On the eve of the crucial fourth and probably decisive round of talks on an India-specific set of safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), India suffered a setback when the Australian government refused to sell it uranium. The new Labour government categorically told India there could be no sale of uranium to a country that was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Australia is a member of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), from which India would have to get a waiver if it seeks to operationalise the civil nuclear agreement with the United States and begin nuclear commerce.
While Tuesday’s denial of uranium does not mean Australia would automatically oppose India’s request for an unconditional NSG waiver, it does raise concerns. The NSG, which works on the basis of a consensus, would have to be approached if and when the IAEA safeguards agreement is done.
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said over the weekend that the India-specific safeguards document would have to adequately address the government’s concerns before they could approve it.
These include the creation of strategic fuel reserves for the life of each civilian nuclear power reactor and the guarantee of uninterrupted fuel supplies before India would submit its reactors to perpetual safeguards. Also, the strategic programme had to remain outside the purview of these safeguards, which means the IAEA would accept India’s ‘Separation Plan’. There was need to incorporate fallback measures to ensure there was no disruption in supplies to its civilian atomic power reactors.
At a meeting in Perth with the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy Shyam Saran on Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told him it would not be possible to sell uranium to a non NPT member. According to the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, Smith said, “the Australian Government came to the election, or went to the election with a strong policy commitment that we would not export uranium to nation states who are not members of the NPT.”
Australia’s previous administration headed by John Howard had said in August that it would negotiate the sale of uranium to India once the 123 Agreement with the United States became law.
A team of senior officials from the Department of Atomic Energy left for Vienna today for talks to finalise an agreed text for India-specific safeguards with the IAEA Secretariat’s technical team from Wednesday.
If they finalise a text agreement, the officials would have to submit the document for approval to the UPA-Left coordination mechanism before it can be sent to the IAEA’s Board of Governors to be finalized and initialed.