Australia's uranium deal with India under fire

Parliamentary report says pact needs to ensure uranium will be used only for civilian purposes

A controversial plan to allow exports of Australian uranium to India has come under intense criticism over concerns that it has not secured proper safety and non-proliferation safeguards. 

In a further blow to the long-awaited deal, an Australian parliamentary committee has raised numerous concerns about the agreement and warned that it could potentially undermine international efforts to achieve nuclear non-proliferation.

A report tabled by Parliament's Treaties Committee on Sept 8 said that the  deal should go through and would boost the economy but recommended that sales should not be allowed until further steps are taken by India. 

It said Australia should ensure "genuine non-proliferation advances from India" and made several recommendations, including that India fully separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, allow  best-practice international inspections and set up an independent nuclear watchdog. 

"Should Australian nuclear material be sold to India, the Australian public will want to be assured that the nuclear material is being used safely," the report said.

BASIC FLAW

It is a fundamental weakness which could have been overcome by Australia saying material can be sent only to facilities that are under permanent IAEA safeguards.

MR JOHN CARLSON, leading global expert on non-proliferation, former Australian diplomat and non-visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, on the possibility of India sending Australian uranium to military facilities

"The committee has recommended that Australian uranium not be sold to India until the Indian government has established a nuclear regulator with statutory independence and safety inspections of Indian nuclear facilities that meet best-practice standards."

Analysts in Australia welcomed the report, saying Canberra had failed to secure a strong enough agreement to ensure that its uranium would be used for civilian purposes only.

A leading global expert on non-proliferation, Mr John Carlson, a former Australian diplomat and now a non-visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute, said the deal potentially allowed material to be moved between civilian and military facilities. He said this drawback effectively repeated the shortcomings in India's agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Australia could supply uranium to India which India would then be totally at liberty to send to an unsafeguarded facility," he told The Straits Times. "It is a fundamental weakness which could have been overcome by Australia saying material can be sent only to facilities that are under permanent IAEA safeguards."

Australia has about 30 per cent of known potential uranium ore reserves and had refused to sell to India because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, Canberra has been pushing ahead with plans to sell uranium to India for its civilian nuclear needs after a ban on supplies was lifted in 2008 by the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.  

The deal could bring in an extra A$1.75 billion (S$1.75 billion) worth of exports to the economy and create up to 4,000 jobs.

Tabling the agreement in Parliament last year, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the deal ensured that Australian uranium would be "used only for peaceful purposes and will remain within India's civil nuclear facilities".

"Australia expects India will follow international best practice to ensure safety in its nuclear industry," she said.

The committee report noted that the agreement could double Australia's uranium mining industry and boost India's energy capacity. But, it added, the deal has "significant potential benefits and risks".

"If signatories to the NPT are going to accept India back into the non-proliferation mainstream, the Indian government is going to have to act expeditiously to prove its non-proliferation credentials as an emerging world power," it said.

"Overall, the committee believes that, conditional on the recommendations relating to nuclear safety, the proposed agreement represents a prudent and balanced approach to dealing with the nuclear material needs of an emerging and energy-hungry world power."

The committee recommended that Canberra should try to negotiate a "nuclear arms limitation treaty" for the Indian subcontinent region to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan and China.

"Only genuine non-proliferation advances on India's part will ameliorate the potential risk to the non-proliferation framework," said committee chairman Wyatt Roy, a Liberal MP who this week joined the frontbench of new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

A former Australian diplomat and expert on nuclear diplomacy, Mr Ron Walker, a fellow at the Australian National University, said Canberra gave too much away during the negotiations with India. The current deal left open "loopholes for Australian uranium to end up in bombs or otherwise help their manufacture", he said.

Mr Carlson said he believed successive Australian governments rushed to secure a deal with India to try to boost diplomatic ties, particularly as concerns have grown about the possibility of a strategic threat from the rise of China. The government has not yet issued its response to the report but analysts said it is unlikely the recommendations will be fully adopted. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline 'Australia's uranium deal with India under fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe