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Aussie uranium for India

by Ramesh Thakur

While in India, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott was expected to sign a deal to sell Australian uranium that will be the single most significant advance in bilateral relations in decades. The journey to get to this point has been tortuous and the controversy is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

The main impetus for the change in Australia’s policy came from geopolitical changes (the re-emergence of China and India as major players and the relative decline of the United States) and the increased importance of the bilateral relationship with India rather than commercial calculations.

Nuclear energy is used by about 30 countries to generate 11 percent of the world’s electricity, with almost zero greenhouse gas emissions. Currently there are 437 operating reactors and around 70 under construction.

Nuclear energy is tipped to grow between 23 and 100 percent by 2030 (the long-term impact of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster remains impossible to predict with certainty). Most of the growth in nuclear energy will be in Asia (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam).

The world’s current total requirement for uranium is 66,000 tons (all figures are rounded). The biggest users are the U.S. (19,000 tons) and France (10,000 tons). India’s uranium requirement is 1,000 tons, compared to 6,000 for China and 5,500 for Russia.

In Asia, the other big uranium consumers are South Korea (5,000 tons) where nuclear energy accounts for 28 percent of electricity generation, and Japan (2,000 tons in 2014) where nuclear energy produced 29 percent of electricity before the Fukushima accident; it has fallen to below 2 percent.

Australia has 31 percent of the world’s uranium reserves, but its share of the global uranium market is only 12 percent. The policy framework for the export of Australian uranium was set in the 1970s.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obliges Australia to facilitate the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, but uranium sales would be restricted to countries that could satisfy Canberra that it would not be diverted to noncivilian purposes. For this, recipients had to be in good nonproliferation standing and conclude a bilateral safeguards agreement to account for the use of Australian uranium and nuclear material produced from it.

Uranium processed at Australian mines must go through three more processes (conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication) before it can be used in a nuclear reactor. The high-energy density of uranium fuel means that a 1,000 MWe nuclear reactor requires 27 tons of fresh fuel each year, compared to a coal power station that requires more than 2.5 million tons of coal to produce equivalent electricity.

There are thus clear environmental benefits of adding nuclear fuel to the portfolio of energy grids. Uranium enriched to between 3 and 4 percent for civilian uses cannot be used in a nuclear weapon, which requires enrichment to 80 to 90 percent. Thus it is not too difficult to put in place safeguard measures against diversion for noncivilian uses.

The Howard government (1996-2007) announced in-principle willingness to sell uranium to China, Russia and India. The Labor government (2007-13) insisted that recipients had to be party to the NPT. Accordingly, negotiations were successfully concluded with China in 2008 and Russia in 2010 as both were NPT states parties, but not with India.

Following the 2008 India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation deal, the Rudd government joined Washington in the India-specific waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But this left it with an illogical and untenable policy of supporting open access to global nuclear trade for India but not selling it Australian uranium.

The Bush administration argued there were significant nonproliferation benefits of bringing India inside the tent of safeguarded nuclear commerce and export controls, putting most of its nuclear reactors under international safeguards was better than having none under such controls, and India’s nuclear weapons program would continue regardless of international civil cooperation.

India also augmented its “impeccable nonproliferation record” with strengthened domestic and export controls, a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and support for total abolition through a nuclear weapons convention.

Australia’s recalcitrance became a major hindrance to the broader bilateral relationship. The oddity of selling uranium to China and Russia was also questioned. As a responsible uranium exporter, Australia has to satisfy itself about the safety record and risks of reactors in the recipient countries; the security of materials and facilities against theft, leakage and raids; the adequacy of safeguards against diversion to noncivilian uses, such as making nuclear weapons; and proliferation risks. Nor are the issues of safe nuclear waste disposal insignificant. Like China and Russia, India operates nuclear reactors for both peaceful purposes and military uses.

The civilian-but-not-military-use reactors are subject to international safeguards under International Atomic Energy Agency oversight.

In the past, the world had greater worries about the security of nuclear materials and facilities in Russia — the problem of “loose nukes” — than in India. And India’s record of proliferation to third countries is superior to China’s past complicity in the proliferation of materials and designs to North Korea and Pakistan (remember A.Q. Khan?).

Asia will provide most of the market growth opportunity for uranium in the foreseeable future. Australia has the advantages of proximity to this growing market. The bilateral agreements with China and India means that Australia is already covering one-third of the world’s population and has been given access to the two big growth-potential markets.

The world price of uranium has been depressed for some time, and the finalisation of the India deal could give it the necessary boost to incentivize uranium exploration and production.

The economic benefits could potentially be optimized even more if Australia moved into some of the value-added phases in the global supply chain.

Nonetheless, against the larger considerations of bilateral relations with a democratic India across the Indian Ocean at a time when assertive Chinese visibility and activity is growing in the East and South China Seas, the anticipated economic gains from uranium sales are modest.

Compared to the A$63 billion iron ore export industry, for example, Australia’s uranium exports are worth only $1 billion and the most optimistic projections would see the rise restricted to under $2 billion. While the fear of losing market share in the long run to competitors might be a relevant commercial consideration, the changed policy is more persuasively attributable to adjustments to changed geopolitical circumstances and efforts to consolidate and deepen bilateral relations with one of the key emerging powers of this century.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University.

  • Limpkisar

    Where is nuclear non proliferation regime? In past we have seen similar nuclear agreement between India and Canada that was entirely for civilian purposes but later India transferred to weapons developments.

    • parijat chauhan

      I just hope you had pakistan as your neighbour

  • Sam Gross

    Nuclear states have objected All the suppliers have objected to Sections 17(b) and 46 of the Indian Civil nuclear liability law, which they say run counter to the International Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC). More likely under these sections, today Japan and India failed to conclude a civil nuclear deal failed to conclude a civil nuclear deal. Australia must keep in mind the lack of security and safety standards in Indian nuclear plants as supplying Uranium can lead to nuclear disaster.

  • Rajiv Sharma

    This interwoven nuclear relationship increases the likelihood of a destabilising nuclear arms race across the Asia Pacific region. Australian
    government seems determined to pave the way for unpredictable and unjustified security situation into which Australia is selling uranium to abstainer (India) undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the global disarmament policies.

    • parijat chauhan

      US, russia, china, france, england are ready to go nuke free ? if yes, india has no problem with NPT and disarmament

  • My Take

    This deal if signed will harm the nuclear Non-Proliferation norms almost as deep as the mines from which the mineral is extracted.

    This deal in turn as it is currently structured, would allow India to divert more of its own uranium resources to significantly expand production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

    No doubt Australia has an impressive contribution to global nuclear dialogue but despite all these actions this Uranium sale to India by Gillard governments may actually undermine the NPT goals and would create a security situation in the region with unsettling disputes in the neighbours.

    • parijat chauhan

      Do you think without Australian uranium India will stop making nukes ?
      Nukes will continue with or without Australian uranium. Can you name a country which was effectively stopped from making nukes buy banning supply of uranium ?

  • My Take

    Nuclear security is too important to overlook, and Australia’s proposals for strengthening it are worthwhile. However, apprehension over uranium sales to India could threaten the country’s leadership, reducing the credibility and clarity of its otherwise strong voice.

  • Eshel Dapez

    Understandably, it means that
    Australia is enhancing bilateral relationship with India due to its emergence
    of significant economical market on Asian floor. But at what cost; selling
    Australian uranium to India. The uranium export to India does not only dwell on
    ties between the two, in fact it can cover nuclear proliferation prospects. We can
    pin point when uranium turns from civilian to weapons enrichment levels. But how
    can we categorize the state’s behavior to strictly stick with civilian peaceful
    purposes. There is much more to play covert behavior for nuclear and it happens
    in this respective case too. Chances are much higher in this regards because of
    the unconditional export of uranium from Australia to India which is non-NPT
    too.

  • Andy Sandy

    The Australian Greens Party warned partnering with India’s “scandal-prone” nuclear industry is a mistake. At the same time the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said any deal posed an unacceptable risk of environmental disaster. The reality is that the agenda of nuclear deal with India is being driven by uranium sales and the prospect of continued Australian economic growth, without consideration of political or environmental consequences.