By Neena Bhandari, IANS
Sydney : Australia may begin selling uranium to India if a submission by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer is approved by the federal cabinet, a move that comes soon after India and the US finalised details of their nuclear pact.
The thorn so far has been the fact that India has not been a signatory to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But with India's economic rise spearheading energy demand, Australia seems to be set to capitalise on it.
The Australian newspaper quoted government sources as saying that the cabinet's National Security Committee would shortly consider Downer's submission, which has the backing of Prime Minister John Howard.
"The prime minister is reported to have told colleagues that the public cannot understand why Australia exports uranium to China but refuses to export it to India," the newspaper said.
Australia plans to negotiate a nuclear safeguards agreement with India, governing the uses for Australian uranium only for its peaceful nuclear energy programme.
India has had an impeccable record of never having proliferated nuclear technology unlike some of its neighbours. The burgeoning economy is highly reliant on energy and India needs sustained supplies of uranium.
Greg Sheridan, one of the most influential foreign affairs commentators here, listed in The Australian five reasons why Australia should go ahead and sell uranium to India – it would be good for nuclear non-proliferation; the fundamental coming together of India and the US has profound implications for Australia; the global warming considerations are substantial; the bilateral Australia-India relationship would benefit enormously from trade in uranium; economic returns to Australia, especially South Australia, could be very significant.
In the 1990s, India was seen as a problem by Australia and the West, especially in non-proliferation, but today countries are looking "unashamedly in an India-centric way", added Rory Medcalf of Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent think tank based here.
This would not be the first time that Australia would be selling uranium to a country that has not signed the NPT. Australia exported uranium to France through the 1980s – France joined the NPT in 1992.
DPA quoted the prime minister as saying earlier this year: "Certainly our policy to date has been to prohibit sales to countries which are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"But as time goes by, if India were to meet safeguard obligations, some Australians would see it as anomalous that we would sell uranium to China but not India."
Australia has 40 percent of the world's known uranium reserves and is the top exporter of the metal used to fuel reactors.
The issue is divisive in Australia because the opposition Labour Party argues that selling uranium to India would undermine the NPT. Labour is well ahead in opinion polls and is seen as the likely victor in general elections expected in November.
China, which is an NPT signatory, is suspected by some of passing on nuclear secrets. In April 2006, China signed a contract to import uranium from Australia.
Howard visited India in March 2006 and was pressed by Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh to allow sales of uranium. He agreed to send a delegation to India and the US to study the agreement between Washington and Delhi to share nuclear-power technology.