Sydney: Australia has agreed to sell uranium to India for use in nuclear power plants even though New Delhi has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty on atomic weapons.
A condition of the deal would be that inspectors would be allowed to check the chain of supply of the nuclear fuel to ensure none was siphoned off into weapons programmes.
The national security committee of the federal cabinet reportedly took the decision on 14August but said that the same would not be announced until Prime Minister John Howard had advised his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh.
Australia has world’s largest uranium reserves
Australia has the world’s largest known reserves of uranium and the move would mark a major change in its policy of refusing to sell the nuclear fuel to countries that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Howard’s government, a strong supporter of US President George W Bush’s administration, had signalled a break with the policy after New Delhi finalized a landmark civilian nuclear deal with the US last month.
The deal would allow India to buy civilian nuclear technology while possessing nuclear weapons, making it an exception under the NPT.
Bush and Singh discussed the agreement on telephone on 14August. The White House said, as officials looked for ways to overcome stiff opposition in the US Congress to the pact, which Bush sees as a key foreign policy victory.
Australia, meanwhile, has been under pressure to sell uranium to India since agreeing last year to supply rival Asian giant China.
India and China already have nuclear weapons but Beijing has signed the NPT while New Delhi has not. Both countries say they want Australia’s uranium simply to fuel nuclear power stations to meet the soaring demand for electricity from their booming economies.
But the main Australian opposition party, which is tipped by opinion polls to oust Howard’s government in elections this year, has condemned any deal with India.
The decision to bypass the NTP would send the wrong message to the international community, Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd told reporters.
“It is a very bad development indeed when we have the possibility of the government of Australia stepping outside the non-proliferation treaty, saying it’s okay to sell uranium to a country which isn’t a signatory to the NTP.”
Nuclear tensions may escalate
The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, said the decision would contribute to nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan and the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.
“It will also promote the building of nuclear weapons and rockets by Pakistan and across the border we’re giving uranium to China and to Russia,” he said.
Pakistan, already a nuclear weapons power, has indicated that it could also press for Australian uranium if the deal with India goes ahead.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the fact that India already had nuclear weapons meant there was no risk uranium exports would contribute to nuclear proliferation.
“I think the reverse in fact is the case -- that the more you can get the India civil nuclear programme under UN inspections and under the UN protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency the better,” he told ABC television (Australia).