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.

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.