The federal government’s in principle agreement to supply uranium to India is a contentious move by an administration that has never hidden its enthusiasm for nuclear power.

But unlike Howard’s gradual move toward a local nuclear power industry, there’s more to supplying uranium to India than a contract and a few shiploads of radioactive material. There’s also its effect on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Former Australian diplomat Richard Broinowski says the decision degrades the nuclear non proliferation treaty, of which India is not a signatory, to the point of destruction.

“It degrades it to the point where more and more countries aren’t going to follow it at all. It sends a signal to others of our customers like Japan and South Korea that they can pretty well rely on getting Australian uranium even if they go nuclear,” Broinowski told Crikey.

According to Dr Jim Green of the Energy Science Coalition, nuclear trade with India makes it less likely that other non-NPT states such as Israel and Pakistan will disarm. Nor, for that matter, will India.

A recent briefing report co-authored by Green quotes K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India’s National Security Advisory Board, from 12 December 2005:

Given India’s uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India’s advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production.

But there’s a view that opponents of the deal are taking the misreading the NPT. Their mistake, according to Jonathan Ariel, is believing that the NPT “actually means something”.

“Hostility to New Delhi’s nuclear ambitions is at best, couched in ignorance, and at worst, in bigotry,” he wrote on Online Opinion. “NPT banner wavers believe that the treaty actually stops proliferation. Truth is, the NPT is manifestly unable to stop the type of proliferation currently underway by jihadists worldwide,”

So what does Australia get out of the deal? Jim Green says Australia is tailgating the US. “A lot of it has to do with strategic politics arguably containing China and supporting India as a bulwark.”

Nor, Green says, is there any money in it. “If Australia had a quarter of India’s uranium market, that would increase Australia’s uranium exports by 1.3%. Even if you factor in an increase in uranium prices and a growth in nuclear power in India, it remains a trivial increase.”

But that says Michael Angwin, Executive Director of the Australian Uranium Association, is being short sighted.

“In the short term, the opening up of a new market, whether it’s India or any other country, represents an incremental addition to Australia’s uranium exports. Over the next decade the value of Australia’s uranium exports will probably double to over a billion dollars per annum. No export industry would say no to an incremental addition to its volume and export values,” Angwin told Crikey.

He also believes such a deal enhances the integrity of the NPT. “If you have a country which is currently outside the tent and you bring that inside the tent, and impose upon them some of the safeguard arrangement which apply to the rest of the world, that must make things better… In net terms this probably strengthens the world’s non-proliferation arrangements.”