Cautious approval for Australia-India uranium trade

09 September 2015

An Australian governmental committee has recommended that uranium sales to India should only be allowed to proceed after its concerns about non-proliferation, nuclear regulation and safeguards have been addressed.

A bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement opening the door for Australia to export uranium to India was signed by the two countries' prime ministers in September 2014, and the proposed agreement was tabled before the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) in October. India represents a major potential market for Australia's uranium, but the issue is complicated by India's status as a nuclear-armed country that has not signed the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). JSCOT's inquiry has centred on potential risks arising from India's status.

India was almost completely excluded from international nuclear trade, including the uranium market, for over three decades until it signed a bilateral nuclear trade agreement with the USA in 2007. Its non-proliferation credentials were subsequently further secured through a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 2008 decision by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to exempt India from its rule of prohibiting trade with non-members of the NPT.

After lengthy deliberations lasting well beyond the initially allotted 20 sittings, JSCOT has made a series of recommendations that it says must be met before the treaty is put into force. Central to these are the tightening of concessions granted under India's existing bilateral agreements with the USA and its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. In particular it recommends full separation of India's civil and military facilities, verified by the IAEA, and setting up an independent nuclear regulator.

A bill seeking to establish a new independent and autonomous regulator was submitted to the Indian lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabah, in September 2011 but the process has not been completed. An IAEA-led peer review of India's nuclear regulatory framework earlier this year found a strong commitment to nuclear safety in the country but also recommended that the independence of its nuclear regulator be strengthened.

JSCOT's other recommendations include facilitating and encouraging India to become a party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiate fissile nuclear material cut-off and nuclear arms limitation treaties, as well as reviewing legal advice on various aspects of the proposed bilateral agreement. It also calls for conditions on routine nuclear inspections and nuclear decommissioning in India to be met.

In his foreword to the report, committee chairman Roy Wyatt said the agreement would bring significant benefits to both parties and could potentially double the size of Australia's "nuclear mining sector", but not without risks. "The question for the Committee is, then, can the risks be tolerated and ameliorated?" he asked. "The Committee took the time to fully consider the issues raised by this Agreement, and has reached a view that, provided the recommended steps are taken as part of the implementation of the Agreement, it can be ratified and the benefits realised", he said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News