Exporting uranium to India would fly in the face of international standards and the cause of disarmament.

On the same day that Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced moves to end the Labor Party’s long-standing ban on selling uranium to India, a long-range nuclear-capable missile fired from an Indian military base landed in international waters off the Bay of Bengal. Gillard’s announcement came after intense pressure was placed on the government to change its rules on nuclear technology exports and to lift the ban on selling uranium to India. That pressure was applied even though India has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or agreed to stop making fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons.

The possibility of selling uranium to India results from the 2008 decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to lift the ban on nuclear trade with that country. The basic bargain underlying the non-proliferation treaty is that non-weapon states gain access to nuclear technology and materials in exchange for giving up the possibility of developing nuclear weapons. Implicit in this bargain is that no country that acquired nuclear weapons after 1967 would gain access to nuclear technology.

The 2008 decision by the nuclear supplier group is a clear violation of this implicit understanding. Nonetheless, countries interested in promoting international standards and nuclear disarmament, such as Australia, should continue to hold on to the bargain.

Selling India uranium would permit it to use scarce domestic uranium for nuclear weapons production. This option has been suggested by, among others, K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the National Security Advisory Board, who in 2005 argued: ”Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our . . . 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.”

And indeed in the past few years, the Indian government has continued with its production of plutonium for weapons purposes at the 100-megawatt Dhruva reactor. It has also kept many of its power reactors outside of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and even by 2014, when it is supposed to put a total of 14 heavy-water reactors under safeguards, eight reactors will be available for potentially military purposes.

Also outside IAEA safeguards is the prototype fast breeder reactor that is under construction and that could produce about 140 kilograms of high-quality, weapon-grade plutonium, sufficient for nearly 30 Nagasaki-type bombs, every year. In 2010, the International Panel on Fissile Materials estimated India had stockpiled 300 to 700 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium and 3300 to 3900 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium.

India is also expanding its capacity to enrich uranium, reportedly for use in a nuclear submarine reactor. Recent Google Earth images suggest that new centrifuge halls, roughly twice the size of the existing facility, are being built.

Last year the chief of the navy said India would soon have an operational triad of aircraft, land-based missiles and (nuclear-powered) submarine-launched missiles for delivery of nuclear warheads.

Pakistan and China are expected to react to this by further developing their own arsenals and military strategies. Export of uranium from Australia would contribute, albeit indirectly, to this three-way nuclear arms race.

What of the other oft-heard rationale for uranium to India – to fuel its burgeoning nuclear power program? It is worth noting that this possibility is being discussed at a time when hundreds of villagers have been on a hunger strike for several weeks near the Koodankulam nuclear plant site in the state of Tamil Nadu, where a reactor imported from Russia is to be commissioned.

After initially dismissing their demands, the Tamil Nadu cabinet passed a resolution to halt work at the site. It now seems just possible that India’s powerful nuclear establishment might have met its match in the determination of local villagers.

Koodankulam is no exception; there are protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants. If democracy is to prevail, there is little hope for a large-scale expansion of nuclear power in India.

Nor is there much substance to yet another commonly heard argument: that nuclear power would significantly reduce India’s carbon emissions. India’s planners do not see it as a question of nuclear power or fossil fuels, but nuclear power and fossil fuels.

If nuclear power cannot expand rapidly and substantially, then it cannot help with climate change in any significant fashion, especially if the achieved expansion comes at the cost of investment in other potential solutions to these concerns.

Also, because of its centralised character and the huge costs involved, nuclear power cannot play a significant role in solving the energy needs of the vast majority of India’s population, much less do so in a way that offers any net environmental gains.

Does Australia want to put profits for uranium mining companies ahead of the rights of the millions of people in India who want to avoid being subject to the risk of a Fukushima-like disaster?

M. V. Ramana is an associate research scholar in Princeton University’s science and global security program and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


Article Courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald