The Debate

Tracking India’s Imported Uranium

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The Debate

Tracking India’s Imported Uranium

Uranium suppliers should insist that India adhere to international standards for information sharing.

Tracking India’s Imported Uranium
Credit: Narendra Modi via

India is busily negotiating bilateral agreements with its nuclear trading partners to assure them that the uranium they supply to India will not end up in Indian nuclear weapons. This is a standard practice for states involved in nuclear cooperation, yet India has set out to weaken the information sharing provisions in its agreements with Canada, the United States, and soon Australia. All three supplier states support India’s bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but India’s behavior here hardly supports New Delhi’s contention that it is like-minded.

These negotiations follow from an Indian commitment to the United States, pursuant to a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation, to separate its civilian and military nuclear activities. In part on this basis, in 2008 the NSG lifted nuclear trade sanctions against India imposed in 1974 after India had used Canadian uranium, which had been provided to India on condition that it would be used only for peaceful use, to produce plutonium for a nuclear explosive.

Since 2008, foreign suppliers have been permitted to conclude contracts to supply uranium to India. Conditions for this trade are set down in bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements in which India has pledged to use all nuclear materials it obtains from outside suppliers for peaceful purposes. All of the countries which are selling uranium to India are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). That commits them to make sure their exports do not contribute to the manufacture of nuclear weapons in India.

India is not being singled out in this regard. The United States and the European Union, as well as Australia and Canada – in recent decades the world’s two leading uranium producers and exporters – have concluded so-called administrative arrangements with scores of foreign countries that permit supplier states to track the whereabouts of all the uranium they export. Although there is significant diversity in the agreements amongst nuclear trading states about how to share information, they constitute a standard evolved over time to ensure that such trade does not violate international rules.

In the nonproliferation interest, uranium exporters’ nuclear cooperation agreements are designed to ensure that exported uranium is not enriched to weapons-grade, is not re-transferred to third parties, and is not reprocessed to separate plutonium without consent. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which may apply to foreign-sourced uranium in India’s civil nuclear program, do not consider the origin of the uranium subject to safeguards. That’s important because some producers whose uranium market shares are on the rise, such as Kazakhstan and some African states, do not scrupulously track the uranium they export. Their uranium safeguards policies put commercial pressure on other supplier states to follow suit in India.

The goal of accounting is to make sure that uranium exported under a peaceful-use pledge is not used for nuclear weapons and to identify nuclear material that is subject to any other obligations agreed with a supplier state. A supplier state can account for its uranium as it moves through India’s fuel cycle, first by identifying (“flagging”) the uranium carrying its obligations, and then by accounting for it at each stage in the fuel cycle, including conversion, fuel fabrication, irradiation, and reprocessing. The accounting is made possible by provision of data on fuel burnup rates, process losses, and other parameters concerning what physically and chemically happens to the uranium as it is used. This data could be provided by India to its foreign uranium suppliers, but India so far has not agreed to provide all the data that was requested by Canada and the U.S. and it may balk at cooperating with Australia, Japan, and other countries.

Canada may try to compensate for lack of Indian cooperation by using some commercial operations data on Canadian-design reactors. The U.S. may fall back on data from fabrication in the U.S. of fuel using U.S.-obligated uranium destined for Indian reactors. Both sets of data may permit some level of assurance that India is using the uranium in peaceful applications and fulfilling its bilateral obligations, but in general fall short of standard practices of information provision.

Next week Australian lawmakers will debate Canberra’s ongoing uranium safeguards discussions with India. They should take note that, unless perhaps all Australian uranium destined for India were to be processed and fabricated into fuel before being exported to India, the U.S. approach would not cover all Australian uranium destined for India. Under its agreement with India, Australia may supply India with bulk uranium as well as fabricated nuclear fuel. Indian cooperation with Australia therefore seems essential to meet the tracking requirements of Australian safeguards policy and the best solution would be for India to provide the information which Australia needs. Again, it is worth reiterating that what is being requested of India is standard practice; New Delhi is not being asked to uphold a higher standard.

Parliamentarians should consider that what Australia requires in its arrangement with India may have signal impact this May when the NPT’s 189 parties review the treaty. They might also consider that the international reputation of Australia’s uranium industry has increasingly depended upon transparent implementation of national policies, including on nonproliferation.

As India’s weight in the world grows, its nuclear industry is forming partnerships with the world’s leading suppliers of power reactors and nuclear fuel. For good reasons, including global warming, India’s foreign partners support this development, and nuclear companies worldwide are eager to seize new business opportunities in selling equipment and uranium to India.

But India and uranium suppliers must know that the separation of military and peaceful-use nuclear activities is a cornerstone of the world’s nuclear governance system. States that dismiss as inconvenient controls designed to verify that separation signal instead that it matters little if their commerce might contribute to production of nuclear weapons. Australia, Canada, and the United States have shown leadership in uranium governance and they should continue to do so – including in the NSG which under the 2008 India exception decision required that all its uranium suppliers account for their exports to India.

Lack of full Indian cooperation with foreign uranium suppliers will damage New Delhi’s case for membership in multilateral trade control bodies like the NSG it keenly wants to join. If India is seeking to weaken standard practices in its bilateral negotiations, what message does that send about its likely behavior were it to be invited to join multilateral regimes? If uranium supplier states are deterred from accounting for their uranium in India, that would inform all NPT parties that have pledged to renounce nuclear weapons that it doesn’t matter whether nuclear goods, sold on condition that they will be used peacefully, might be used to make deadly arms.

Mark Hibbs is a research scholar in the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, D.C.