Cowboys and Indians: Australia reviews its uranium export policy

India is using CHOGM to lobby Australia to sell them uranium. According to The Hindu, Vice-President Hamid Ansari has already met Tony Abbott who said he supported selling uranium to India. Ansari is now conducting behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the current government to get Australia — which has the world’s largest reserves of uranium — to export the mineral to India. Labor will review the matter at its national conference, with a possible policy shift to come. A confidential briefing note in February to the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson (exposed by Wikileaks) said the dialogue “may prove a useful avenue to communicate any policy shifts on the issue.” Writing in the Australian today, Paul Kelly calls the policy “obsolete and discredited”.

Labor does not support uranium sales to India because it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India along with Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have never signed the NPT which came into place in 1970. They make the argument that because the treaty restricts the legal possession of nuclear weapons to those states that tested before 1967 (US, Russia, UK, France and China) it creates an unfair system of haves and have nots. Nowhere does the treaty explain why this is a valid distinction.

India has been a declared nuclear power since 1974. According to the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, nuclear power has important short term and long term roles in the country’s energy needs. They said their nuclear power program would sustain resources manage radioactive waste and make an important contribution to minimise greenhouse gas emission. The Department said local supplies of uranium are “modest” however an AFP report in July said a new mine in south India could contain the largest reserves of uranium in the world. The Tumalapalli mine in Andhra Pradesh state could provide up to 150,000 tonnes but it is mostly low grade compared to the high grade uranium produced in Australia.

Australia is the world’s third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada with 16% of the world’s market in 2009. Its market share is declining due to lower than expected mined ore grade. Australia is the largest reserves in the world with 23%. With Labor now abandoning its three mines policy, production is expected to pick up beyond the existing mines at Ranger in NT and Olympic Dam and Beverley in South Australia. BHP recently won environmental approval to expand the largest mine at Olympic Dam.

This expansion will need a market and India is the obvious location, particularly with other countries closing down nuclear operations after the Japanese tsunami disaster at Fukushima. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said he remains opposed to changing the policy. Rudd avoided mention of the NPT and instead said India did not need Australian uranium. “There is no problem in terms of global supply,” Rudd said. “If you hear an argument from an Indian businessperson that the future of the nuclear industry in India depends exclusively on access to uranium, that is simply not sustainable as a proposition.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation remains opposed to a change in the current policy which they say is “prudent and sensible”. ACF campaigner Dave Sweeney said the NPT, while imperfect, was a key international legal mechanism in restricting nuclear weapons technology. Australia, as a significant global uranium supplier, has a responsibility to acknowledge India is a nuclear-armed state that obtained its weapons capacity in breach of international commitments. “Adding Australian uranium to the mix would not ease the long standing tensions between India and its nuclear-armed neighbours or improve the effectiveness of the global nuclear safeguards regime,” he said.

But the NPT is not imperfect, it is illogical and unfair. If Labor wanted to avoid the spread of nuclear weapons, it would refuse to export uranium to all nuclear weapon states including Russia and China. It would also stop exporting uranium to the US which is Australia’s biggest customer taking 38.4% of local reserves according to 2004 data. Australia says its uranium is explicitly for use in civilian reactors but it has no way of stopping it ending up in weapons programs. It shows up a national hypocrisy about the mineral, particularly when Labor is in power. As Helen Caldicott wrote, Australia was like a heroin dealer, “pushing its immoral raw material upon a world that is hungry for energy.”

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