Improving Prospects of India-Australia Nuclear Co-operation

December 24, 2009

Indications are that not only India will get ‘yellow cake’ from Australia, which has the world’s largest uranium resources, but it might also get a parallel position equivalent to that of a ‘Nuclear Weapon State’ so that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is reinvigorated. The report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament “Eliminating Nuclear Threats - A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers,” released this week, offers a cue in this regard.

The Commission was set up in 2008 by the Australian and Japanese Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Yasuo Fukuda in Kyoto. Chaired by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and former Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, the commission’s aim is to make the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference a success. The report says that the three Elephants outside the NPT (as India, Pakistan and Israel are called in the report) will not become party to the treaty and that "every effort should be made to achieve their participation in parallel instruments and arrangements which apply equivalent non-proliferation and disarmament obligations”.

This, indeed, is a welcome suggestion, which will not only prove valuable in saving the NPT but will also help India meet its energy requirements. Asserting the need to devise specific mechanisms to include India, Gareth Evans wrote in The Age, the leading Australian Daily, that "It's self-evidently rather quixotic for Australia to be maintaining a ban on the sale of uranium until India joins the NPT when manifestly it is not going to join the NPT and manifestly this is not going to stop it acquiring uranium from other sources."

It is more than evident that NPT has not been able to prevent nuclear proliferation; both horizontal and vertical. While North Korea and Iran are using their nuclear programmes as bargaining chips with the United States, countries like India and Israel cannot sign the NPT for security reasons. Moreover, India, which has an excellent record of non-proliferation and commitment to global nuclear disarmament, has been punished by the treaty and had had to endure ‘nuclear isolation’ for more than two decades.

In his 2004 article The Death of the NPT C. Raja Mohan had pointed out that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is flawed and ‘dead’. Quoting El- Baradei’s statement “Common sense and recent experience make clear that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has served us well since 1970, must be tailored to fit 21st century realities”, Raja Mohan noted that various provisions of the NPT have been systematically violated by countries both within and outside the NPT. He asserted, “As the edifice of the NPT crumbles…it will be nearly impossible for the world to agree on new non-proliferation architecture…. (and the world will) abandon some rooms of the NPT house, reinforce others, and build ad hoc structures outside it.”

The need to build ‘ad-hoc structures’ was felt not only necessary by the ‘nuclear haves’ but was also realized for the first time at IAEA and NSG meet when the India-specific safeguards and waiver were provided in 2008. The very fact that India was given a special status revealed that NPT in its current form is no more relevant. Now, it seems that through this report, Australia is trying to find a middle path which gives it a chance to start ‘yellowcake trade’ with India, while making sure that its fundamental values of nuclear non-proliferation, commitment to NPT and ‘nuclear ethics’ are not compromised.

However, there are certain hiccups in the above mentioned proposition. Australia is set for federal elections in 2010 and Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party might find it difficult to convince its voters on sale of uranium to a country that has not signed NPT so far. The issue gets further complicated in the light of recent reports that apprehending a backlash from green voters in next year's elections Canberra has discarded the plan to allow mining and export of low quality brown coal to India. Exergen, the Australian mining company, had plans to mine and export more than 10 million tonnes of brown coal a year to India. According to Australian media reports, “The cabinet document acknowledged that community concerns could be raised by the export of brown coal, a relatively 'dirty' fuel that emits far more greenhouse emissions to generate power than most alternatives.”

It will be interesting to see how the issue shapes up in coming months in the domestic politics of Australia where civil society has always been pretty sensitive to environmental and nuclear policy issues. Considering the legacy of civil society movement on nuclear issues such as the Palm Sunday peace rallies against uranium mining and massive support to the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984, the Rudd government has to tread a cautious path if it wants to commence nuclear commerce with India. Only time will tell whether Australia finally decides to sell yellow cake to India. But what is apparent is that Australia is not finding it economically prudent and diplomatically rational to deny uranium to India, while countries like Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, and the United States profit from nuclear commerce with India.