Much of the debate around uranium sales to India — inside the ALP and in the broader community — will be viewed through the lens of the self-evident interest in maximising revenues from a commodity that Australia already sells to a dozen other nations.
I suspect most people, if they’re interested at all, will wonder what the fuss is about. We sell the stuff to a nuclear-armed Stalinist dictatorship and the organised crime syndicate formerly known as Russia. Why not sell it to the world’s largest democracy?
The real problem with this debate is that it will be conducted against a backdrop of almost total ignorance of the reality of the nuclear industry in India.
Almost nobody in Australia knows, or cares, about the history of the nuclear industry in India, about the long and honourable story of those who are resisting it — or about the unique way in which the nuclear weapons debate has taken shape there, in a highly educated and politically literate society perched for a decade or more on the edge of an atomic holocaust with Pakistan.
I have had the good fortune to visit a place called Jadugoda, a massive uranium mining complex a few hundred kilometres west of Calcutta in a state now called Jharkhand. All of the uranium for India’s nuclear weapons stockpile and civil power industry comes from there, and it is no exaggeration to describe it as one of the world’s true horrors.
In Australia, workers in underground uranium mines wear respirators and radiation dosimeters. Their occupational exposure is recorded and subject to occasional public debate on their risks of contracting cancer and passing on broken DNA and inherited disabilities to their children. Radioactive seepage from tailings waste attracts media attention and public outcry, and it’s rare for people to be jailed for voicing their dissent.
In India, it’s not like that.
Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has established a world’s worst practice uranium complex in this lush valley, bulldozing villages aside and dismissing the health impacts of living and farming amid a vast carcinogenic waste stockpile.
Police and paramilitaries have been sent in multiple times to enforce the mine’s continued expansion, and the surrounding villages are now suffering an epidemic of deformed children in addition to the more immediate toll of skin and lung cancers among the workforce.
After the mining started, they told me, the first thing they noticed was the disruption to womens’ menstrual cycles, then the disappearance of smaller mammal and bird species, then the stillbirths and broken children, and then the early mortality of those working in the catacombs beneath.
Their determined, ongoing defiance is one of the more inspiring stories of the Indian anti-nuclear movement.
By this point, you might have formed the reasonable view that displacing this nightmare with uranium exports from well regulated Australian mines would be a blessing for everyone. But that would be to miss the real point of the story.
Having seen an Indian uranium mine first hand, ask yourself how you would feel about living next to an Indian nuclear power plant. While under construction, in 1994 unit 1 of the Kaiga plant high in the rainforests of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, suffered a collapse delicately described as a "delamination" by authorities at the time.
In 2009 its employees were subject to a macabre act of sabotage in which radioactive tritium was injected into drinking water.
In 1993, a fire in the turbine building of the Narora plant in Uttar Pradesh cut power to backup generators and pitched plant operators into one of the more serious meltdown scenarios of the nuclear age. For 17 hours, the workforce volunteered themselves for horrific radiation doses to prevent an Indian Chernobyl, climbing into the containment building, rigging temporary lighting and dumping borated water into the cauldron below them to prevent a fission explosion.
The fact of their success, and their sacrifice, is the reason you’ve never heard of Narora.
The Kakrapar plant, near Surat in Gugurat, has been the subject of long-running longitudinal health studies by volunteer health professionals called in by local communities distraught at the high rates of unexplained mutations and unknown congenital diseases in children conceived after the plant’s start-up. Nuclear plants, when running according to design, emit small quantities of radioactive tritium, noble gasses and other fission products with mutagenic properties.
This brief sketch barely does justice to the daunting history of accident, misadventure and incompetence that has characterised the Indian nuclear industry from the beginning. We are fortunate that the traditions of a raucous free press, nonviolent resistance and carefully argued academic analysis are alive and well in India, giving us a detailed picture of the situation, vastly more dynamic than the one we have of China.
Jadugoda is a single site. The uranium there is low grade and approaching depletion. For the Indian Government to scale up its expensive nuclear experiment while maintaining a credible threat for the annihilation of Pakistan, it will need external sources of supply.
That, of course, is where Australia comes in. To fulfill wildly unrealistic hopes of a major expansion of nuclear energy in India, officials have spelled out the role that should be played by countries like Australia.
K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the Indian National Security Advisory Board, puts it like this:
"Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up [India’s] nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India’s advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production."
Just sit with that for a moment. India needs Australia to get over its squeamishness and provide it with fuel for civil nuclear energy, so that the intergenerational misery of Jadogoda can be exploited to produce plutonium weapons targeted for the erasure of Islamabad and Karachi, population 1.8 million and 18 million respectively.
In exchange, Pakistan targets the booming metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore for push-button incineration.
It is no more or less insane than the Cold War suicide pact that saw US and Soviet military planners exchanging New York and Detroit for Moscow and Kiev in their war games.
The major difference is that in 2011, the Australian Government seems to have forgotten that the common element linking Fukushima and Hiroshima is uranium. Try as we might to reduce the debate in Australia to infantile caricatures, the real world still hangs on a nuclear hair trigger.
For the benefit of anyone here who believes this is an open-and-shut case of the ALP growing up and selling a legal commodity to anyone who will sign up to a safeguards agreement, seller beware.
Julia Gillard has followed her illiterate resources and energy minister into a warped subcontinental variation of Mutually Assured Destruction, even as Japanese authorities admit that the smouldering ruins of Fukushima Units 1-4 may be undergoing spontaneous criticality events, putting off the illusion of cold shutdown for another century or so.
The nuclear industry, in Australia, India, Japan, Russia and everywhere else, deserves nothing more than phased, premeditated and permanent closure. From Jabiluka to Jadugoda, that is what the Australian Greens and the extended global anti-nuclear family are about.
I wish the ALP well in their debate tomorrow — in the hope that sanity prevails. Seller beware.
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