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'Aus uranium sale to India would be illegal'

Australia will be in breach of an international anti-nuclear treaty if it goes ahead with plans to sell uranium to India, says the world's largest NGO working against proliferation.

world Updated: Aug 28, 2007 13:30 IST

Australia will be in breach of an international anti-nuclear treaty as well as specific undertakings given by its Foreign Minister if the government goes ahead with plans to sell uranium to India, the world's largest NGO working against nuclear proliferation has claimed.

Experts from the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International studies in California have seized on a statement made by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer ten years ago, in which he said Australia could only sell uranium to countries that had signed up to "full scope safeguards" on their nuclear plants, according to a report published in The Age.

According to the NGO, the proposed sales to India will be subject to a regime that falls well short of "full scope safeguards".

Under a draft US-India deal, without which Australian sales to India would not go ahead, only civil nuclear plants will be subject to inspection, while military installations will not.

Experts from CNS said Australia will be in breach of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Treaty, signed in the 1980s, and points to an answer Downer gave ten years ago to a parliamentary question on notice as proof.

The South Pacific treaty, which came in the wake of testing in the Pacific by France, toughened Australia's stance on the level of safeguards required for exporting uranium.

As Downer said in 1996: "Article 4 (a) of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty imposes a legal obligation not to provide nuclear material unless subject to the safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), that is full scope safeguards."

Critics say the absence of inspection requirements for non-civil reactors in India means all material from them would potentially be available for weapons, increasing the risk of proliferation of material such as plutonium used in weapons.

Monterey Institute's Washington director, Leonard Spector, said Australia was trying to find "wriggle-room" so it could proceed with the uranium sales. "The question of whether Australia can legally export uranium to India is no longer in doubt. It cannot."

A spokesman for Downer said the minister was confident there was no breach of South Pacific treaty obligations.

He said the proposed India deal had a number of safeguards including those within the US-India agreement, an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regime, a sign-off from the suppliers group and other safeguards in the supply contract.

Labor's spokesman on foreign affairs, Rob McClelland, said the more uranium is exported to a country sitting outside the non-proliferation regime, the greater the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands. "This is why Labor does not support the sale of uranium to a non signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," he said.

Greens spokeswoman on nuclear issues, Senator Christine Milne said: "Australia has become an international rogue, undermining multilateralism and treaties we have taken a lead in, whether it be on nuclear non-proliferation, the Pacific or on climate change."