Nuclear free campaigner Dave Sweeney writes: Uranium is both common and controversial in resource rich Australia. It is tricky stuff as it can be used to produce electricity or to fuel nuclear bombs. And India has both.

The PM’s support for moves to overturn federal Labor’s long-standing, prudent and sensible policy of not supplying uranium to countries that will not sign the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) would undermine and further stress the already under resourced and under-performing global nuclear safeguards regime.

The NPT, while imperfect, remains a key international legal mechanism in restricting the spread of nuclear weapons technology and enjoys widespread acceptance. It is currently the world’s best way to halt the spread of the world’s worst weapons and it should not be discarded lightly.

A recent high level UN report makes the nuclear power and weapons connection clear and has a special relevance against the current backdrop of pro-sales positioning.
In the shadow of the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis the September 2011 UN report plainly states: “Nuclear science and technology can also be used to develop nuclear weapons. Compliance with international legal instruments, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, other bilateral and multilateral non-proliferation agreements and safeguards agreements with the IAEA, is therefore an essential element of the responsible use of nuclear power.”

Australia, as a significant global uranium supplier, has a responsibility to act responsibly. Different rules should apply to uranium supply than to other less destructive and divisive exports.

A first step would be to drop the pretence that the Indian nuclear track record is “exemplary” and instead acknowledge that India is a nuclear-armed state that obtained its weapons capacity in breach of international commitments via the misuse of Canadian supplied research reactors.

The responsible course of action would be for the ALP to continue to not supply bomb fuel to a country that has repeated stated it will not agree to or accept international treaty obligations. Like Dr Strangelove, those Labor figures like Resource Minister Martin Ferguson and Paul Howes who support sales to India are straddling a time bomb.

India’s nuclear armed neighbour Pakistan is hardly likely to be happy with any such policy change. They will be aware of the remarkably candid policy assessment provided to the Times of India by the former chair of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Mr. K Subrahmanyam, in 2005 that “ is to India’s advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade uranium production.”

Like India, Pakistan is a nuclear armed state that refuses to sign the NPT. There is no doubt the Islamabad will be keeping a close eye Canberra and on Darling Harbour come Labor’s National Conference in December.

Inevitably, if Labor moves to sell uranium to India then Pakistan will make a political and diplomatic point of being the next cab in the radioactive rank. Hot on the heels of the PM’s comments was a call from Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Australia confirming that Pakistan would now seek to access Australian uranium and Julia Gillard’s defence that India is a special case is hardly likely to cut much ice in Islamabad.

The choice for Australia is clear: we can stand with the vast majority of nations in upholding and attempting to strengthen the fragile nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, or we can join with those whose actions actively undermine it.

Adding Australian uranium to the mix would not ease the long standing tensions between India and its nuclear-armed neighbours or improve the effectiveness of the global nuclear safeguards regime.

While there is no convincing reason for Labor to change its policy — as with many aspects of this contested trade — there is a compelling case for caution.

Dave Sweeney is national nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. A detailed paper addressing the false claims being made about safeguards and benefits with proposals to export uranium to non-NPT states is posted here

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