, which currently involves the US, France and Japan, relies upon the projected development of reprocessing technology that would not separate out the plutonium from the left-over fissionable uranium and other nuclear waste in the spent fuel rods, 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.
Under the GNEP plan, countries receiving fuel rods from the suppliers would have to pledge to forego the development of uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology. However, Washington's deal to help India build a new reprocessing plant — based on existing technology that produces separated plutonium — contradicts the GNEP's professed aims.
While Bush claims the GNEP would help to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, the scheme could have the opposite effect. The fact that the supplier countries would gain access to and have 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).
Bush's championing of the GNEP as a new safeguards regime also threatens the credibility of the IAEA administrated NPT, which with 189 members, is still the most comprehensive international agreement to stop proliferation.
There is growing media speculation that the Howard government will announce its intention to join Australia up to the GNEP at the September 8-9 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The August 21 Melbourne Age reported that Australia and Canada — the world's largest exporters of uranium — could be let in to the GNEP as "associate" members.
This would enable Howard to initially avoid a commitment to take back radioactive waste. However, such an arrangement seems purpose-built to ensure that Australia's membership of GNEP does not weaken the Coalition's chances of re-election later this year, and will no doubt be reneged on at a later time.