Australia Allows Uranium Sales to India

Daniel Horner

The Australian Labor Party on Dec. 4 endorsed a proposal by its leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, to end a ban on uranium sales to India. The 206-185 vote to lift the long-standing ban came at a party conference in Sydney.

For decades, India could not purchase uranium or most other nuclear goods from members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) because New Delhi is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and does not accept full-scope safeguards, which means that it does not open all its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, in 2008 the NSG, which includes Australia, voted to make an exception from its general rule and allow exports to India. (See ACT, October 2008.)

At a Nov. 15 press conference previewing the Labor meeting, Gillard said that, in light of the NSG decision, “for us to refuse to budge is all pain with no gain.” Australia is a leading exporter of uranium.

Critics of the Labor decision argue that selling uranium would violate Australia’s obligations under the Treaty of Rarotonga, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. Article 4 of the treaty says that nuclear exports by treaty parties must be “subject to the safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT.”

The NPT article does not use the term “full-scope safeguards,” but in 1996, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, a member of the Liberal Party, told Parliament that the article requires such safeguards. He was responding to questions about potential Australian uranium sales to Taiwan.

In the wake of the Labor vote, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, also a Liberal, said Gillard was “dead wrong” to lift the ban, in part because of the Rarotonga treaty language. Writing in the Dec. 12 Sydney Morning Herald, he said that “selling uranium to India would breach our international obligations.”

In a Dec. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a spokeswoman for Gillard said, “Any agreement to transfer uranium to India would comply with our international legal obligations.”

Gillard, in a Nov. 15 piece in the Herald, said, “We must, of course, expect of India the same standards we do of all countries for uranium export—strict adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong bilateral undertakings and transparency measures that will provide assurances our uranium will be used only for peaceful purposes.”