What’s the harm in selling uranium to India?

Australia may begin exporting uranium to India, but proponents have hijacked what is primarily an arms control debate.

uranium extraction plant
Uranium plants, such as this one near Roxby Downs in South Australia, are used in producing energy and weapons [EPA]

This is the first in a two-part essay that discusses the debate currently taking place in Australia concerning the sale of uranium to India, in particular the consideration given to the Labour Party’s longstanding ban on uranium sales to countries which have not signed up to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Part one will critique the federal government’s proposed policy change, while part two briefly examines the immediate response to the policy change in the media and blogosphere.

The Labour Party will vote on whether to change its policy position, thereby exporting uranium to India, at its national conference held in Sydney, 2-4 December 2011.  

The problem, proponents of Australian uranium exports to India say, is simple: Australia has roughly a quarter of the world’s uranium reserves, and India requires nuclear energy in order to assist its development in a way that limits the harm to the natural environment.

Just as importantly, we are told, India is a democratic ally of the West, already has strained diplomatic relations with Australia, and presents little to no proliferation or terrorist threat – to Australia or her allies. What’s more, because the “international community” has reconciled India’s past indiscretions with its future potential, and has accepted that India will remain outside of the nuclear regime indefinitely, Australia is currently the only nuclear supplier that does not export to India.

But to do so, a few home truths will need to be conveniently set aside. Australia – under successive Liberal and Labour governments – has chosen not to adopt nuclear energy, resulting in states such as Victoria being one of the highest emitting territories in the world due to its heavy reliance on brown coal power. And while Australia’s optimal energy mix is not comparable to India – or arguably any country – the aversion to atomic energy has historically been deep-felt and, at least in part, moral.

At the same time, Australia is also among the top three sellers of uranium in the world. Under the present Labour Government, the export of uranium is controlled by strict rules which basically require that any recipient be: a compliant state party to the world’s peak nuclear regime, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); have in place safeguard agreements with the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and have a bilateral arrangement with Australia.

For its part, India is among the greatest failures of global nuclear nonproliferation efforts: It acquired nuclear weapons following decades of technical and material support for its civilian nuclear programme from Canada and the US while outside of the nuclear regime, and it is in the world’s fastest-escalating nuclear arms race with neighbouring Pakistan.

Gillard’s ‘three reasons’

And yet over the past 12 months, Labour’s position on uranium export controls under prime minister Julia Gillard has shifted from one giving primacy to international arms control norms such that Australia had in place a non-negotiable recipient adherence requirement, to one in which Gillard has deemed those very same principles as incurring “all pain with no gain”, since exports to India “will be good for the Australian economy, and good for Australian jobs”.

What strikes me most about Prime Minister Gillard’s uranium about-turn is how “moral” the pitch has been.

As I see it, her “three reasons” distorted a number of benefits for Australians: that there are considerable domestic gains to the economy and employment; that “principled” uranium sales is a modern policy befitting India’s status; and that it is Australia’s normative duty to assist India develop economically while not contributing needlessly to climate change by adopting more polluting energy options.

First, PM Gillard reasons, “selling uranium to India will be good for the Australian economy and good for Australian jobs”.

On this front, the argument for uranium sales is relatively sound – but only in relation to the other two. I’ve no doubt that jobs and the economy will improve, although at the same time I also believe that this is also only true to the extent that “the economy” represents the revenue of a select few mining companies, and take on good faith the Australian Greens’ claim that total employment from uranium mining is a mere 645 people.

There is, shall we say, a fair bit of “gilding the lily” by the corporate sector and a few select individuals.

Second, there is the implicit contention by many advocates of uranium exports – and this now includes the Gillard government – that more relaxed uranium export controls would transition what is now seen as a draconian Australian policy into one that is modern and global. It’s not just a policy that reflects Australia’s diplomatic relationship with India today, but India’s standing in the world tomorrow.

This is evident, for example, in the repeated use of the phrase “international community” – as if everyone were doing it.

Quite apart from the obvious fact that not every state has uranium stores to mine, to refer to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as representing some sort of normative consensus within the international society of states is ridiculous.

The NSG consists of 46 member states, fewer than a fifth of all states, and was formed in direct response to the Indian nuclear weapons test – that is, in recognition that there is no “peaceful atom”.

Rulings by the IAEA, while consisting of 151 state parties, are also arguably not a product of the “international community” either. For instance as recently as December 2009, a cable published by WikiLeaks exposed IAEA chief Amano’s appetite to cede to US interests, though with less personal diplomatic ambition than his more independently minded predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei.

International organisations, therefore, must not be conflated with the “international community”, and never with US policy, as Gillard did in her press conference outlining her uranium about-turn for India:

“… circumstances have developed in the international community. It made sense, the current platform, when there was a widely supported international strategy to bring India into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there was a period of time where that was a widely engaged in international strategy, but the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement changed that strategy, it effectively lifted the de-facto international ban on cooperation with India in this area”.

Which brings me to the third and even more worrying aspect of the uranium sales pitch: The sale of uranium to India is Australia’s normative obligation and duty to not hinder India’s capacity to develop economically or contribute needlessly to climate change by adopting coal, given India’s “exceptional” record of nuclear nonproliferation.

What is worth noting is how, in her initial press conference, Prime Minister Gillard discussed these issues insofar as they constituted an economic opportunity: “As India rises and brings hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, it will need more energy”.

It was, however, her colleagues and subsequent statements that distorted what should be a side argument into a fierce display of moral syncretism.

For instance, speaking later that evening, Australian defence minister Stephen Smith answered general questions concerning nuclear weapons and arms control norms by instead focusing solely on the “proliferation record” of India – a common, and deliberate, obfuscating strategy. For instance, a relaxed uranium export policy with India was good, since India was “entitled to be accorded the status [of a superpower alongside the United States and China], particularly given the track record of non-proliferation that it has”. And India’s possession of nuclear weapons and refusal to sign the NPT was workable since, in the words of Smith:

“India made it clear that it would cease nuclear testing. It hasn’t tested for a long time. It made it clear that it would open itself up to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors to effectively track the use of its civil uranium. It made it clear it would separate and distinct civil use from military use. These are all sensible things, and in a de facto or a de jure sense, reflect substantially what we find as a result of the arrangements that take place under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

No acknowledgment was given of how India acquired nuclear weapons – nor her belligerent testing in the 1990s; her rather public nuclear arms race with Pakistan; her failure to fully comply with international safeguards and monitoring initiatives; her problems with the US despite a comparable bilateral agreement in place concerning technology and expertise. Nor the rather significant point that none of the cited measures are enforceable under international law – they are voluntary instruments.

Wisely, Austrlia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd – as he did when opposition leader and prime minister – as recently as last month strongly opposed any deal with India; rightfully giving primacy to arms control compliance over any number of compelling political and economic gains that would unquestionably flow from such a deal.

Following the announcement, however, he seemed to be toeing what looks set to be party line. But he remained firm on the requirement that compliance and strict bilateral agreements would have to be in place before he could fully advocate such a policy.

NAJ Taylor is a doctoral candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. A version of this article was first posted on his blog, This Blog Harms 

Follow NAJ Taylor on Twitter: @najtaylor

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.