India's Abysmal Nuclear Record


According to Gemma Daley, writing in the Australian Financial Review, Prime Minister Gillard has a cunning plan. She will ensure that Australia’s uranium supply treaty with India contains strict conditions on the safe use of the nuclear fuel.

The plan, we’re told, "is intended to neutralise opponents who highlight that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

If only that were true. Here’s Gillard’s real plan: trot out tired old lines about strict conditions and hope that journalists will regurgitate them without question. For the most part, it works. A number of media organisations have run an Associated Press piece which asserts as fact that Australia "sells uranium only … under strict conditions".

Michelle Grattan has twice used her Fairfax column to remind us about John Howard’s cricketing abilities, but she remains silent about the weapons proliferation issues at stake with the uranium deal.

Fairfax’s National Times ran what was essentially a propaganda piece by Professor Amitabh Mattoo from the Canberra-funded Australia India Institute. And the day before Labor’s National Conference debated uranium sales to India last year, the Sydney Morning Herald published a column by the Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf downplaying the risk of proliferation. The Lowy Institute — which prominently lists uranium miner BHP Billiton as a funding partner — refused to run a critique of Medcalf’s column on its blog.

At stake is the nuclear arms race in South Asia and broader, global nuclear proliferation concerns. As Ron Walker, a retired Australian diplomat and former Chair of the Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said last year: "I am horrified that the media have not explained the enormity of this proposal."

India is at least as culpable as its neighbours in fanning the nuclear arms race in South Asia. To permit uranium sales without any meaningful concessions from India — without even trying to win any meaningful concessions — is craven sycophancy and a gutless surrender to the bullying of Indian elites.

The conditions that should (but won’t) be included in a bilateral treaty would include Indian ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, stopping the production of fissile material for weapons, and stopping the build-up of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.

The opening up of nuclear trade with India — first by the US in 2008 and most recently by Australia — has broader implications. It fundamentally changes the proliferation equation for other countries.

As Walker said, "If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?"

The most dangerous lie peddled by industry and by the Australian and Indian governments is that India has a strong track record of nuclear non-proliferation. In fact, India is a nuclear weapons state: it tested weapons in 1974 and 1998, violated its pledge not to use a Canadian-supplied reactor to produce plutonium for weapons, refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, has a history of illicit nuclear procurement and inadequate nuclear export controls, refuses to allow IAEA inspections of all of its nuclear power plants, and continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and its missile capabilities.

The Age ran an editorial which was surprisingly sharp and critical on the issue. It neatly sums up a raft of problems:

"There should be no sales of Australian uranium to India unless every aspect of uranium handling — from licensing of facilities to safe disposal — is first class. But India is a long way from first class in that respect. Its auditor-general has castigated the country’s nuclear regulator on just about every aspect of its functions: from supervision of licensing, registration of nuclear radiating machines and sites, inspections, monitoring, policy development and safety standards, to emergency response and verification of the disposal of nuclear waste. It found not only was there no national policy on nuclear and radiation safety after almost 30 years, but there appeared to be little impetus to adopt world standards and best practices. The auditor-general’s report is scathing, and the conditions it evidences are dangerously lax. It is simply not acceptable at this point for Australia to sell uranium to India."

The Gillard government has no intention of seriously addressing any of the proliferation, safety, security and regulatory problems, nor does it care about the repression and murder of peaceful citizen protesters in India.

The bilateral treaty will, at best, contain the provisions found in all such treaties. Some of these provisions are noble but are pointless because of the unwillingness of successive Australian governments to invoke them; Australia has never once used treaty provisions to stop the separation and stockpiling of plutonium, even when it fans regional proliferation tensions, as does Japan’s plutonium program.

If there are any variations from normal treaty provisions, they will be in India’s favour. Canberra has a track record of weakening standards when asked to do so, as was the case when the government agreed to uranium exports to a Russian enrichment plant completely out-of-bounds to IAEA inspectors.

The Russian agreement was instructive in other ways. Government and industry assured us that strict safeguards would apply. It turns out that there was a single, token IAEA inspection in Russia in 2001, another in 2010, and that’s it — safeguards inspections are all but non-existent.

For India, IAEA safeguards inspections will be tokenistic at best; that much we know because the IAEA-India safeguards agreement is on the public record.

Could the government face any hurdles in its push to export uranium to India? The Prime Minister certainly doesn’t have public opinion on her side. A recent opinion poll by the Lowy Institute found that 61 per cent of Australians oppose uranium sales to India, nearly double the 33 per cent in support.

A 2008 poll by the Lowy Institute found that 88 per cent agreed that Australia should "only export uranium to countries which have signed the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty". Another poll in 2008 found that two-thirds of Australians oppose uranium sales to nuclear weapons states.

The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties might balk at being asked to endorse yet another shamefully inadequate uranium agreement. When asked to rubber-stamp the Russia agreement, the Committee stood its ground and recommended (pdf):

"It is essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle [Australian Obligated Nuclear Materials]. Further, the supply of uranium to Russia should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out."

Prime Minister Gillard simply rejected the Committee’s recommendations.

As I write, Michelle Grattan has filed her latest piece on the PM’s trip to India. Apparently Julia Gillard has tripped over three times since she became PM and "has a history of embarrassment with apparently loose shoes and difficult heels." No mention of the existential threat posed by the South Asian nuclear arms race or the fracturing of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

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