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Uranium export arguments glib, contradictory

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This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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1 December 2011 17:38


This post is part of the Selling Australian uranium to India debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

MV Ramana is with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

There is a clear internal contradiction in the statements by many who support Australia lifting the ban on selling uranium to India.

On the one hand, the claim is that, because several other suppliers are out there to supply uranium, Australia not selling uranium to India makes no significant difference to India's uranium supplies. But then, on the other hand, the claim is that, through selling uranium, Australia can insist on 'world-class safety standards' and in general obtain much influence in setting Indian policies in exchange for the uranium.

This glib transition from a position of near-helplessness to a position of power will not stand up to logic. If Australian uranium can be substituted with uranium from other suppliers, then why should India, especially now that it has been dubbed an emerging power, bother to change any of its policies?

Worse, it exhibits a complete ignorance of the history of negotiations over the US-India nuclear deal, where despite strenuous efforts by US diplomats, Indian negotiators conceded precisely nothing except for offering a partial set of reactors for international safeguards.

In large part, this was because it was absolutely clear to the Indian side, well before the negotiations, that President Bush and his Administration wanted the deal. Once that was clear, it was, as George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it to the New York Times put it, 'Santa Claus negotiating. The goal seems to have been to give away as much as possible.' Likewise, now that Prime Minister Gillard has made her position clear, the idea that Australia might have any influence of any sort over Indian nuclear policies can be deemed illusory.

Let us also be clear about why India offered some reactors for safeguards. Because there was, at that point, a mismatch between domestic uranium production and demand from unsafeguarded reactors, and many strategists thought that in such a situation, it was more important to continue feeding the nuclear arsenal than keeping reactors out of safeguards. For example, K Subrahmanyam, former head of the National Security Advisory Board, argued that:

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 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.

And indeed, following the nuclear deal, the Indian Government has continued producing weapon-grade plutonium at the Dhruva reactor. Many of its power reactors remain outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, potentially available for military purposes.

Also outside IAEA safeguards is the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that is under construction and that could produce about 140kg of high-quality weapon-grade plutonium, sufficient for nearly 30 Nagasaki-type bombs every year. In 2010, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) estimated that India had stockpiled 300-700kg of weapon-grade plutonium and 3300-3900kg of separated reactor-grade plutonium.

India is also expanding its capacity to enrich uranium, reportedly for use in a nuclear submarine. Recent Google Earth images suggest that new centrifuge halls, roughly twice the size of India's existing facility, are being constructed. In 2010, the Chief of the Navy stated that 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.

Those who support the export of uranium from Australia should be clear that this would contribute, albeit indirectly, to this three-way nuclear arms race. And please, skip the bit about using that to extract changes in policy.

Photo by Flickr user Alberto OG.

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