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Australia’s Uranium Export to India and Pakistan’s Claim

Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • December 14, 2011

    Fifteen days after meeting Dr. Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit meeting in Bali, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard managed to convince her party to reverse the ban on the export of uranium to India. The Australian Labor Party, during the National Conference in Sydney (December 2-4, 2011), has adopted with a vote of 206-185 an amendment to its long-standing policy of not exporting uranium to non-NPT countries. Now, the proposal will be taken up by the Government thus paving the way for a bilateral agreement between India and Australia.

    Though the main hurdle has been cleared, the actual supply of uranium will come only after both countries agree on the terms and conditions of supply. Australia, besides possessing about 23 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves, is the third major exporter of uranium to countries like US, UK, China, Japan, South Korea, among others. In all cases, the recipient country and Australia have concluded a bilateral treaty, which fulfils the Australian nuclear safeguards requirements. For instance, China concluded two agreements on April 3, 2006 with Australia on the import of uranium to support its rapidly expanding nuclear power sector. The first agreement covers transfer of nuclear material and the other nuclear cooperation including transfer of nuclear-related material, equipment and technology. As per these agreements, the material will be used or processed only within the jointly agreed list of facilities, which will be subject to China’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA. In addition, the material cannot be transferred to third countries, cannot be enriched beyond 20 per cent or greater in the isotope U 235, and cannot be reprocessed without prior consent.

    Expectedly enough, Pakistan demanded similar treatment on par with India. Ever since the US and India concluded a bilateral civil nuclear agreement in July 2005, Pakistan has been seeking a similar deal with the US. It even tried to influence the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) members in 2008 to agree on relaxing the NSG guidelines based on a criteria-based approach, rather than providing country (India) specific safeguards. Shortly after President Obama’s call in New Delhi in November 2010 upon India to join the four multilateral export control regimes, namely the NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement, Pakistan too expressed its desire to be part of these regimes. Now, when Australia has decided in principle to export uranium to India, Pakistan seeks similar treatment. Shortly after the ALP vote, the Pakistan High Commissioner in Canberra, Abdul Malik Abdullah, said that his country too should get equal treatment. To justify the claim, he told ABC radio that past concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear industry had now been set aside.

    Indications are that Australia has no plans to consider the export of uranium to other non-NPT States. Gillard made it clear in November 2011 that her country has no such plans. Even the Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith, before leaving for India on an official visit, made it clear that Australia is not considering similar exports to Pakistan. According to him, India has brought itself under the governance of the international nuclear regulators, the IAEA and the NSG.

    The crucial point is that Australia is a party to the NSG and its guidelines restrict it from exporting nuclear material to countries that have not signed the NPT. India got an exemption for these restrictions in 2008 and accordingly is eligible to receive nuclear materials and other related equipment from NSG member countries. Till recently, Australia maintained that it would not export uranium to non-parties of the NPT. In India’s case, Gillard has pointed to three reasons behind the move: (i) selling uranium to India will be good for the Australian economy; (ii) this is in line with the policies of the international community; and, (iii) this policy helps India in developing clean energy which in turn is beneficial for the development of its people.

    Pakistan could argue that it too, like India, is a non-NPT State and energy deficient and needs nuclear energy for economic development. It may also contest that the policy of supplying uranium to one country and not its neighbour is discriminatory. But these arguments will not stand if the following are considered.

    • Pakistan, being a non-signatory to the NPT, is restricted by the NSG guidelines for nuclear commerce with NSG members. Pakistan has to convince NSG countries to relax the guidelines and since NSG operates by consensus all the 46 States have to agree to the relaxation.
    • Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation record is not encouraging. Not long ago, Dr. A. Q. Khan acknowledged openly about the proliferation of uranium enrichment technology to countries like Iran, Libya and North Korea.
    • Two new nuclear power reactors being constructed at Chashma with Chinese assistance without the consent from the NSG has also raised global concerns. Additionally, there are indications that China and Pakistan are working on a new agreement to construct other nuclear power plants at Karachi.

    Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear and missile development programmes have been a cause of concern to many western countries. In the past two years, Australia has blocked at least three times dual-use equipment meant for Pakistani companies because of concerns about these being used in WMD programmes. In April 2010, the Australian Defence Ministry blocked the shipment of two atomic absorption spectrometers (worth $15,000) from GBC Scientific Equipment to a Pakistani engineering company. Earlier this year, Australia halted the shipment of industrial equipment to Pakistan. And recently in October 2011 it blocked another shipment to Pakistan. In all these cases, Australia invoked the 1995 Weapons of Mass Destruction Act to halt the shipments after getting advice from several agencies.

    It is known that Pakistan has been expanding its fissile materials stocks in recent years. In addition to the plutonium production reactor at Khusab, indications are that it is constructing at least three more such reactors. At the same time, Pakistan has been opposing the proceedings at the UN Conference on Disarmament since 2009 on the Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty citing its unequal stocks of fissile materials in comparison with India.

    Under these circumstances, Pakistan is unlikely to convince Australia into support its claims. In any case, India need not be concerned about Pakistan’s efforts and it is up to Australia and the Western world to weigh the implications of such deal.