Should we sell uranium to India?

Mr Burns would sell uranium
to India... I think
There are few words in the English language which have such a guaranteed effect as the word ‘nuclear’.

There mention of the word is enough to send some people running to grab their placards and get ready to protest. Others hear it and instinctively launch a torrent of ‘wisdom’ as to why nuclear power is a good thing. A third group think of Mr Burns from The Simpsons.

In Australia, the word nuclear has predominantly negative connotations. We’re not a nuclear power (we have no bombs), we’ve signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT - which means we’ll NEVER have the bomb), we have no nuclear power stations, and all we ever hear about it on the news is when something goes bad (weapons testing, meltdowns, etc).

However, Australia possesses one of the most abundant supplies of uranium in the world. Uranium, of course, is one of the primary ingredients required to make both nuclear power plants (which operate on enriched uranium to generate the same power as around 300 coal stations) and nuclear bombs (where it’s used as to help break apart atoms, thereby creating explosions – known as fission).

Now, I’m no science major, and the above paragraph was sourced primarily from Wikipedia, but given Australia’s plentiful abundance of uranium, and our complete inability to use it, I’m pretty sure that leaves two options:

1: Leave it in the ground because it’s essentially worthless to us; or

2: Send it to countries that can use it and get lots of money for doing so.

Well, the Aussie Government this week chose option two – we’re now sending uranium to India which has both nuclear power plants AND nuclear weapons.

Yes, as you can see, this is a conundrum.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that India has not signed the NPT. For nuclear-capable countries, signing the NPT requires they: “agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology (for nuclear power plants) and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

In other words, India has no intention of reducing its stockpile of nuclear bombs. Therefore, it’s a calculated gamble.

India have said they’ll only use the uranium for their power plants, and the financial windfall will be around $1.5Bn for Australia – nothing to sneeze at.

And the more I think about this issue, the more it seems to be an ideological one.

Everyone opposed to the deal seems to have an ideological opposition to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. They see them both as evil; bombs that are literally waiting to go off.

On the other hand, others think nuclear power is safe. Despite Chernobyl and Fukishima, they see the threat of meltdown as minimal (dodgy Russian safety in the former and building the damn things on an unstable fault line in the latter).

So where do I stand? It seems on the surface to be a good idea but surely the risks are steep. India and Pakistan are hardly peaceful neighbours. The Pakistan/Afghanistan/ India region is seriously unstable. As such, the ‘it’s safe’ argument seems to be, in a word, garbage.

The economic argument, on the other hand, is a good one. With global markets on the brink of collapse and countries increasingly trying to shore up their assets and cash reserves, the potential $1.5Bn injection to our economy is pretty appealing.

As I said, it comes down to ideology. I’m on the record as a supporter of nuclear power which makes me an in principle supporter of this decision.

However, all it takes is for the Pakistani Government to collapse (which could happen any day now), a terrorist to attack India’s border (which could happen every day) which could lead to forceful reprisals from India (increasingly likely).

Add a potential war between Iran and Israel to the melting pot and, suddenly, providing uranium to nuclear powers doesn’t seem like such a good idea!

So by all means, get on your high horse about why it’s a good decision to sell uranium to India, but don’t be surprised if it blows up in your face.



Tim H said…
The deal makes much economic sense but gee it feels dodgy.
Steve Garner said…
There is another option, leasing. Something similar to Swap’N’Go gas bottles. You get your new uranium fuel rods when you bring back the old ones.
The system would work like this. Australia digs out the uranium ore. Instead of selling it, we process it and manufacture fuel rods. We then lease the rods to the user. They return the old fuel rods before getting new ones. We reprocess the old fuel rods and bury the waste in the Australian Desert. (We have some of the most stable geological areas in the world.)
The advantages are these: 1) make money, 2) closed cycle so no risk of nuclear proliferation, 3) develop high-tech manufacturing in Australia, 4) safe disposal of the waste products.