Australia Rules Out Uranium Sales to India

India had successfully lobbied the previous conservative government under John Howard to reverse a ban on sales of uranium to India pointing to its excellent record in preventing proliferation of nuclear material and technology. (Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

The newly installed Australian Labor government has reversed a decision by the previous Howard administration to sell uranium yellowcake to India. Canberra has said it will ban such sales to New Delhi until it agrees to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The previous Liberal-National coalition had followed a commitment by the Bush administration that allowed the sale of the resource despite New Delhi's refusal to sign the treaty. Then-Prime Minister John Howard defended his government's policy saying it would bring India more into the mainstream, forcing it to provide assurances over the disposal of the uranium. He continued with this policy even after lawmakers stalled the United States-India agreement in the Indian parliament.

Opened for signature on July 1, 1968, the N.P.T. is designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear material throughout the world. The treaty currently has 189 signatories of which five are in possession of nuclear weapons: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China.

Four nations are not signatories: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. All four either have admitted possessing nuclear weapons of are suspected of carrying out nuclear weapon programs.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told India's nuclear envoy Shyam Saran this week that the Labor party had campaigned prior to the November election against nuclear proliferation.

"We went into the election with a strong policy commitment we would not export uranium to nation states who are not members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," Smith said after the meeting with Saran. "It's a long standing commitment of the Australian Labor Party that we don't authorize the export of uranium to countries who are not parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"India is a nation state that is not a party to the nonproliferation treaty. I don't think there's any expectation in the international community that it will become a member," he said.

India had successfully lobbied the previous conservative government under John Howard to reverse a ban on sales of the resource to India pointing to its excellent record in preventing proliferation of nuclear material and technology despite being a non-signatory of the N.P.T.

The Indian High Commission in Canberra referred to this record in a press release following the announcement of the Australian government's decision.

"The special envoy, while noting the Labor government's position in this regard, emphasized India's impeccable record in nonproliferation, a record that has been universally acknowledged and appreciated," said the statement.

"While seeking Australian support in the N.S.G. [Nuclear Suppliers Group], India expressed the hope that when the nuclear energy market in the country opens up, Australia would also become a valued partner," it added.

The reversal of the Howard government's decision has angered some of India's media with the conservative Indian Express likening the Australian Labor Party's left to India's own "communists and peaceniks."

The editorial said: "Just as our communists can't be made to see reason, there is no way of explaining to Labor's disarmament activists that the N.P.T. does not in any way prohibit Australia from selling uranium to India. Like 'anti-imperialism' to our communists, 'N.P.T.' is a mantra for the Australian left."

In New Delhi for the opening of the new chancery of the Australian High Commission, Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean was quick to defend his government's decision, calling the editorial "strident and over the top." When asked if he supported the decision to reverse the Howard government's uranium trade with India he answered, "Yes, that's the policy of the A.L.P. [Australian Labor Party]," but said a change in the policy was "not likely."

However, the Indian government said it remained confident it would be able to import Australian uranium under a special safeguard system to be negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said his government was adopting a "wait and see" approach to the discussions.

"The government has not yet made a decision on future steps on implementing the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, approval of the I.A.E.A. safeguards agreement when negotiated, and consideration by the Nuclear Suppliers Group of an exception to the N.S.G. guidelines to enable civil-nuclear cooperation with India," he said.

Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a visit to China, has called for the two countries to cooperate in developing each other's nuclear energy needs despite long-standing differences between the two economic powerhouses.

"India seeks international cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear energy, including with China," Singh said, giving a speech at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The rapid growth of India and China will lead to expanding demand for energy. We have no choice but to widen our options for energy availability and develop viable strategies for energy security."

Australia has around 40 percent of the world's known reserves of uranium and exports to 36 countries though the issue of nuclear exports has long been a controversial one in the country.

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