Rolling the nuclear dice with Australian uranium
Secret US cables concerning nuclear politics in South Asia provide important context for debates over Australia’s uranium export industry.
US cables released by Wikileaks warn that a limited Indian invasion of Pakistan, in response to an incident such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, would be to “roll the nuclear dice’’ and risk triggering nuclear warfare.
An invasion would be limited in the hope of avoiding a nuclear response but would nevertheless be “fraught ... with potential nuclear consequences”.
The potential for terrorism to escalate into nuclear brinkmanship and nuclear warfare is no small problem since terrorist attacks are so common India and Pakistan.
Just last week (December 8), India’s major cities were on high alert after a terrorist bomb attack in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi which killed an child and injured dozens, including three Australians. A group called Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility.
The launch of nuclear weapons by Pakistan would be returned in kind by India.
The implications of nuclear war between Pakistan and India have been studied by academics Prof. Alan Robock from Rutgers University and Prof. Brian Toon from the University of Colorado.
They conclude that a nuclear exchange involving 50 nuclear weapons would, in addition to the immediate devastation, send millions of tonnes of soot into the stratosphere and cause global climate change unprecedented in human history.
A US cable released by Wikileaks notes that “despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country’‘.
The Russian foreign ministry told US officials that “Islamists are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials”, and that “extremist organizations have more opportunities to recruit people working in the nuclear and missile programs”.
The existing reality of massive investment in nuclear weaponry in poverty-stricken South Asia, and the potential for vastly worse outcomes, needs to be factored into debates over Australian uranium export policy.
The Labor Government bans sales to India on the grounds that India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but the Coalition wants the ban overturned.
Bans on uranium sales to the other countries outside the NPT − Pakistan, Israel and North Korea − are likely to remain in place, in the near future at least.
The US and a few other countries have initiated nuclear trade with India in recent years despite India’s refusal to sign the NPT.
Proponents of the US-India deal promised to secure disarmament concessions from India in the course of the negotiations, but failed dismally. India did not commit to stop producing highly enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons and there was no commitment to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The result of the US-India deal has been to boost India’s capacity to produce fissile (explosive) material for nuclear weapons and that, in turn, has escalated the nuclear arms race with Pakistan. Secret US cables confirm that Pakistan has blocked progress on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty in the UN’s Conference on Disarmament as a direct result of the US-India deal.
The precedent set by the US-India deal is now being used by China to justify selling reactors to Pakistan. The US-India deal was sold as an ‘exemption’ from the policy of banning nuclear trade with non-NPT states, but nuclear trade with non-NPT countries could soon become the norm.
The US-India deal has left supporters of Australian uranium exports to India in a pickle. For some years, they have been speculating about the disarmament concessions that could be won from India in the context of negotiations over uranium supply. But with the hindsight offered by the US-India deal, it is now clear that no concessions will be forthcoming.
Supporters will shift the goal-posts so the debate will be about safeguards inspections. We’ll be reassured that India has not only signed a standard safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also an “Additional Protocol’’ which theoretically provides expanded access rights and reporting requirements. We’ll be assured that “strict’’ safeguards will “ensure’’ peaceful use of Australian uranium.
The problem is that IAEA safeguards inspections in India will at best be tokenistic. A leaked 2009 IAEA document states: “The frequency and intensity of IAEA inspections shall be kept to the minimum consistent with the aim of improving safeguards.” That is standard diplomatic jargon − it means that safeguards will be non-existent except in circumstances where the IAEA wants to test novel safeguards technologies or procedures and India agrees to take part.
Arguments that it is preferable for Australia to supply India with uranium rather than less scrupulous suppliers fundamentally misunderstand the lack of scruples in Canberra.
Uranium sales to nuclear weapons states with no requirement for safeguards inspections? Tick. Uranium sales to repressive, secretive states? Tick. Uranium sales to countries that stockpile weapons-useable plutonium? Tick. Uranium sales to countries blocking progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty? Tick, tick.
A majority of nations want to strengthen rather than weaken the fragile nuclear non-proliferation regime.
For example, the 118 countries of the Nonaligned Movement voiced objections to nuclear trade with non-NPT countries at the NPT Review Conference in New York last May.
Australia should switch sides and work with those countries attempting to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
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