With around 40% of the world’s uranium and currently supplying around 20% of the global market from three commercial mines, the issues of safety, radioactive waste management and the proliferation of nuclear weapons underpin Australia’s uranium mining and export debate. At its National Conference in December 2011 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) took a big step down a dangerous and divisive path with its decision to clear the way for uranium sales to India.
A cornerstone of the governing Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) uranium policy has been a pre-condition to only supply nations that have signed the UN’s nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
In operation since 1970 and with 190 nations signed on, the NPT is one of the worlds most subscribed to Treaty’s. Only India, Pakistan and Israel have never signed the NPT while North Korea withdrew in 2003. Although imperfect, the NPT remains one of the world’s best ways to restrict the spread of its worst weapons.
In November 2011 Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard abruptly announced she would seek to weaken Labor’s commitment to the NPT by exempting India and freeing up uranium sales. This move led to a high profile and close fought debate at the ALP’s National Conference in early December.
Selling uranium to India would breach Australia’s clear obligations under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty – the Treaty of Rarotonga – which requires treaty partners to only supply nuclear materials, including uranium, to nations that accept comprehensive ‘full-scope’ international safeguards. India does not and has stated it will not. Around 50% of Indian nuclear facilities remain exempt from international inspection and review. Any move to sell Australian uranium to India would put further pressure on the already stressed, under-resourced and under-performing international nuclear safeguards regime.
Proponents of the policy change relied on internal ALP political machinations and enforced crude factional bloc voting rather than assessment or analysis to advance their position.
There was no clear and compelling case made to justify dropping such a long standing and prudent policy position or to address the fact that the sale of uranium to India is inconsistent with the ALP’s view that Australia can make a significant contribution to promoting nuclear disarmament and the reduction of nuclear stockpiles.
Critics of the plan highlighted India’s active weapons development program, the deep and continuing hostility between India and its nuclear armed rival and neighbour Pakistan and the increasing tension with China. Adding Australian uranium into this volatile context would further these divisions and risks, free up domestic Indian uranium supplies for use in India’s military nuclear program and lead to calls for future uranium sales to Pakistan.
Pro-nuclear and conservative commentators with strong nuclear industry links joined the chorus of concern ahead of Conference to call for a halt to the rushed and ill-conceived sales plan. Australian NGO’s and anti-nuclear groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth, the Beyond Nuclear Initiative and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons joined with other civil society groups to highlight the issue.
Many of the 400 Conference delegates received letters, briefing materials, phone calls and visits. The corridors of Canberra were walked and talked. Opinion and commentary pieces were written, media comment and briefings provided and there was an active presence at the Conference itself.
Sadly, the potential dollar signs shone brighter than the very real danger signs. Debate over Australia’s obligations under international law and role and responsibility as a provider of a dual use mineral was deliberately clouded by unrelated issues including the Prime Minister’s ability to ‘deliver’, absurdly optimistic economic projections and the fact that India is ‘friendly’.
The one credible argument raised by proponents of sales was India’s pressing need for increased energy and electricity.
The provision of Australian uranium to India is not a responsible or effective response to India’s aspiration to increase access to electricity to address widespread poverty.
Instead of using the cumbersome, costly and contaminating 20th Century technologies of coal and nuclear India could leapfrog into the rapid and widespread utilisation of clean and contemporary renewable systems.
These would cause the lights to work across India while ensuring the alarms stayed silent across Pakistan and would provide a lasting and local solution to India’s growing power needs.
The continuing Fukushima nuclear emergency highlights the vulnerability of nuclear power – even in a technically sophisticated country as Japan. Nuclear reactors in India, like nuclear missiles on the India – Pakistan border, would be ticking time bombs.
But such arguments did not carry the day amid the glare of the TV cameras and the shallow mantra of jobs and safeguards. On Sunday December 4, 2011 the ALP National Conference narrowly voted (206 to 185) for Australia to undermine the NPT, reject its treaty obligations and abandon any pretence of nuclear responsibility.
It has been said that opponents of the deal won the debate but lost the vote. The issue was fiercely contested within the Labor Party, including by senior Cabinet Ministers and around 45% of delegates. Many in Labor are angry with the content and process of the decision and the issue remains unfinished business both within the Labor Party and the wider community.
It is a long way from policy on the run to uranium on a ship and Australian activists are increasing their call for an independent assessment of the impacts, costs and consequences of Australia’s involvement in the uranium and nuclear trade.
In the shadow of Fukushima it is time to stop cutting corners and start raising standards.
Source and contact: Dave Sweeny (Dave is the national nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation.) Floor 1, 60 Leicester St, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia.
Tel: +61 3 9345 1130