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05 September 2014
by Dave Sweeney

Old mistakes in New Delhi: Australian irresponsibility and Indian uranium sales

Before jetting off to India today to sign a controversial uranium export deal set in motion seven years ago by John Howard, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made an extraordinary admission. "If we are prepared to sell uranium to Russia, and we've been prepared to do that in the past, surely we ought to be prepared to provide uranium to India under suitable safeguards," he told ABC television last night.

Abbott's logic, that Australia is already selling uranium to an increasingly aggressive and expansionist country – so what's the problem, is the starters gun in a radioactive race to the bottom. It reflects a disturbing retreat from reason and responsibility in policy and raises questions the PM needs to answer before putting pen to paper for a photo opportunity in India.

Despite assurances of 'peaceful purposes', this sales deal has serious nuclear security implications. Even if all goes well, and in the shadow of Fukushima that is a big assumption, it will free up India's domestic uranium stocks for military use and do nothing to advance Indian non-proliferation or reduce the continuing tension with nuclear rival Pakistan.

The sale of uranium to India, a nuclear armed nation that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor subject to full international nuclear safeguards but is engaged in an active nuclear weapons expansion program, is also in direct conflict with Australia's obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty.

While the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is intent on expanding India's civil and military nuclear ambitions, large question marks remain over the adequacy of safety and security arrangements covering India's nuclear sector. In 2012 the Indian Auditor General released a damning report warning of a 'Fukushima or Chernobyl-like disaster if the nuclear safety issue is not addressed'.

This frank assessment came from India's own senior officials. Fast forward to 2014 and the issues identified by the Auditor General have not been addressed and there is no certainty they ever will be. The safety of India's nuclear reactors remains shaky, the sectors regulation and governance deficient and the costs of errors extraordinary.

Tony Abbott's visit to India comes hot on the heels of an Australian visit from the former Japanese PM Naoto Kan, who was in Australia last week visiting Aboriginal people affected by uranium mining in the NT and taking his story directly to Canberra.

Mr Kan was Prime Minister in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a continuing crisis directly fuelled by Australian uranium. As the man tasked with overseeing the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster and deciding whether to evacuate twenty five million people from greater Tokyo Mr Kan's message was clear: Australia and world needs to "reduce dependence on nuclear power" and fully embrace renewables.

In the context of the planned Indian sales deal Mr Kan's comments have great significance. If Japan, the world's third largest economy and a nation steeped in technology and systems could not control the atomic genie, it bodes poorly for the application of this technology in other countries. With Australia's renewable energy expertise and resources we would be superbly placed to keep Indian village lights on while ensuring the Geiger counter stays off.

Along with Mr Kan's cautionary tale, last week saw another of Australia's controversial uranium customers give a stark lesson in the need for prudence with uranium sales. Speaking at a patriotic youth camp near Moscow Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia remains one of the largest nuclear powers in the world, stating: "I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers….Russia's partners ... should understand it's best not to mess with us."

Yes, Mr Abbott, Australia has unwisely provided uranium to Russia in the past. But instead of this becoming a justification for opening up new uranium sales in increasingly insecure and conflict-prone regions we should instead be drawing a lesson about the need to tread more carefully with our uranium supplies in the future.

Uranium is not just another mineral. It fuels nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons and it all becomes nuclear waste. As home to around a third of the worlds' uranium supply Australia's decisions matter and this is an important moment to comprehensively re-consider the domestic and international costs and consequences of our uranium sales.

Tony Abbott has no excuse or mandate to put the promise of small time corporate profit ahead of the reality of severe and sustained human and environmental radioactive risk.