Critique of nuclear safeguards in India

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green

The Australian government's plan to permit uranium sales to India has been subjected to a strong critique by the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), John Carlson.1

Others to have raised concerns include former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt, and Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. But Carlson's critique carries particular weight given his 21 years experience as the head of Australia's safeguards office. Moreover, Carlson is a strident nuclear advocate who oversaw the weakening of Australia's uranium export safeguards requirements and occasionally indulged in offensive and arguably defamatory attacks on nuclear critics. He's the last person you'd expect to be criticising the India−Australia nuclear cooperation agreement.

Carlson notes that agreement signed by Australia and India in September contains "substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions" which suggest "that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India."

Carlson writes: "Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. ... The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. ... There is absolutely no case to waive them for India."

Carlson notes that the 'administrative arrangement' which will append the nuclear cooperation agreement may be "even more consequential than the agreement itself" as it sets out the working procedures for the agreement. But the public will never get to see the administrative arrangement. And the public will never be able to find out any information about the separation and stockpiling of weapons-useable plutonium in India; or nuclear accounting discrepancies ('Material Unaccounted For'); or even the quantity of Australian uranium (and its by-products) held in India.

The debate has international ramifications. Carlson writes: "Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. The same issue has arisen under India's arrangements with the US and Canada. In response, Washington has held firm: the US-India administrative arrangement has been outstanding for several years; reportedly the US is insisting on receiving tracking information and India is refusing. In the case of Canada, the Harper Government gave in to India, an outcome described as the 'meltdown of Canadian non-proliferation policy'. The Canadian Government refuses to reveal the details of its arrangement. If Australia follows Canada down this path, it will put the wrong kind of pressure on the US, the EU and Japan in their own dealings with India."

He further states: "If India succeeds in delinking foreign-obligated nuclear material from individual bilateral agreements, making it impossible to identify which batch of material is covered by which agreement, then India could work a 'pea and thimble' trick in which no supplier could tell whether their material was being used contrary to bilateral conditions. The mere possibility of this is sufficient to call into question India's commitment to observing bilateral agreements."

There are many concerns other than those noted by Carlson. For example, nuclear material could be diverted and reports falsified with little likelihood that the falsification would be detected.

It seems reasonable that the public should be able to find out how often IAEA safeguards inspections are carried out in India, which facilities have been inspected, and whether any accounting discrepancies were detected. But national governments refuse to supply that information.2

The IAEA used to release aggregate information on the number of inspections carried out across three countries − India, Pakistan and Israel. From 2005-09, 44–50 safeguards inspections were carried out each year in those three countries, and in 2010 the figure was 67 inspections. But the 2011, 2012 and 2013 IAEA Safeguards Statements are silent about the number of inspections carried out.3

Arms Control Today thoroughly dissected the IAEA-India safeguards agreement and noted that: "Reporting provisions ... not contained in India's agreement cover information such as nuclear fuel-cycle-related research and development, nuclear-related imports, and uranium mining. The Indian additional protocol also does not include any complementary access provisions, which provide the IAEA with the potential authority to inspect undeclared facilities."4

Even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create an intractable problem: uranium exports freeing up India's domestic reserves for weapons production. K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India's National Security Advisory Board, has said that: "Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production."


3. IAEA Yearly Safeguards Statement,

More information:
Tsukasa Yamamura, 28 Nov 2012, 'Status of nuclear cooperation with India',
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