Lowy Institute

Debate: Selling Australian uranium to India

Learn more about Interpreter debates  |  View debate archive.

Reverse order

Order: earliest first

What a week in Australian foreign policy.

Two days before President Obama's visit, which will likely mark a pivot to a truly Indo-Pacific strategic vision by Washington and Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has publicly declared her support for safeguarded uranium exports to India.

These two things are connected – not as some conspiracy (though some on the left will see the timing as suspicious), but rather because it is about time we sent a signal that we recognise an emerging India as a vital and trusted part of a stable Indo-Pacific regional order. To be sure, the eve-of-Obama timing was at least a bit clumsy. It would have been better if the Prime Minister's statement had come earlier. Australia is embracing India strictly for its own reasons, not Washington's.

But in any case, Gillard's move is welcome and overdue. It is high time the Australian Labor Party developed a contemporary policy allowing uranium exports to help India produce much-needed electricity.

I have seen both sides of this issue, first as an arms control diplomat and then as a diplomat on posting in India. In 1998 I was a junior official writing talking points condemning India for its nuclear tests. From 2000-2003 I worked in New Delhi, watching India's foreign and security policy evolution first-hand and trying to improve Australia-India relations after the damage from our failed, moralistic 1998 stance. From 2004 to February 2007 I monitored the changing Asian strategic order from inside Australia's peak intelligence agency.

Since my first opinion piece calling for a change of Labor policy on uranium in April 2007 I have been an open supporter of improved relations with India. And now I try to balance realistic assessments of the Asian nuclear and strategic order with my advocacy of a true strategic partnership with India as part of Australia's wider approach to an era of Chinese, Indian and sustained American power and influence. Part of this work involves close consultations with prominent Indians from across politics, media, diplomacy, business and journalism.

Read More

All of this makes me well aware that the question of tempering Australia's activist nuclear diplomacy with its need for better India ties is a tough call needing proper debate. But on balance, Australia's foreign policy, security and economic interests are all served by a change of policy on uranium.

Labor's existing policy overturned Prime Minister John Howard's bold decision in 2007 to begin negotiating uranium exports to India. At that point Australia was poised to be on the leading edge of nuclear engagement with India; instead, the Labor policy reversal ceded some of that ground to the US, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, France, Russia and fairly much any other nuclear supplier.

Of course, Labor could and should have gone to the 2007 election with the same policy as Howard – it would have won hands-down anyway – and then four years of delay and frustration in Australia-India relations could have been avoided. Instead, when Labor overturned its restricted 'three mines' policy on uranium mining, the offset for Labor's left was the reaffirmation of the NPT-only export rule, making India a very large and disappointed sacrificial lamb.

The policy of exporting only to countries that have joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty – a treaty that India is literally unable to sign – is unsustainable. The NPT only allows countries that tested the bomb before 1967 to possess nuclear arms, so India would need to surrender its small atomic arsenal before signing. Of course, it cannot do that while China and Pakistan possess nuclear arms.

Yet in other ways, India is a good non-proliferation citizen. Unlike China or Pakistan, it has never helped other countries acquire the bomb. And it has signed up to putting all its new reactors under safeguards for purely civil use. Yet we have been pointlessly telling India 'we do not trust you'. That is a contradictory message at a time when we are trying to engage strategically and economically with India as this century's third-largest economy and the world's biggest democracy. 

Of course we need to apply proper conditions and safeguards to ensure civilian use of our uranium, and if India has a problem with those safeguards then any deal would and should be off. But even then, at least there would be an end to Labor's outdated and discriminatory policy – a refusal even to talk about uranium with India, while we export to China and Russia.

Let the real debate begin.

Photo by Flickr user SiGMan.


Below, Richard Broinowski on selling uranium to India, but first Cam Hawker on the US-Australia relationship:

A quick response to Andrew's piece on the decision to host US Marines in Darwin. Andrew questions if this represents 'the moment where Australia fundamentally cast its lot in with the US'. I would suggest that this moment occurred long ago. Not, as Andrew suggests, with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, but with the decision to host the Joint Facilities such as Pine Gap, and the now defunct establishment at Nurrungar. I am referring particularly to those assets that monitor the early detection of ICBM launches and nuclear detonations.

These tracking stations form an integral part of America's war-fighting capability, without them Washington would be flying blind, vulnerable to nuclear attack. They are online now. In the advent of a war between the US and China, or any other nuclear power for that matter, Australia would automatically find itself a belligerent. I suspect there would be little opportunity to either consult with Washington on how those facilities were used, or with Beijing on how our actions should be interpreted.

Read More

The US would quite justifiably regard the facilities as part of their arsenal of strategic assets and use them accordingly. Beijing, would understandably regard them as enemy instillations. This is not to suggest the facilities would automatically become targets. However, there cannot be much doubt as to Beijing’s probable attitude towards the facilities' host. China is well aware of this dynamic, arguably more so than we are because there is remarkably little discussion of this as a determinant of strategic policy in this country.

We have been on the ride that Andrew refers to for some time; it just got a little faster.

Richard Broinowski:

If only selling Australian uranium to India were as clear-eyed and simple a solution to bilateral relations as Rory Medcalf suggests. The actual situation is a lot more complex. First he asserts that there is no conspiracy (except in the minds of the 'left') between President Obama's visit and Prime Minister Gillard's announcement. According to The Australian on 16 November, however, Gillard's decision came after talks with the Obama Administration, which viewed the ban as a roadblock to greater engagement between Washington and New Delhi. It is likely that the 'talks' were a quiet word Obama had with Gillard in the margins of APEC in Hawaii. Her announcement is consistent with her predisposition to follow Washington's lead on every aspect of foreign policy.

Second, like many advocates of uranium sales to India, Medcalf suggests that this would instill confidence and allow the full bilateral relationship to flourish. This is to concur with Indian propaganda, but it is far from the truth. Poor relations and missed opportunities to change things began with mutual dislike when Australia refused India's invitation to join the non-aligned movement in the late 1940s, and consolidated in mutual distrust between Menzies and Nehru in the 1950s. Ever since, we have actively tended to marginalise India in regional forums, including keeping it out of APEC. India's cultural disdain for Australia runs deep, and it is going to take much more than selling them uranium to change that.

Third, Medcalf argues that selling India uranium will reinforce our foreign policy, security and economic interests. On the contrary, it will enhance India's ambitious nuclear weapons program, which far from being 'small', is driven by an urgent timetable for multiple nukes for land, sea and air delivery platforms to match China's. Our uranium, even if confined to fuel India's civil reactors, will free up other reserves for use in its weapons program and increase an arms race in the unstable South Asian region, and between India and China.

Until Gillard's announcement, Australia maintained a rule, conceived by Mr Justice Fox in 1975 and endorsed by successive Liberal and Labor governments, that we would not sell uranium to non-signatories to the NPT. Yielding to commercial pressure, our bilateral safeguards attaching to uranium sales were gradually attenuated over the years, but not this cardinal principle. Now it is likely to be abolished, providing a precedent for many signatories to the NPT to question their own adherence to the Treaty. If India can get away with all the benefits of not joining, why can't they walk away from it and pursue their own? Why, China will ask, did they have to sign the NPT if India does not? And what will be our response to Pakistan?


One of the oddest criticism of Gillard's move to sell uranium to India is that she is breaking with the non-proliferation approach of the Hawke and Keating governments, when actually it's the exact same strategy: trading uranium in return for influence in setting safety standards.

This (lucrative) approach, of selling uranium while insisting on world-class safety standards, is the reason Australia became 'a global champion of non-proliferation'. Without it, Australia's many other achievements — extending the Non-Proliferation Treaty, passing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, undertaking the intellectual leg-work for global disarmament via the Canberra Commission and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament — would not have been possible.

While Australia has around 30-40% of the world's uranium supply, there are too many other suppliers for a ban by Australia to have a significant effect. India is a case in point. Should Australia ban uranium sales outright, as some critics want, our likely influence would be akin to New Zealand's. Our southern neighbour took a more principled stand in the 1980s on nuclear power, but has, undeniably, had significantly less effect on global proliferation norms and conditions than Australia.

That's not a function of size, but strategy. While the Prime Minister has argued the economic benefits, and Rory noted the security benefits, it is through deals like this that Australia, a remote middle power, can best influence non-proliferation standards worldwide.

Photo by the Uranium Energy Corp.


Ron Walker is a former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the IAEA and author of the Lowy institute  Policy Brief 'Uranium for India'

Some oppose selling uranium to India because they are against uranium mining.

My objection is quite different, as I support the policy introduced by Malcolm Fraser and upheld by all subsequent Australian governments until late Howard and now Gillard: that uranium mining in Australia is only defensible if it strengthens the non-proliferation regime.

Thanks to our control of over a quarter of the world's known uranium reserves we are in a position to impose tougher elements to that regime. We have used that leverage to set non-proliferation standards that have been applied world-wide. Now the prime minister proposes to exempt India from our rules.

I am horrified that the media have not explained the enormity of this proposal. Perhaps even the public service has been so degraded, marginalised and cowed that the prime minister has not been told of the far-reaching consequences.

The reason I know something of it is that I worked for decades on these issues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, serving inter alia as head of the Nuclear Division (now renamed 'International Security Division') and as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Read More

As long as nuclear weapons exist, so will the risk of their being used. For countries to maintain the ability to incinerate each other's cities promotes mutual distrust and is inimical to peace. Australia's relations with Indonesia have been very difficult at times: how much worse would they be if each knew that millions of its citizens could be killed in minutes by the other? And all around the world delicate relationships between neighbours could easily be worsened.

All countries on earth except for three have signed the NPT and thereby committed themselves to work against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and towards nuclear disarmament. They have also undertaken, under the NPT and associated instruments, a whole raft of specific measures towards those ends. The commitment is not only to their own people but also to each other.

Yes, North Korea and Iran have cheated on non-proliferation and Syria may have attempted to do so, but that is no reason to trash the NPT regime: it provides important restraints on other countries and reassurances to their neighbours, as well as a route back for miscreants such as South Africa and Iraq. Yes, the nuclear disarmament effort is less advanced than most countries would like, but neither is it trivial. The US and Russia are destroying nuclear weapons as fast as is physically possible and other programs are making some headway.

Many countries see the NPT and the regime built around it as of vital importance to their security. But it would be stronger if all countries participated. Only India, Israel and Pakistan have held out against it. India and Israel alone oppose nuclear disarmament. India alone opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The international regime on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has many deficiencies but most countries see it as vital to their security. They have pleaded for decades with India (and the other two hold-outs) to join. India's rejection of multilateral commitments on non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament  is at least as contemptuous of the concerns of all other countries as India claims those countries are of its security concerns. If it were willing to accept commitment similar to those undertaken by NPT countries, this could easily be negotiated (my Lowy Institute Policy Brief gives one option).

India's non-proliferation slate is not clean: its A-bomb increased Pakistan and Iran's incentive and confidence to follow suit. Unlike the other two holdouts, Israel and Pakistan, it is not known to have helped other countries proliferate but it adamantly refuses to give treaty commitments to all other countries.

Yes, India is a democracy and yes we want to be in their good books, but that is no reason to drop our principles and our interests. To make an exception for them would be crass cronyism. If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?

Selling uranium to India might create a few more jobs (in a sector where there is no shortage of jobs), but if job creation were the overriding concern there are plenty of other currently prohibited activities where far more jobs could be created by scrapping current restrictions. And declaring that these economic benefits trump our interests in world peace and regional security would be an admission of venality deserving of widespread contempt.

Photo by Flickr user Alberto OG.


David Brewster responds to Richard Broinowski:

I'm not sure that Rory Medcalf suggested that the sale of Australian uranium to India is a panacea to the bilateral relationship — clearly it is not. However, the policy is a symbolic roadblock to improvements in the relationship, and its removal will hopefully provide some space for the relationship to grow.

There is little doubt that Kevin Rudd's reversal of John Howard's announced decision in 2007 to export uranium to India has come to be seen by some in New Delhi as representing all that is wrong with Australian policy: hypocritical, inconsistent and failing to pay regard to India as a friend or as a partner. 

Read More

Why does Australia say it is OK for other states to export uranium to India, but not Australia? Why does Australia export uranium to dictatorships which are known nuclear proliferators and refuse to do so to a democracy with an impeccable proliferation record? Is Australia really demanding that India disarm in the face of nuclear-armed Pakistan and China? If so, then why then does Australia continue to shelter under the US nuclear umbrella? If you don't trust us with uranium, how can you trust us to be a security partner? There are no answers to these questions that one could give with a straight face.

Neither do Richard Broinowski's arguments in favour of the current policy cut the mustard. Yes, we know that uranium is a fungible commodity that can also be used to make bombs. But we also know that India can buy as much of it as it wants elsewhere. India has uranium supply relationships with Russia, Kazakhstan, Gabon and Canada, among others. In brief, India is not going to run short of uranium.

Neither does the pretence that India must join the NPT before it can join the nuclear club withstand scrutiny. Australia said it was OK for anyone in the world to supply of uranium and nuclear technology to India when we approved a special exemption for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008. We cannot pretend otherwise.

In short, the policy is an embarrassment. It should be taken out the back and shot.

However, removing an embarrassing symbol is not the same as building a relationship. Richard Broinowski makes some valid points about poor relations and missed opportunities that have plagued the India-Australia relationship for some 60 years. Like Broinowski, I suspect that there is a lot more to it than just bumbling leaders or Cold War politics. 

Among some in New Delhi (and not just old Nehruvians) there is a deep disdain for Australia, whether it be for historical, cultural or ideological reasons. Australia has long been regarded as the inheritor of the sins of the British, a branch office of the United States and (somewhat bizarrely, in my view) as having a particular prejudice against India. The extreme reaction to the Indian student issue was not just a product of a nationalistic Indian media — it drew from a rich foundation of negative perceptions about Australia.

But there is an even more significant factor that inhibits a close security relationship between India and Australia. New Delhi is ignoring us not just because our uranium policy makes it easy to ignore us, nor because some do not like what Australia represents. New Delhi is ignoring us because they do not (yet) see how we can add to India's security, whether it be in the Indian Ocean or elsewhere. Ask someone in the Indian security community about what role Australia could play in India's security and you'll generally get a puzzled response. That is the question we need to think about if we want to become real strategic partners.


Prime Minister Gillard's announcement that she will seek a change in Labor's platform to permit uranium exports to India is problematic for Australia's non-proliferation policy and reputation. I share the concern about the apparent failure to extract anything from India in return for a major policy shift, and the implication that uranium exports to India will soon become the law as soon as ALP policy has been changed, without the due process usually reserved for changes of policy of this magnitude.

But let's not throw our hands up in the air just yet. A change in ALP policy is the backing a Gillard Government will need before any negotiations can commence with India, negotiations which might yield net benefits to Australia's non-proliferation agenda.

First, the proposal to change decades of Australian policy on which countries we sell uranium to is not entirely capricious. There are some sound policy reasons for exporting uranium to India, primarily strategic and environmental: India is a rising power with which we should establish a strategic relationship. As thoroughly irksome as this is, India has made it clear that the price of a closer relationship is access to Australian uranium.

India's energy needs are voracious and nuclear energy will help limit the damage to the global environment from its growing energy use. The world also needs India to be an active participant in the fight against proliferation and in managing emerging nuclear tensions in its region. As it is not and never will be a member of the NPT, other mechanisms for including India in these efforts are needed.

Read More

Second, refusing to export uranium to India will neither prevent India from modernising its nuclear forces, nor prevent nuclear proliferation in South Asia. Plenty of countries are prepared to sell uranium to India, and the AQ Khan network, China and the DPRK have contributed to proliferation in Asia in a way which countries like Australia have been powerless to influence. To the extent that India's exclusion from official nuclear trade has had an impact, it has diverted resources away from its domestic power program. So far, India has put its military program first.

Third, Australian uranium sales to India, an NPT non-member, does not spell the death of the effectiveness of our non-proliferation practices. Australia will not be in a position to actually export uranium to India within the next five years or more because of capacity constraints and bans on uranium mining in states where the uranium is relatively easy to extract (eg. Queensland). But leaving that aside, there are opportunities to negotiate some valuable non-proliferation commitments with India in return for uranium sales, as like-minded countries such as the US and Japan are trying to do.

Australia can do so through a negotiated bilateral safeguards agreement with India, backed up by an additional framework agreement with India to reflect the international non-proliferation and arms control commitments which underpinned the 2008 Nuclear Suppliers Group decision to exempt India from its export controls. These commitments were confirmed by then Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee in a statement in September 2008. Additional conditions such as halting our nuclear exports if India resumes nuclear testing should also be on the table.

In my next post I will explain how this might be done.

Photo by Flickr user truthout.org.


In my previous post I suggested that Australian uranium sales to India might strengthen the non-proliferation regime. We are not only known as a reliable supplier of uranium, but a strict one, and this need not change with India.

Australia has agreements to supply uranium to non-nuclear weapons states and to peaceful facilities in nuclear weapon states. Both types of agreements ensure that Australia's nuclear exports remain in exclusively peaceful use, and may only be re-transferred to a party with a bilateral safeguards agreement with Australia.

All Australian safeguards agreements have provision for the full accounting of all Australian Obligated Nuclear Material (AONM). The importing party needs Australia's prior written consent to transfer the material to any third party. AONM is not to be enriched beyond 20% U-235. No reprocessing of AONM is allowed without Australian consent. Why is this important? Because high levels of enrichment or reprocessing technology are needed for nuclear weapons.

For historical reasons India fails to qualify as an officially recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT, though it is obviously a nuclear weapon state in practical terms. Any agreement with India will therefore be modelled on the types we have with China and Russia. Any Australian government should ensure that an Australian safeguards agreement with India incorporates, as a minimum, a renewed commitment from India to adhere to the international non-proliferation and arms control conditions it made to the US and to the NSG in 2008 which exempted India from NSG controls.

Read More

These include: an Additional Protocol on India's civil nuclear facilities; a  voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons; working with others towards the conclusion of a multilateral fissile material cutoff treaty in the Conference on Disarmament that is universal, non-discriminatory, and verifiable; an existing, comprehensive system of national export controls and a commitment to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime and NSG guidelines.

Japan is negotiating a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India on this basis. A deal with Japan is crucial because major US suppliers like GE and Westinghouse, which have either Japanese owners or partners, can only do business with India if Japan does away with nuclear and high-technology export controls. These negotiations are stalled because Japan is not satisfied India is honouring the 2008 NSG conditions. News reports say that Japan intends to put more pressure on India to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as a condition for a nuclear cooperation agreement. The US Atomic Energy Act also requires the US to halt nuclear exports to India if it resumed nuclear testing. 

In 2011, the NSG also toughened its export conditions for sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology needed for nuclear weapons programs ('ENR'). While nuclear suppliers in France and Russia believe this will not affect their planned nuclear cooperation with India, these additional criteria should help prevent the further proliferation of weapons making technology, a core Australian security objective.

Yes, the single greatest development putting pressure on Australia's non-proliferation policy was the nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the United States in 2006 and the subsequent decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 to issue a waiver for India subject to certain conditions.  Australia was a party to the NSG decision. But Australia maintains its own, additional stringent supply conditions through the bilateral safeguards agreements it concludes with customers for its uranium.

The sale of Australian uranium to India therefore has the potential to strengthen the non-proliferation regime through best practice standards and by taking the Japan and US approach. Whether an Australian government can deliver such an outcome is not certain. Had we moved earlier, we may have been able to impose tougher conditions than our Canadian and Kazakh competitors.

For the current government a change in ALP policy is just a very small, but necessary first step in this direction.

Photo by Flickr user Bigod.


John Carlson is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office.

The Treaty of Rarotonga (South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty) is being held out as an obstacle to Australia supplying uranium to India. The Howard Government had legal advice this was not the case. Sharing its legal advice is for the present government to decide, but if the legal position is as clearly against supply to India as is claimed, neither the Howard Government nor the Gillard Government would be considering supply to India. 

Article 4 of Rarotonga says that parties are not to provide nuclear material or items to any non-nuclear-weapon state unless subject to the safeguards required by Article III(1) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The latter article requires each non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA applying to all its nuclear material (ie. 'full-scope safeguards').

India, of course, is not a party to the NPT, and has not concluded such an agreement with the IAEA. Thus, the Treaty of Rarotonga is being interpreted as an impediment to Australian uranium trade with India.

But what is a 'non-nuclear weapon state'? A literal reading of the NPT suggests that, other than the five nuclear-weapon states identified by the Treaty (US, Russia, UK, France and China), all states (even non-members of the NPT such as India) are classified as 'non-nuclear-weapon states'.

Yet as Don Rothwell says, this is a legal fiction — it is a fact that India is nuclear-armed. As a practical matter, therefore, India's circumstances are not specifically covered by the NPT. India is sui generis, a unique case, as the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group decided when agreeing the 'India exception' to the NSG nuclear supply guidelines.

Read More

While Australia has historically interpreted the NPT as requiring full-scope safeguards (the application of safeguards to all nuclear material and facilities) for all non-nuclear-weapon states, even those who are not members of the NPT. However, this has never been a consensus view, and a number of key NPT parties, including the US, never accepted the full-scope safeguards interpretation. The full-scope safeguards interpretation is a matter of policy, and policy is subject to change to reflect changing circumstances, as is the case with India.

The wording of NPT Article III(1) by its own terms does not encompass India, and the full-scope safeguards interpretation of the NPT is a matter of policy and does not represent the internationally agreed interpretation of the NPT. Can the cross-reference to the NPT in the Rarotonga Treaty be interpreted as requiring full-scope safeguards when it is not agreed that the NPT itself requires this?

Taiwan has been cited as an example of Australia interpreting the Rarotonga Treaty as requiring full-scope safeguards for a non-NPT party. But Taiwan signed the NPT as the Republic of China, then lost international recognition before it could ratify — so Taiwan attempted to become a party to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, and has acted consistently with this status (ie. having full-scope safeguards arrangements with the IAEA). So the Taiwan case shows only that Australia has treated Taiwan consistently with its full-scope safeguards status.

None of this means, of course, that nuclear supply to India can be free of safeguards. International practice is for IAEA safeguards to apply to all nuclear material and items transferred to India, and the Australian government would proceed on this basis.

After the NPT was launched, the full-scope safeguards policy had an important purpose — to encourage as many states as possible to become parties, in support of efforts to universalise the Treaty. Now this policy has served its purpose; the NPT is as close to universal as it is likely to be. We are down to the determined hold-outs — India, Israel and Pakistan — who will never join in current circumstances (and there is North Korea, which announced withdrawal in 2003).

India has a rapidly expanding electricity sector. It will meet growth in base-load demand by increased coal burning, but can offset some of this by nuclear energy. To do this on any significant scale India needs access to imported reactors and uranium. Engagement with India – bringing it into the nuclear 'mainstream' – has benefits in terms of: (a) opportunity to influence behaviour in nuclear and other areas; (b) increased nuclear safety, through access to modern technology; (c) cooperation on nuclear security; and (d) greenhouse gas mitigation. 

Australia needs to find a more constructive basis for engagement with India, especially to further dialogue on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

Photo by Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.


MV Ramana is with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

There is a clear internal contradiction in the statements by many who support Australia lifting the ban on selling uranium to India.

On the one hand, the claim is that, because several other suppliers are out there to supply uranium, Australia not selling uranium to India makes no significant difference to India's uranium supplies. But then, on the other hand, the claim is that, through selling uranium, Australia can insist on 'world-class safety standards' and in general obtain much influence in setting Indian policies in exchange for the uranium.

This glib transition from a position of near-helplessness to a position of power will not stand up to logic. If Australian uranium can be substituted with uranium from other suppliers, then why should India, especially now that it has been dubbed an emerging power, bother to change any of its policies?

Worse, it exhibits a complete ignorance of the history of negotiations over the US-India nuclear deal, where despite strenuous efforts by US diplomats, Indian negotiators conceded precisely nothing except for offering a partial set of reactors for international safeguards.

In large part, this was because it was absolutely clear to the Indian side, well before the negotiations, that President Bush and his Administration wanted the deal. Once that was clear, it was, as George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it to the New York Times put it, 'Santa Claus negotiating. The goal seems to have been to give away as much as possible.' Likewise, now that Prime Minister Gillard has made her position clear, the idea that Australia might have any influence of any sort over Indian nuclear policies can be deemed illusory.

Read More

Let us also be clear about why India offered some reactors for safeguards. Because there was, at that point, a mismatch between domestic uranium production and demand from unsafeguarded reactors, and many strategists thought that in such a situation, it was more important to continue feeding the nuclear arsenal than keeping reactors out of safeguards. For example, K Subrahmanyam, former head of the National Security Advisory Board, argued that:

Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our...nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production.

And indeed, following the nuclear deal, the Indian Government has continued producing weapon-grade plutonium at the Dhruva reactor. Many of its power reactors remain outside of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, potentially available for military purposes.

Also outside IAEA safeguards is the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor that is under construction and that could produce about 140kg of high-quality weapon-grade plutonium, sufficient for nearly 30 Nagasaki-type bombs every year. In 2010, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) estimated that India had stockpiled 300-700kg of weapon-grade plutonium and 3300-3900kg of separated reactor-grade plutonium.

India is also expanding its capacity to enrich uranium, reportedly for use in a nuclear submarine. Recent Google Earth images suggest that new centrifuge halls, roughly twice the size of India's existing facility, are being constructed. In 2010, the Chief of the Navy stated that India would soon have an operational triad of aircraft, land-based missiles and (nuclear-powered) submarine-launched missiles for delivery of nuclear warheads. Pakistan and China are expected to react to this by further developing their own arsenals and military strategies.

Those who support the export of uranium from Australia should be clear that this would contribute, albeit indirectly, to this three-way nuclear arms race. And please, skip the bit about using that to extract changes in policy.

Photo by Flickr user Alberto OG.


One of Australia's finest cricket writers observes that the combined talents of Bradman, Bismarck and Warren Buffett could hardly solve the governance headaches created by India's domination of world cricket administration. Gideon Haigh writes that India's cricketing power exemplifies the golden rule of realpolitik: 'whoever has the gold makes the rules.'

India showed its dominance last year with a swift veto of the bid to make Australia's former Prime Minister, John Howard, the head of the International Cricket Council. Disillusioned by that failure to get the job for Howard, Haigh writes, Australian cricket has since 'shoulder shrugged' on most of the big issues going to the ICC. India rules.

The shoulder shrug image is useful as the Australian Labor Party convenes to do something similar by reversing its ban on selling uranium to India. Maybe it is more than a shrug. At the least, this is a nod of the head to India's growing significance, perhaps even a bow.

Just as India will determine much that happens in running and financing cricket in the 21st century, it will reach for a similar stature in Asia's governance. Julia Gillard is acknowledging that truth, whether you see the change of Labor policy as little more than a shrug or closer to obeisance.

Read More

The proposition is that Labor will improve Australia's relationship with India by following the policy example of John Howard's Coalition Government (although Howard's shift on uranium didn't get him any credit points from India in seeking the ultimate job for a cricket tragic; linkage across spheres is always difficult).

The policy now being adopted by Gillard doesn't have that much to do with Buffett (markets) but lots to do with Bismarck (grand strategy and shifting national alignments). The lukewarm response of Australia's uranium producers rather underlines the point that this argument is about something much more than selling a commodity.

The key elements here are India's power, US policy and the impact on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT is what is suffering, although the two articles by Martine Letts demonstrate how Australia could seek to strengthen the non-proliferation regime in trying to negotiate with India. The outcome Martine describes will require some hard thinking and tough negotiation. And giving the other side what it wants before the bargaining begins is hardly good tactics.

The marathon march towards a Free Trade Agreement with China is an excellent example. To launch the negotiations, Canberra gave Beijing what it most fervently wanted: recognition of China's status as a Market Economy. Six years later, the talks drag on. In the same way, what India really needs from Australia is recognition, not uranium. And the Labor Party is about to hand over that important gift.

So, when those negotiations with India do begin, Australia needs to be clear about its aim: to bolster the non-proliferation structure, not to bow. That requires an ability to look past India's self-serving and often misleading depiction of its nuclear interests and actions. Such an endeavour could draw inspiration from a long-ago Australian High Commissioner to New Delhi, who recorded this reflection on the difference between Australian and Indian approaches to international affairs:

There was not much in India's policies to emulate. Yet, wrong-headed and hypocritical as India's policies sometimes were, one's mind was gripped by the undeviating direction of India towards national self-interest without concession to sentiment towards others, or to the 'loyalty' so evident in Australian official policies towards our 'traditional friends'.

The words are from one of the great Canberra mandarins, Sir Arthur Tange, who served in India for five years after his time as secretary of the External Affairs Department (1954-65) and before taking the top job in the Defence Department (1970-79). As the flintiest of realists, Tange might observe that this time round both India and Australia seem to be playing the roles he described for them. Australia, particularly, is making loyal haste to adopt the new India position adopted by our great and powerful friend in Washington.

Photo by Flickr user Pulkitsinha.


Dhruva Jaishankar is Program Officer for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution and an occasional columnist for The Indian Express.

It should be no surprise that New Delhi would welcome an Australian decision to export uranium to India. Isolating India on nuclear matters proved a major — and some might say unnecessary — hurdle for US-India relations. Indo-Australian strategic relations too have been held hostage to the uranium ban; in fact, India specifically advocated that Australia be excluded from multilateral security dialogues, the uranium ban being one significant factor influencing New Delhi's position.

While cogent cases have already been made for reversing Australia's stance on diplomatic and security grounds, MV Ramana's criticism, citing non-proliferation concerns, is intriguing.

In the strictest sense, he is right: Australia on its own can't guarantee that India will adhere to world-class safety standards or non-proliferation norms. But he's incorrect in assuming that Australia won't make a difference. In fact, there's already been a shift in India's behaviour following the Nuclear Suppliers Group's decision to exempt it in 2008. India's approach to the non-proliferation regime at the Conference on Disarmament at Geneva on such matters as a fissile material cut-off is but one notable example.

India's shift in position has also helped convince a previously sceptical Obama Administration of the merits of the controversial deal brokered under George W Bush. Moreover, the US-India nuclear deal has not resulted in the dire predictions made by many non-proliferation specialists (including those cited by Ramana) about India rushing to build nuclear weapons once unencumbered by the global nuclear export regime. In fact, India's decision not to upgrade or even replace its primary sources of weapons-grade plutonium suggests a continuing commitment to its existing deterrent.

The decision is ultimately Australia's to make, but, combined, the diplomatic, security, and non-proliferation dividends make for a compelling case in India's favour. As the world reaches out to India, Australia can't afford to be left behind.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy New Delhi.


On Sunday, the Australian Labor Party's national conference will take an important decision: whether to end its blanket prohibition on uranium exports to India's nuclear energy program.

Wherever you stand, a robust debate on the issue can only improve the chances of a sensible policy outcome. That's why I am pleased The Interpreter has hosted its own debate (click on this link to see every post in the debate thread) involving a powerful range of arguments on this issue.

I am a self-declared advocate of the Prime Minister's proposal to change Labor's policy at the party's national conference this weekend. As I noted in opening our blog debate, the longstanding arms control arguments for sticking with Labor's export ban need to be taken seriously. But as I argued in today's Melbourne Age, the three main non-proliferation criticisms are exaggerated and based on shaky logic. And if safeguarded Australian exports to India are proliferation neutral, then the case for a policy change to advance bilateral relations becomes more important.

Our debate has ranged from the views of some former diplomats who strongly oppose a policy change, to the assessments of others, also with significant arms control experience, who are persuaded that there are ways to export to India responsibly. It has been argued that Australia should have tried to extract greater concessions from India. Indian voices, too, have joined the discussion.

Read More

Our contributions to the debate have also extended to the wider media story. For instance, The Interpreter exclusively published the assessment of former Australian safeguards head John Carlson in critically appraising an academic legal opinion put forward by opponents of exports to India.

Also this week, the Lowy Institute hosted an awareness-raising visit to Australia by leading US nuclear policy and non-proliferation expert Professor Scott Sagan. Professor Sagan's Canberra and Sydney lectures were sponsored by the independent US-based Nuclear Security Project and address much wider nuclear issues – Obama's disarmament agenda and the future of nuclear power – but unsurprisingly the India issue came up in question time, and you can hear his balanced perspective here or here (an interview with Sagan will be posted on The Interpreter early next week).

Finally, for deeper background on Australia's uranium export dilemma, I can't help but recommend this brand new book produced by a team of Australian scholars. My chapter in that book forms the basis for a research paper launched this week at the Australia-India Institute, which concludes that Australian uranium policy has never been really about the money – but nor has it been guided by non-proliferation priorities alone. Geopolitics and diplomacy are nothing new in this debate.

It will be fascinating to see how the Australian Labor Party resolves this hot question on Sunday. Will this be the first weekend of Australia's Indian summer? We will offer an initial reaction on The Interpreter on Monday.

Photo by Flickr user Michael C Clark.


John Carlson is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office.

One of the objections to supplying uranium to India is that it will free up India's own uranium for its nuclear weapons program. This argument is nonsense: it could just as easily be argued that supplying India with any energy resource — coal, or natural gas, or wind turbines — could free up uranium for military use.

Countries that have determined they need nuclear weapons will ensure they have the necessary uranium regardless of cost. Uranium is a widespread mineral, and all countries have some uranium resources if cost is no object — it can even be recovered from seawater. In a competition between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, priority will be given to nuclear weapons, as there are many other options available for generating electricity. For example, some 50% of India's electricity is now generated with coal.

India has decided on nuclear energy for the various advantages it offers — clean air, reliability, huge reduction in transport and storage requirements compared with coal, and so on. For these reasons, and also increasing concern about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change, India has an ambitious program for expanding the use of nuclear energy. India needs to import uranium to fuel this expansion.

To give some practical context to the claim: to operate a 1000 megawatt power reactor requires around 200 tonnes of uranium a year — 20 such reactors require 4000 tonnes of uranium every year. To produce one nuclear weapon requires as little as 5 tonnes of uranium, a quantity easily met from India's domestic uranium production. The needs of a military program are insignificant compared with those of a power program.

Of course we hope India will come to understand the folly of producing more nuclear weapons, and will join the efforts of other countries towards reducing and eliminating these weapons. For Australia to deny India uranium, however, would have absolutely no influence on India's actions.

Photo by Flickr user Gregory Tonon.


Richard Broinowski writes:

I was incredulous to read Sam Roggeveen's assertion that Lowy is committed to open and unemotional debate on nuclear issues, and also that it is a non-partisan think tank rather than a lobby group. In a number of important respects it is neither open nor impartial, but I shall confine myself to comment on your 2011 record, namely, the so-called 'nuclear debates' you have hosted this year.

On 20 April, barely a month after Fukushima, you had your own intern, the former notably pro-nuclear advocate, John Carlson, joined by John Borshok (CEO of Paladin), Selena Ng from Areva, and Michael Angwin, CEO of the Australian Uranium Association, at a lunch-time 'debate'. All argued, some of them aggressively, that the nuclear industry was safe and that Fukushima was an aberration. No dissenting voice was heard from the podium. On 9 June you invited Andy Lloyd of Rio Tinto Mining and Warren Mundine to a 'debate', arguing in a similar fashion that nuclear power was the wave of the future.

Read More

And on 1 December, you had a panel discussion with Scott Sagan of Stanford, John Carlson (again) and Martine Letts arguing about whether we could have nuclear power without proliferation. The conclusion was, of course, that we could, and that exporting uranium to India was a good thing. Not to be outdone, Rory Medcalf managed to insult both the left-wing of the ALP and Bollywood when he asserted that Stephen Conroy's performance at the ALP national conference would have been a rich source for a Bollywood blockbuster.

The fact is that you can't have an objective debate while leaving out people who oppose nuclear power on various economic, health and environmental grounds, such as Dr Mark Diesendorf of UNSW, prominent radiation physicians Dr Tilman Ruff and Dr Peter Karamaskos, or Dr Sue Wareham of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW). By all means have the miners who see Fukushima as a roadblock to profits, but don't delude yourselves into thinking it is some kind of objective debate.

I would also take issue with your view that the future of nuclear power is best debated without emotion. Those who push your nuclear agenda frequently advocate an 'unemotional' or 'objective' debate on nuclear matters, the sub-text being that anti-nukes are perforce emotional and irrational, but we pro-nukes are not. But as the technology is Janus-faced, both immensely destructive and polluting as well as being a sophisticated way to boil water, it is entirely appropriate to inject some emotion without being irrational.


Regarding Richard Broinowski's reader riposte:

  • I never claimed we ran an 'unemotional' debate on uranium sales to India. That word never appears in my post.
  • I made no claims of impartiality, in fact I said explicitly that our scholars argue energetically for their own points of view.
  • John Carlson is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute, not an intern.
  • The CEO of Paladin Energy is John Borshoff, not Borshok.
  • Rory Medcalf did not 'assert that Stephen Conroy's performance at the ALP national conference would have been a rich source for a Bollywood blockbuster.' As you can see at 38 minutes in the video, he says that 'all the drama' of the Labor conference debate would make for a great Bollywood movie. There were 17 speeches in that debate; Medcalf made no reference to Conroy.
  • Medcalf made his joke at the 9 December Barry O'Farrell event, not the 1 December Scott Sagan event, as Broinowski implies.