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© Neena Bhandari, Business Standard, India

The ruling Australian Labor Party’s national conference on Sunday voted by a very narrow margin to overturn its long-standing policy banning uranium sales to India.

Till now, party policy dictated that uranium could only be sold to countries signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has not. Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged delegates to support the motion, emphasising it would boost trade and enhance the bilateral relationship.

The PM’s motion was finally endorsed by a 206-185 split, revealing deep dissensions even among ministers in the Gillard government. So much so that when the chair ruled the motion passed, a recount was called, as many couldn’t believe the outcome.

“We should take a decision that is in our nation’s interest, a decision about strengthening our strategic partnership with India in this, the Asian century. It’s good for trade, it’s good for jobs, it’s good for the nation,” she said, adding it was not rational that Australia should sell uranium to China but not India.

The move paves the way for talks on a bilateral nuclear safeguards agreement and resolves an issue that has strained diplomatic ties between the two nations.

Foreign minister Kevin Rudd didn’t speak on the issue, but he had earlier warned that a policy change wouldn’t automatically translate into a beginning of sales. Rudd had reversed former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to export uranium to India to meet its civilian energy needs, when he succeeded Howard as prime minister in November 2007.

Tim Wright, Australian director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told Business Standard, “Australia cannot lawfully sell uranium to India unless India agrees to open up all of its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. India is highly unlikely to agree to that, meaning that trade cannot go ahead.”

Welcoming the decision, the Australian Uranium Association’s chief executive officer, Michael Angwin, said he did not expect sales to India would commence quickly. Australia could expect to sell around 2,500 tonnes a year to India by 2030, which on current values would generate around A$300 million. However, sales of this value were by no means guaranteed. “India already has access to uranium from countries who are competitors of ours, such as Kazakhstan. Australia will have to work hard to ensure we can compete with countries that already have uranium trading relationships with India,” Angwin said.

Australia has no nuclear power stations but has almost 40 per cent of the world’s known uranium reserves. It supplies 19 per cent of the world market. Canberra has forecast uranium exports to rise from around 10,000 tonnes a year to 14,000 tonnes in 2014, worth around A$1.7 billion. Australia currently exports uranium to China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.

Sub-Continent Friends of Labor chairperson, Harish Velji told Business Standard, “It is a great victory for common sense. The safeguards agreement shouldn’t be difficult to achieve and the process should be fairly quick and fast.” The group, with 100 members and 800 supporters, had been actively campaigning since 2007 and putting lot of pressure on Gillard in the past year to overturn the ban.

United India Association president Amarinder Bajwa said, “We are proud to be part of the historic achievement on Sunday. UIA has been urging and lobbying for the sale of uranium to India at all the levels of government.”

“Australia sees India as an important counter-weight to growing Chinese influence and a way of diversifying Australian export markets. Lifting the ban won’t be a magic bullet to achieve these goals, but is an important step in that direction,” Nick Bisley, professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University told Business Standard.

The decision will help hasten the free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations between the two countries and should encourage Indian companies to invest in Australian uranium mines.

As Toro Energy’s managing director, Greg Hall, said, “The biggest impact will be willingness of Indian companies to invest in new Australian uranium projects, much as Japan, China, Canada, etc, have done, in exchange for offtake agreements.”

The party’s vote to amend an executive policy does not need parliamentary approval. In what was a passionate and, at times, heated debate, nine delegates spoke against the motion, receiving a standing ovation. Seven spoke in favour, amidst jeers from protesters in the gallery, opposed to uranium mining and exports.

While defence minister Stephen Smith, resources minister Martin Ferguson and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill spoke of India as a ‘close friend’ which deserves to be respected as a growing superpower and its citizens shouldn’t be denied access to clean energy.

Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes called the NPT a “dead-letter treaty” which had failed to stop nuclear proliferation.

However, ministers Stephen Conroy and Peter Garrett vehemently opposed the move, on the grounds that it was too dangerous to sell uranium to India, which is not a signatory to NPT, and it would undermine support for multilateral agreements. Conroy, minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, was almost in tears as he spoke about his family’s experiences living near a nuclear plant in Cumbria (UK) and said, “I’ve never voted for it, and I’m not going to vote for it today”.

In an emotional plea, former anti-nuclear campaigner and rock singer Garrett said, “Labor has a great disarmament tradition, that’s why I’m here. Where is our commitment to a nuclear-free future?”

Minister for transport and infrastructure Anthony Albanese said, “The disaster at Fukushima has resulted in Germany, Switzerland and Italy winding back their commitment to the nuclear fuel cycle. Under those circumstances, it is absurd we are expanding ours. Until we have resolved the issues of nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste we should not change our platform to further expand our commitment to the nuclear fuel cycle,” he added.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.comcontent is expressly prohibited without the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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