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Some Spice Added to the Uranium Export Debate

By Ian Lowe

Do Australian uranium exports to India set a precedent for exports to other non-signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

There has been hot debate about the proposal by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to approve the sale of uranium to India. The previous government position has been to refuse to supply countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus excluding India as a non-signatory.

On the one hand, India can rightly say that it has not transferred nuclear weapons technology to any other state. On the other hand, India used a “peaceful” nuclear reactor and heavy water supplied for peaceful purposes to build its own nuclear weapons, triggering a retaliatory move from Pakistan. This has opened up the dangerous prospect of their traditional enmity turning into nuclear war.

Even if it is possible to quarantine Australian uranium and ensure it is only ever used in power reactors, that probably allows the use of alternative supplies in the weapons program. So it was hardly surprising that some of the PM’s party colleagues were unhappy with the announcement.

Ever since former Labor PM Bob Hawke introduced the “three mines policy”, which allowed him to support the biggest uranium mine in the world while still having a general policy of opposition to the mining and export of uranium, there has been an uneasy tension within the ALP on this issue.

On one side of the conflict are those, mainly on the left of the Party, who support the recommendations of the 1976 Fox Report, which warned that exporting uranium adds to the problem of radio­active waste and risks the proliferation of weapons.

On the other side are those, mainly on the right, who are attracted by the prospect of jobs and export income from expanding the industry. In those terms the responsible Minister, Martin Ferguson, appears to be a vigorous promoter of the right-wing view that no old-fashioned principles should stand in the way of a commercial deal.

The problem for the government is to decide where to draw the line. If they are happy selling uranium to both China and Taiwan, are they equally happy supplying both India and Pakistan, or both South Korea and North Korea? Is there any point of differentiation now between the ALP and the Coalition on the issue, or are they both equally happy to sell uranium to anyone who can afford it?

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As with the package of measures to slow Australia’s contribution to global climate change, the mining tax appears to have benefited from the influence of the Independents needed by the government to have a majority in Parliament. In particular Tony Windsor, the member for New England, has been a thoughtful and courageous voice, resisting quite a bit of pressure from conservative elements in his electorate. In the case of the mining tax, he has succeeded in obtaining government support for $150 million to set up an independent scientific body that will provide advice on the impact of proposals on groundwater.

That is a major contribution to an informed debate about the rush to approve coal seam gas projects. In both NSW and Queensland, governments eager for development have allowed expansion without proper consideration of the possible impacts of these developments on groundwater and, in some cases, productive agricultural land.

There will probably be cases where the scientific advice allows projects to go ahead, but there will certainly be others where the responsible approach is to protect the long-term assets of land and water. It should be routine practice, now that we are aware of the range of impacts that development can have on complex natural systems, to adopt a measured approach that takes the science into account.

The depressing conclusion is that this rational approach has only been made possible because the major parties temporarily don’t have control of the national parliament.

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I wrote this column in Armidale, the heart of Tony Windsor’s electorate, where 270 Australian cricketers plus 50 overseas participants assembled for the national over-60s cricket carnival. It is an amazing commentary on the improvement in men’s health that enough are still sufficiently capable and enthusiastic to justify such an event. But we were amused to see a local company advising that its treatment for sleep apnoea would protect users against “sleep depravity”!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.