India to Buy Uranium from Australia

Australia's ruling Labor Party has voted to reverse a decades-old ban on uranium sale to India -- just at a time when anti-nuclear feeling is rising fast across India in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima earthquake nuclear disaster last March.

Backing the move to enable the two countries to trade in the crucial nuclear fuel, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said “it was not rational to sell uranium to China but not India, the world's largest democracy.”

In a statement India’s foreign minister S M Krishna welcomed the decision as well. Canberra has refused to supply uranium to India as it is a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite the prospects of losing out a huge multi-billion dollar market.

Australia, the world’s third largest uranium producer, sells atomic fuel to China, Japan, Taiwan and the United States. However, Australia has balked despite blandishments from Delhi that India has a record as a “responsible nation” despite being outside the NPT.

India strongly believes that the nonproliferation treaty is skewed in favor of nations that already possess nuclear weapons.

Explaining his country’s changed stand, Australia’s defense minister Stephen Smith, on a visit to India last week, highlighted India’s civil nuclear agreement with the US in 2005, which was approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“That effectively gives you the same protections that you get if a country signs the NPT which, of course, has been the stumbling block for many years as far as India is concerned,” said Smith. A framework for uranium supplies from Australia will now be worked out over the next year.

Given its big electricity needs, India has plans to raise nuclear power from the current 3 percent generated to 25 percent by 2050. By 2032 India’s nuclear power capacity has been targeted at 63,000 MW from the current 4,500MW.

India has found support for its atomic plans internationally, with the US, France and Russia, in particular looking to tap into a major business opportunity in the nuclear industry. India has meanwhile also signed civil nuclear deals with Namibia, Mongolia, Canada, Angola, Kazakhstan, South Korea and the European Atomic Energy Community.

Japan, the only country against which an atomic bomb has been used, is the only country that has refused to sign a civil atomic deal with India, for reasons similar to Australia’s. It has thus been reluctant about dealing with non-NPT signatory India on nuclear matters.

There were signs earlier this year that Tokyo too is backing away from its adamant stand and would agree to trade in nuclear reactors with India. However, progress has slowed following the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, raising questions about nuclear safety. The two countries, meanwhile, continue to negotiate. Most observers believe that an atomic deal with checks and safeguards will be signed between India and Japan. It is a matter of time.

Rising public concern threatens plans

However, India’s political leadership also needs to convince its own people about the efficacy of atomic power as a clean and safe source of power, especially in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima crisis. Both former Japanese prime ministers, Naoto Kan and his successor, Yashihiko Nodo, have declared moratoriums on the use of nuclear power and Germany has indicated it could follow suit. Energy experts are now taking a hard look at the long-term impact of the disaster on nuclear policy acrossthe world.

Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s nuclear energy push, has repeatedly assured voters over the last few months that all safety measures will be implemented, many are not buying his arguments. A lame-duck leader if he survives, he leads a party that has suffered through a long series of debilitating corruption scandals. He suffered a big blow last month when the government agreed to allow multinational big-box retailers into the country, only to turn tail when outraged domestic retailers besieged the national ruling coalition.

After the Fukushima crisis, local citizens at Jaitapur in Maharashtra and states such as Tamil Nadu and Haryana with major atomic installations in the pipeline have reversed themselves and are now vehemently opposing nuclear plants.

Meanwhile, the state government of West Bengal has refused permission to allow siting a proposed 6000 MW facility near the town of Haripur that was intended to host six Russian reactors. The concerns are about safety, adequate long-term compensation for land acquisition and ensuring rehabilitation in the event of a nuclear accident.

Further complicating matters, public interest litigation has been filed against the government’s civil nuclear program at the Supreme Court. The litigation specifically asks for the “staying of all proposed nuclear power plants till satisfactory safety measures and cost-benefit analyses are completed by independent agencies.”

Concerned about the mounting protests in India, last month France assured the most stringent standards at Jaitapur, where a 9900MW French-backed mega atomic park is planned. In a high-level interaction between the two countries that focused on the nuclear issue, among others, French minister of foreign affairs Alain Juppe assured his Indian counterpart S M Krishna about the safety of nuclear plants. France’s Areva is in the initial stages of building the first two 1650 MW reactors in Jaitapur.

“India and France share the view that nuclear energy is a vital source of power provided we develop the highest levels of safety rules,” Juppe said, adding, “we are working on this issue at the international level with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and at national level.”

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, France has launched stress tests on all its nuclear installations and awaits a new official blueprint on nuclear safety.

New Delhi, meanwhile, has been holding steadfast about its atomic energy plans. Reiterating its backing for the Jaitapur complex, Krishna said: “We are awaiting the completion of the French Review of Safety Aspects of European Pressurized Reactor Design. Both sides are committed to ensuring the highest levels of safety in the project.”