The Australian parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) will soon review the proposed treaty between Australia and India on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, signed by Prime Ministers Abbott and Modi in New Delhi on 5 September 2014.

A 1984 cartoon on Australia's uranium debate. (Courtesy of the Hawke Library. )

Ostensibly about selling uranium to India, the key intent of the treaty is to remove Australia's implied slight of not according India the same status as a nuclear cooperation partner that we have already accorded the five nuclear weapon states recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The deal will advance our security links with India, but reveals that our arms control and counter-proliferation policies are outdated.

Given the overwhelming strategic and economic desirability of engaging India more closely, Australia's major political parties will not want this treaty to become a speed bump in relations. That is reflected in JSCOT's scheduling: it has put aside two hours to hear from four non-government witnesses on 9 February, and 45 minutes to hear government witnesses on 11 February. 

This should not be a surprise. Public interest in nuclear issues in Australia has all but evaporated. Not even the tragedy of Fukushima has re-energised the debate.

One reason is the careful management of nuclear issues by successive Australian governments. The policies of the Fraser and Hawke governments were designed to facilitate uranium sales in a world facing the threat of regional and global nuclear proliferation, against the backdrop of ongoing conflict between the Soviet Union and the West and unhelpfully aggravated by French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The successful formula adopted by the Fraser Government and incorporated into ALP policy at its 1985 conference comprised two key elements:

  1. Careful selection of nuclear cooperation partners and a requirement for bilateral legal arrangements for the application of safeguards to ensure exclusively peaceful use of our uranium.
  2. Activism on international nuclear issues, exemplified by leadership on the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ), the Canberra Commission Report of 1996 and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament report of 2009.

This approach served Australia well, but the context of that policy framework has changed markedly:

  • Current proliferation challenges have been narrowed to just two highly problematic cases: the DPRK and Iran.
  • The effectiveness of international safeguards administered by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased greatly since the scares of Iraq and the DPRK in the early nineties.
  • The end of the Cold War.
  • The end of nuclear testing.
  • The slowing of global demand for nuclear energy, including a decline in US, Europe and Japan, and contrary to expectations thirty years ago, no uptake as yet among our ASEAN neighbours.

Importantly, counter-proliferation efforts over the last three decades were closely coordinated among major Western uranium producers to prevent undercutting in the competition for markets. The India case suggests this coordination has lapsed. In the past this would have been cause for alarm and high level political intervention in advance of negotiations. Apparently that's not the case this time.

The second pillar of Australian policy, promotion of nuclear disarmament, has been notably less successful than the first. The nuclear test ban treaty has not entered into force, and 20 years of discussion on a treaty to end the production of materials for use in nuclear weapons has led nowhere. The established nuclear powers have reduced their arsenals, but India and Pakistan are stepping up production.

This all points to the need to update our approach. The treaty with India could have been the trigger.

For example, we could have considered whether our cumbersome safeguards requirements have been overtaken by advances in security offered by strengthened international safeguards. And we could have had a discussion, including with India, on how to re-boot the international disarmament machinery.

But there is little public interest and hence no political pressure for such a review, not even when the continued relevance of our policies and international legal commitments are challenged as they are now. The submissions to JSCOT address the issues clearly, but the fact that there were only 13 submissions, and JSCOT's assumption that the issue warrants less than three hours public discussion, says it all.

However, we need a policy discussion that builds on the excellent analyses of the safeguards and legal issues raised in the submissions to JSCOT, especially those of the former head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, John Carlson, and the ANU arms control expert Kalman Robertson.

A starting point would be for JSCOT to understand how Australian agencies came to the conclusion that there is no risk that providing uranium to India will enhance India's nuclear weapons arsenal. The National Interest Statement does not make that case.

JSCOT could also seek clarification that the public and confidential provisions of the treaty are or will be consistent with those negotiated by our major partners in the uranium trade. The Government presumably has legal advice that the treaty is compatible with existing obligations. But can it assure industry that challenges will not arise?

A final point: the National Interest Statement notes that the negotiation of the treaty 'has been accompanied by development of a bilateral dialogue on related international issues' — that is, the global non-proliferation and disarmament framework. It is wrong to imply that we have not previously engaged India on these issues, but that the engagement has been sporadic and unproductive. So the questions for JSCOT are numerous: just what priority will be given to this dialogue? What resources will be devoted to it? At what level will it be conducted? When is the next round scheduled? How will outcomes be reported?