Should Australia Sell Uranium to Energy-Hungry India?

Here is a tale of two countries.

Both sit on the shores of the same ocean. They share a common language, a tradition of parliamentary democracy, the same colonial master, and even a passion for cricket.

One needs energy badly to fuel an accelerating economic boom, and the other has vast energy reserves. Yet, they are finding it hard to make a deal. India and Australia just can't seem to agree on uranium.

Urbanization and industrialization as well as population rates are growing apace in India as its economy rises alongside of that of China. Much of the sky over the subcontinent is already badly polluted and concerns over carbon emissions has triggered a search for alternatives to fossil fuels. India, like its rival Pakistan, has nuclear weapons. But it is focused more on building up its civilian nuclear industry as part of its rapid economic development. Some hold major concerns about how this will be done. Nonetheless, India it represents a massive market for uranium.

Australia's fabled Outback holds some of the biggest known uranium deposits on the planet. Australians, however, are wary of a nuke-powered future. A strong streak of environmentalism runs through a national psyche that is rooted in the great outdoors. Bad memories linger of reactor disasters, like the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union and the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in the United States. Present-day senior policymakers also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. During the 1950's the Australian deserts were used for British atomic weapons tests. Now there are new nuclear threats from terrorist and rogue states along with the vexing question of what to do with nuclear waste.

It is telling that even with its access to massive amounts of uranium, Australia has only one tiny research reactor near Sydney that produces nuclear medical products for things like cancer treatment, and even that is controversial. Australians have overwhelmingly resisted building power-generating reactors of their own. Every time a proposal is made, it is loudly howled down. No one wants a nuke plant anywhere near their backyard barbie.

Australia does mine and export uranium to some other nations. But for years the scope of this has been hobbled by the same distrust and uneasiness that many Aussies have to all things nuclear. Here's the bottom line: If you want Australian uranium, you must sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And, that's a problem for energy-hungry and nuclear-armed India. It won't.

In recent years the United States (Australia's closest ally) has softened its stance over India's refusal to sign the NPT. Washington, DC and New Delhi are now cooperating on civil nuclear development.

Perhaps Australia is about to do the same. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the Australian government "has secretly canvassed the possibility of uranium sales to India while publicly asserting that it cannot allow such exports as long as Delhi maintains a nuclear arsenal outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty."

The story is based on a Wikileaks-supplied US Embassy cable from last year. It suggests that a senior Australian Cabinet Minister at the center of the allegedly convert negotiations believed then that uranium could be shipped across the Indian Ocean within three to five years.

Let's see what happens in the wake of this revelation. But after reading that I can almost see a political mushroom cloud rising over the national capital, Canberra.

The nuclear debate usually melts down into an emotionally heated exchange. And, there is added toxic fallout this time for the current Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

It doesn't enjoy a majority in the Parliament and rules only with the support of a group of independents and the staunchly anti-nuclear Greens Party.

Should Australia export uranium to India? Please share your comments below.  

About the Author

Profile picture for user Geoff Spencer
Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.