John Howard has defended his Government’s controversial decision to overturn the ban on Australian uranium sales to India. Howard finalised the deal by phone with Indian PM Manmohan Singh on Thursday. India was previously off-limits to Australian uranium because it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and opponents of the move say it will lead to an increase in nuclear weapons. Howard says the deal is based on the condition the uranium is used for peaceful purpose and India signing safeguard agreements with Australia and the UN's nuclear watchdog. "It's a different approach and India is not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” he said. “But we believe that these arrangements will deliver effectively the same outcome."
But Opposition leader Kevin Rudd has pledged to overturn the deal if he wins the forthcoming federal election. Rudd said the safeguards were not sufficient and India's refusal to sign the NNPT should prevent the deal. "This is a significant breach from the consensus of Australian governments in the past. Now we have a government of Australia pulling the rug from under the NNPT," Rudd said. Labor said it was impossible to lock in a safeguards framework with New Delhi.
The Australian Greens labelled the Government’s decision a “seismic shift in foreign policy” with major implications for global security. Senator Christine Milne said the Government was only seeking safeguards to cover uranium from Australia and the plants that that uranium is sent to. This means the international community would have access to only select nuclear plants. According to Milne “this farce leaves a loophole you could fire a nuclear missile through”.
Australia has 40 percent of the world's known reserves of uranium and is a major exporter of the material. India has been lobbying Canberra for access to it after an India-US nuclear deal was agreed in principle two years ago. Existing Indian atomic facilities account for just three per cent of its total power output and the energy-hungry country is desperate to increase that figure.
The deal between the US and India was confirmed when Bush visited New Delhi in March 2006. India will get access to US civil nuclear technology in exchange for opening its nuclear facilities to inspection. On a visit to India, President Bush hailed the deal as historic but acknowledged it would be difficult to get US Congress to ratify it. "Congress has got to understand that it's in our economic interests that India has a civilian nuclear power industry to help take the pressure off the global demand for energy,” he said.
While Bush worried about US Congress, the ruling Indian Congress Party now has its own problems. Its Communist coalition partners have warned of "serious consequences" if New Delhi goes ahead with the landmark deal with the US. Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) General Secretary Prakash Karat told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not to take the next step in the deal. That step is the approval from the 45-nation Nuclear Supply Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) global watchdog. "The government should not take the next step with regards to negotiating on the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, said Karat”. “It is for the Congress leadership to decide on the matter which will have serious consequences for the government and the country.”
India has never been a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). The NNPT is an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. The Treaty’s three pillars are non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use. It established a safeguards system under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Opened for signature in 1968, the Treaty entered into force in 1970. 187 countries have joined the Treaty, including the five nuclear-weapon States. North Korea ratified the NNPT but later pulled out. Among the other handful of countries that are holding out against the treaty are known nuclear powers India and Pakistan and a likely one – Israel. Under the US deal, India has agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, placing the civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards. But its nuclear weapons facilities are not included in the agreement.
The Indian nuclear power programme began in 1964. It was the first in the third world and still the most comprehensive. In 1972 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi authorised Indian scientists to manufacture a nuclear device they had designed and prepare it for a test. The device was ironically dubbed the "Peaceful Nuclear Explosive" or PNE, but commonly called Smiling Buddha. However obsessive secrecy meant that very few records of any kind were kept either on the development process or the decision making involved in its development and testing. This has resulted in the events being documented almost entirely by oral reports many years later. The Smiling Buddha was detonated at the remote Pokhran nuclear test site in the north-western Thar Desert.
India did not carry out any further nuclear tests until Operation Shakti in 1998. Inspired by a new Nationalist government, India had telegraphed its intentions through the 1990s to test another device. While news of the tests was greeted with unanimous disapproval internationally, it was a source of great pride in India. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India to be a Nuclear Weapon State and also imposed a self-declared moratorium on further nuclear fission by India.