Australian Uranium in India

The deal with Australia to sell uranium to India is welcome. Those worried about proliferation have nothing to fear.

In September 2008, Australia, as part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, granted India a waiver to engage in international nuclear commerce without having to accept full scope safeguards on its nuclear program. However, despite its acquiescence to the NSG consensus decision, Australia held back, as an individual nation, from entering into a nuclear cooperation agreement with India. This changed last week when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she would make the necessary changes to enable Australia to sell uranium to India.

As India looks to expand its nuclear power program through the addition of new nuclear reactors –both imported and indigenously built ones – this is obviously a welcome decision. In fact, for the last several years the country has suffered from a shortage of fuel for its operating power plants. Since early last decade, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, (NPCIL), the country’s only nuclear plant operator, had voiced concerns that the biggest constraint on its program is the availability of fuel. Although India does have some uranium reserves in the southern and northeastern parts of the country, these are of low grade to the extent that they would typically be discarded in Australia or Canada as tailings. The uranium mines in the northeast, meanwhile, have been mired in public protests and litigation, and hence not really functional. This lack of uranium was therefore one of the reasons for New Delhi engaging with the United States in a nuclear cooperation agreement. On conclusion of the many steps of this historic and unprecedented agreement, the first benefits were reaped in the form of shipments of uranium fuel acquired from France and Russia.

As the second largest producer of uranium, Australia is certainly an important piece in the nuclear power jigsaw. At the same time, with an ambitious nuclear power program aiming to add no less than 35,000 MWe to present nuclear capacity by 2035, India is also an important player in the global nuclear industry. It was therefore only a matter of time before the two discovered and accepted each other.

But the relationship has, perhaps not surprisingly, come in for criticism from two quarters.

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The non-proliferation lobby, which was never happy with the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, is critical of the Australian decision because it fears the move legitimizes India’s nuclear status. After all, the uranium would be supplied to India even as it runs an unsafeguarded nuclear weapons program, something that is anathema to a group whose world view can accommodate only two categories of states – the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states as defined by the Non-proliferation Treaty. They refuse to accept the new reality of a state that has nuclear weapons, but which can’t be accommodated in the present dispensation of the NPT.

More importantly, India has not only a genuinely large electricity requirement as its economy and population grows, but also a genuinely blemish free proliferation record that makes it a legitimate candidate for accommodation into the world of international nuclear commerce. By making this “special” concession for India, non-proliferation doesn’t suffer a tear, but rather is reinforced. In fact, the same lobby should use the example of India to push other non-NPT countries into showcasing the same responsible behavior over a given period to qualify for similar accommodation.

Pakistan is the second entity that has expressed dismay at the Australian decision, warning that it will lead to a nuclear arms race. It claims that the import of uranium will allow India to use its own indigenous uranium for nuclear weapons production. However, it must be remembered that it takes at least two to run a race, and India isn’t interested in rushing to acquire a larger nuclear warhead stockpile. The country has instead crafted a nuclear doctrine that is premised on the understanding that nuclear deterrence is best imposed by holding out the threat of unacceptable damage. Therefore, the requirement for nuclear armament is limited to the minimum that would be sufficient to cause unacceptable damage. Stockpiling beyond that isn’t only foolish, but also dangerous since it adds to the demands on ensuring safety and security. Runaway accumulation of stockpiles is undertaken by countries that assume the feasibility of nuclear war fighting. The two super powers during the Cold War engaged in such thinking, and we saw them reach nuclear highs of several tens of thousands of nuclear weapons until Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev reached the sobering conclusion that a nuclear war can’t be won anyone.

At the end of the day, India has no intention of engaging in nuclear war fighting. Its nuclear weapons are meant purely for deterrence, and it doesn’t take much to deter a “rational” nuclear actor. The fear, however, is increasingly about the rationality of Pakistan.  With this in mind, the non-proliferation lobby would do a far greater service to the cause of non-proliferation and international nuclear security if it could counsel Pakistan on its expanding nuclear arsenal, including the development of weapon systems that would complicate command and control, than worrying about safeguarding uranium to be exported from Australia to fuel Indian nuclear power reactors.