Thursday 12 February 2015 21.08 EST
Australian uranium could end up in India’s nuclear weapons program thanks to concessions the Abbott government made in the deal between the two countries, two nuclear experts have warned.
A former Australian diplomat and chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ronald Walker, said the agreement to sell uranium to India “drastically changes longstanding policy” on safeguards and risked playing “fast and loose” with nuclear weapons.
It differed substantially from Australia’s 23 other uranium export deals and “would do damage to the non-proliferation regime”, Walker told a hearing of the parliamentary joint standing committee on treaties this week.
The prime minister signed an agreement to make Australia a “long-term, reliable supplier of uranium to India” in Delhi in September, but the terms of the deal are yet to be endorsed by the committee.
Walker’s concerns were echoed by John Carlson, the head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (Asno) between 1989 and 2010, who said proceeding with the agreement would be “inexcusable”.
A senior foreign affairs official defended the deal, arguing that India has unique circumstances and any departures from standard agreements “achieve the same policy outcomes but in different ways”.
Walker pointed to new wording on the question of whether India needed prior consent to enrich Australian uranium imports, which he said was “open to the interpretation that Australia has given its consent in advance to high-level enrichment unconditionally”.
In the treaty’s current form, “Australia does not claim and India does not acknowledge a right to withhold consent [to enrichment] and to withdraw consent if it is dissatisfied”, Walker said.
Both Walker and Carlson said they strongly supported exporting uranium to India to promote economic development and mitigate the use of fossil fuels. But the safeguards demanded of India were much less stringent than in similar deals Australia had struck with China, the US and Japan, Carlson said.
Along with Pakistan and North Korea, India was the only country still producing fissile material for nuclear weapons, he said, and was “engaged in a nuclear arms buildup, at a time when others are reducing their arsenals”.
He said Indian officials maintained they would not account for how Australian materials would be used, but would instead rely on IAEA rules “which contain a number of weaknesses”. These included allowing nuclear material to be moved from a facility with safeguards to one without them.
“Australia’s standard safeguards agreements, such as those with Russia and China, close off such options. The agreement with India does not,” Carlson said. “As a consequence Australian material could be used to produce unsafeguarded plutonium that ends up in India’s nuclear weapon program.”
Whether any additional tracking of Australian material would be required would be contained in a secret “administrative arrangement” currently being negotiated, which would never be scrutinised by the public or parliament, he said.
“How has the agreement turned out like this? No doubt the hurry to finish the text ahead of Mr Abbott’s visit to New Delhi didn’t help,” Carlson said.
Walker said any safety concessions by Australia would affect the broader non-proliferation system.
“What Australia concedes on safeguards, Canada will find it difficult to try to maintain. If Canada and Australia fold in their safeguards negotiation with India, India’s negotiating position against the Americans is improved.”
The current director-general of Asno, Robert Floyd, defended the treaty at a hearing on Thursday. He said India was not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and therefore stressed the need for its civil nuclear program to be self-sufficient.
“Consequently, the proposed agreement deals with some issues in new ways for Australia,” he said. “I would point to difference and that we are achieving the same policy outcomes but in different ways.”
He said neither Australia nor India viewed the terms of the treaty as allowing Delhi to enrich uranium unconditionally. Consent to enrich had merely been granted in advance under strict circumstances to guarantee stability for India’s nuclear fuel cycle, he said. “So it is then a change of timing but not a change as to whether consent is provided at all.”
He said India was subject to IAEA inspections at a greater “frequency and intensity” than countries that had signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
“This offers helpful additional assurance that Australian-obligated nuclear material would not be diverted from peaceful use.”