Australia's ruling Labor Party has voted to approve prime minister Julia Gillard's proposal to end the country's ban on uranium exports to India. However, it may be some years before the first sale materializes.
On the third and final day of the Australian Labor Party's (ALP's) national conference in Sydney yesterday, delegates voted 206 to 185 in favour of dropping the ban.
Shortly after taking power in November 2007, Australia's current Labor-led coalition government announced that the country will not sell uranium to India unless it signs the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), reversing a decision in principle by the previous Liberal-National (conservative) coalition government. That government, led by John Howard, agreed in August 2007 to export uranium to India provided strict conditions were met. These included: a safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); India signing an Additional Protocol equivalent; a consensus by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the conclusion of the US-India nuclear trade deal; and, satisfactory progress by India in placing its declared civil nuclear sites under IAEA safeguards. A bilateral safeguards agreement is also required between Australia and any uranium customer country.
However, last month, Gillard called for the issue to be debated at the conference, saying that an end to the ban would be beneficial to Australia's economy and jobs. At that time, she underlined the anomaly of not selling uranium to India while doing so to China, Japan and the USA. However, Gillard said, "We must, of course, expect of India the same standards we do of all countries for uranium export - strict adherence to International Atomic Energy Agency arrangements and strong bilateral undertakings and transparency measures that will provide assurances our uranium will be used only for peaceful purposes." Domestically, the changed ALP policy puts the party at odds with its Greens coalition partner.
On being informed of the result of the vote to drop the ban, India's minister of external affairs, S M Krishna, commented, "Bilateral cooperation in the energy sector is one of the important facets of our multifaceted ties with Australia. We welcome this initiative."
The outcome of the vote was also welcomed by the Australian Uranium Association (AUA). The association's CEO, Michael Angwin, said: "This decision is one taken principally on grounds to do with Australia’s bilateral relations. It is a sign of the increasing maturity of the national conversation about uranium mining and exports." He added, "We believe the ALP’s decision is one guided by practical considerations in the national interest and that is a welcome advance beyond the automatic responses of the past."
Angwin called on the government to "develop legal and treaty arrangements with India that are much like those we have with other nations to whom we sell uranium and who are signatories to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty." However, he noted that "this may take a number of years."
According to the AUA, Australia could expect to sell some 2500 tonnes of uranium annually to India by 2030, generating export sales of some A$300 million ($309 million). However, Angwin warned that such sales of this value are not guaranteed. "India already has access to uranium from countries who are competitors of ours, such as Kazakhstan. Australia will have to work hard to ensure we can compete with countries that already have uranium trading relationships with India."
Angwin also noted that the change in Australia's policy may also encourage Indian investors to seek direct investment and uranium off-take agreements in new Australian uranium projects. "Chinese, Japanese and Russian companies are seeking out these opportunities and we would expect Indian companies will do the same," he said.
Steve Kidd, deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association, said that Australia's move to end its ban on Indian uranium exports, together with the lifting of civilian nuclear trade restrictions by other countries, "will help India take its place as a significant trading partner within the international nuclear community."
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News