Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Australia’s Nuclear Evolution: CNS Investigates the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and Australia’s Current Stance Towards Uranium Sales to India

Posted by K.E. White on August 30, 2007

Summary: Sizes up a short report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Is Australia violating a treaty—the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone—if it goes ahead with plans to sell India uranium? CNS probes this question, suggesting there is reason to think so. Proliferation Press looks into the question, and finds that it seems Australia is 1) not violating the treaty and 2) would actually go against the spirit of the treaty by refusing to approve the US-India nuclear deal at the upcoming meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But all this analysis merely displays how much the treaty regime depends on the policies of the announced nuclear powers.

The Center of Nonproliferation Studies is running this interesting report studying whether or not Australia would violate international law if it goes through with plans to sell uranium to India.

The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) reads, in part:

Each Party undertakes:

(a) not to provide source or special fissionable material, or equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material for peaceful purposes to:

(i) any non-nuclear-weapon State unless subject to the safeguards required by Article III.1 of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], or

(ii) any nuclear-weapon State unless subject to applicable safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Any such provisions shall be in accordance with strict non-proliferation measures to provide assurance of exclusively peaceful non-explosive use;

(b) to support the continued effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system based on the NPT and the IAEA safeguards system.

Now while the CNS report shows well that Australian officials saw, in the past, the SPNFZ as barring uranium sales to India, the report does not take a definitive stance:

If Australia is legally barred from nuclear trade with India in light of the statements of the Foreign Affairs Department, for Australia to vote in favor of ending the Nuclear Suppliers Group embargo would be to authorize others to do what it cannot under the South Pacific treaty. This might be seen as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone pact.

Yes, if Australia is “legally barred” from a certain act and then does it—it broke the treaty.

But is Australia breaking the treaty? Australia is obliged “not to provide source of special fissionable material” unless one of two conditions are met. The first condition requires NPT safeguards to be met. This would seem impossible since India is not even a member of the NPT.

But the second condition states:

“any nuclear-weapon State unless subject to applicable safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

The IAEA endorsed the US-India nuclear deal, or at least their head ELBaradei:

“This agreement is an important step towards satisfying India´s growing need for energy, including nuclear technology and fuel, as an engine for development. It would also bring India closer as an important partner in the non-proliferation regime,” he said. “It would be a milestone, timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the non-proliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety.”

“The agreement would assure India of reliable access to nuclear technology and nuclear fuel. It would also be a step forward towards universalisation of the international safeguards regime,” Dr. ElBaradei said. “This agreement would serve the interests of both India and the international community.”

As such the IAEA governing board will have to improve inspections of India’s nuclear sites. Now while this might not be finalized when Australia votes on the US-India nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), any ‘yes’ vote at the NSG will be premised on successfully completed IAEA negotiations.

Rediff looks into this “long and hazardous” process of gaining dual approval from the NSG and IAEA:

The negotiations on an India-specific safeguards agreement with the IAEA Governing Board and talks with members of the NSG to seek an exception for India are likely to be long and hazardous. The United States has considerable influence in the IAEA Board and, as the founder of the NSG it has the necessary clout to determine the outcome of the informal group. But, over the years, positions of individual countries have crystallized in these bodies and they are likely to give us a hard time despite the US being our ‘sherpa’ on the climb.

It would seem India 1) getting the blessing of the IAEA chief and 2) undergoing IAEA approval could be read as being “subject to applicable safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

And what is the intent of these two SPNFZ exceptions? “[T]o support the continued effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system based on the NPT and the IAEA safeguards system.”

It would seem approving a deal that America (a leading, recognized nuclear power under the NPT) is vying for meets that intent.

Now could a new American president change this calculus? Yes. The point here, though, is that it seems any hard prohibition against Australia selling uranium to India appears to stand on weak foundations.

The CNS report, while not taking a firm stand but simply highlighting past views of Australian officials, suggests Australia has reason to vote against the US-India nuclear during the NSG meeting. But it seems there is more reason—given current IAEA approval, apparent backing from Russia and China, and ongoing IAEA deliberations—that Australia voting against the US-India nuclear deal might do more harm to nonproliferation aims.

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