Former safeguards office director John Carlson attacks Australia-India uranium agreement

Two articles below by John Carlson, a Fellow at the Lowy Institute who was Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office from 1989 to 2010.

Carlson's insights make for a sharp contrast with the disgraceful, dangerous propaganda peddled by Lowy Institute staffer Rory Medcalf.

Update - Nov 2014: to read Mr Carlson's submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties click here. Other submissions are posted at

Is the Abbott Government abandoning Australia’s nuclear safeguards standards for India?

John Carlson, 1 October 2014

The signing last month of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between Australia and India has been greeted as an important step towards closer relations between the two countries, as well as bringing India into the global nuclear energy mainstream. These are worthy objectives, but not at any cost. 

Now that the text of the agreement has been quietly made public, some substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions are evident. These suggest, disturbingly, that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India.

In this post I will explain what is wrong with the Australia-India nuclear cooperation agreement and why it appears that the Abbott Government may be abandoning Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements for India. In a subsequent post I will explain what can and should be done about it.

Negotiations for the agreement began under the Gillard Government in 2012, after Labor came around to an in-principle acceptance of uranium exports to India provided they were properly safeguarded. This was always going to be contentious, primarily because of Australia's longstanding policy against supplying uranium to countries outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

It is short-sighted and self-defeating to make the agreement even more contentious by compromising Australia's safeguards standards. This will jeopardise bipartisan support for the agreement, raising the prospect of future governments suspending exports under it. It will also expose the agreement to potential legal challenge under the 1987 Safeguards Act, and it risks re-opening the wider uranium debate in Australia. None of this is in the interests of the Australian or Indian governments or of the nuclear industry in either country.

Two documents are critically important here. First, let's look more closely at the agreement itself. It departs in the following ways from Australia's standard requirements on countries receiving our uranium:

Consent to reprocessing – reprocessing, involving separation of plutonium from spent fuel, is the most sensitive stage of the nuclear fuel cycle. To date Australia's consent to reprocessing has been limited to the EU and Japan, and has been given on what is called a programmatic basis, i.e. Australia has approved the specific 'downstream' facilities using separated plutonium and the purposes involved. In this agreement, however, Australia has effectively given consent in advance for India to reprocess in accordance with an 'arrangements and procedures' document India concluded with the US in 2010. This covers safeguards at two reprocessing plants which India plans to build, but includes only a vague reference to management of plutonium, and nothing corresponding to programmatic consent;

Right of return – Australia's standard conditions include a right for Australia to require the return of material and items if there is a breach of an agreement. This agreement contains no such provision;

Fallback safeguards – Australia's standard condition is that, if for any reason IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards cease to apply, the parties are to establish safeguards arrangements that conform with IAEA safeguards principles and procedures and provide equivalent assurance. This agreement requires only that the parties consult and agree on 'appropriate verification measures', a vague term readily open to differing interpretations;

Settlement of disputes – Australia's standard requirement is for negotiation, backed by an arbitration process. This agreement refers only to negotiation, with no mechanism for resolving deadlock.

Even more consequential than the agreement itself may be a second, follow-on text that the public may never get to see, a so-called 'administrative arrangement' which sets out the working procedures for the agreement. Officials are presumably working on this at present. The key question here is, will this administrative arrangement enable Australia to track and account for the nuclear material that is subject to the agreement with India?

The administrative arrangement should set out detailed procedures for identifying and accounting for the specific nuclear material to which the agreement applies. This includes not only the initially-supplied Australian uranium, but all subsequent generations of material derived from it, especially plutonium. If it is not possible to apply the agreement's provisions to specific material, the agreement will be meaningless. 

To be effective, these procedures need to include a requirement for regular reports to Australia showing the flow of material under the agreement through the nuclear fuel cycle in India. Australia needs to be able to track and account for this 'Australian-obligated nuclear material'. This is both a proper public expectation and a legal requirement under section 51 of the Safeguards Act.

Bipartisan support for, and public acceptance of, uranium exports is based on the assurance that Australia is able to track our material and determine that our conditions are being met. Australia's safeguards requirements were developed by the Fraser Government, are in line with international standards, and have been applied under all our safeguards agreements ever since – today we have 22 agreements covering 40 countries. 

Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. The same issue has arisen under India's arrangements with the US and Canada. In response, Washington has held firm: the US-India administrative arrangement has been outstanding for several years; reportedly the US is insisting on receiving tracking information and India is refusing.

In the case of Canada, the Harper Government gave in to India, an outcome described as the 'meltdown of Canadian non-proliferation policy'. The Canadian Government refuses to reveal the details of its arrangement. If Australia follows Canada down this path, it will put the wrong kind of pressure on the US, the EU and Japan in their own dealings with India.

Apparently India considers that its acceptance of IAEA safeguards should be good enough. But India's refusal to provide reports on Australian supplied material calls into question whether India will in fact identify and account for this material, as required by the agreement. If India will account for this material, the additional effort in providing reports to Australia should cause India no problem. However if it will not account for the material, India will be in breach of the agreement.

Why is India being so difficult on this issue? India has an expanding nuclear weapon program. It has not fully separated its military and civilian nuclear programs and some facilities are still dual-purpose. India's safeguards agreement with the IAEA does not impose the same restrictions as bilateral agreements in areas such as reprocessing, higher enrichment, retransfers to third countries, research and development or the production of tritium (which has uses in nuclear weapons). 

If India succeeds in delinking foreign-obligated nuclear material from individual bilateral agreements, making it impossible to identify which batch of material is covered by which agreement, then India could work a 'pea and thimble' trick in which no supplier could tell whether their material was being used contrary to bilateral conditions. The mere possibility of this is sufficient to call into question India's commitment to observing bilateral agreements. 

Without proper reporting, Australia has no way of knowing whether India is in reality meeting its obligations to identify and account for all the material that is subject to the agreement, and to apply Australia's safeguards conditions to this material. It is not good enough to simply say that we trust India because it has an 'impeccable' non-proliferation record (and India's record in any case is not 'impeccable').The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. They have long applied to close and trusted partners such as the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea. There is absolutely no case to waive them for India.

John Carlson AM is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and its predecessor the Australian Safeguards Office from 1989 to 2010.

Australia-India nuclear deal: The need for full parliamentary scrutiny

John Carlson, 1 October 2014

In a previous post, I pointed out how the Australia-India nuclear cooperation agreement departs from Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements. In particular, there is a risk that the follow-on 'administrative arrangement' could deprive Australia of the ability to track and account for Australian uranium supplied to India.

It is not too late to address this problem in a way that ensures the agreement is meaningful and can command bipartisan support in Australia. There will be a crucial role here for the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), which will have the opportunity to scrutinise the agreement and to ask the necessary and difficult questions about the administrative arrangement.

Here there are two practical issues: the administrative arrangement has not yet, as far as we know, been negotiated, so it will not be available when JSCOT commences its review of the agreement; and in any case it is the usual practice to treat administrative arrangements as being confidential.

The Abbott Government should proceed no further with the agreement unless it can give an assurance that all of Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements will be met. Of course, the Government may try to dismiss any discussion of the administrative arrangement as being merely speculation. The problem is that, in considering the potential impact of such a confidential document, the public and the Parliament may never know the facts. Yet, a way needs to be found to ensure that a confidential document does not negate the effective operation of a treaty-level agreement. 

Therefore, when the agreement is brought to JSCOT for review, the Committee should insist on examining the terms of the proposed administrative arrangement. If necessary, given the sensitivities, this can be done in a closed session. The key question for JSCOT will be whether the terms of the administrative arrangement will enable Australia to confirm that its safeguards conditions are fully met and that Australian uranium and other nuclear material subject to the India agreement is properly accounted for. 

This may take some time. The Committee may need to withhold its final conclusions on the agreement until the text of the administrative arrangement is available. It would help if the Government were to make the text publicly available.

Both major parties in Australian politics now support the principle that Australia should be able to sell uranium to India to help it meet its energy needs, subject to proper safeguards. However, a nuclear agreement with India should be on the same conditions Australia applies to our other partners, not terms dictated by India. 

Even some supporters of closer Australia-India ties have made the point that safeguards should discriminate neither against India nor for it. Australia has demonstrated good faith to India by reversing our longstanding policy with respect to the NPT and signing a civil nuclear agreement. It is up to India to demonstrate good faith by accepting the same safeguards arrangements as all our other nuclear partners.

John Carlson AM is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and its predecessor the Australian Safeguards Office from 1989 to 2010.

Australia's uranium agreement with India under attack

Jim Green, Online Opinion, 8 Oct 2014

The federal government's plan to permit uranium sales to India has been subjected to a strong critique by the former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO), John Carlson.

Others to have raised concerns include former Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt, and Ron Walker, former Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. But Carlson's critique carries particular weight given his 21 years experience as the head of Australia's safeguards office.

Carlson notes that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed by Australia and India in September contains "substantial departures from Australia's current safeguards conditions" which suggest "that Australia may be unable to keep track of what happens to uranium supplied to India."

Carlson writes: "Disturbingly, it is reported that Indian officials will not provide Australia with reports accounting for material under the agreement, and that the Abbott Government seems prepared to waive this requirement for India. ... The reporting procedures are not optional; they are fundamental to Australia's ability to confirm that our safeguards conditions are being met. They have long applied to close and trusted partners such as the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea. There is absolutely no case to waive them for India."

The failure to provide regular reports "will also expose the agreement to potential legal challenge under the 1987 Safeguards Act", Carlson writes. (Another problem, not mentioned, is that nuclear material could be diverted and reports falsified. There is little likelihood that the falsification of reports would be detected.)

Carlson notes that provisions for 'fallback safeguards' in the event of IAEA safeguards ceasing to apply are vague and open to differing interpretations.

There are many concerns other than those noted by Carlson. The IAEA−India safeguards agreement is on the public record, if only because it was leaked, and it is clear from the agreement that safeguards inspections are few and far between. A leaked IAEA document states that the IAEA "will not mechanistically or systematically seek to verify" information obtained from India.

Underpinning this entire debate is an infuriating secrecy. For example, it seems reasonable that we should be able to find out how often IAEA safeguards inspections are carried out in India, which facilities have been inspected, and whether any accounting discrepancies were detected. But national governments refuse to supply that information and the IAEA itself only releases aggregate information on the number of inspections carried out across three countries − India, Pakistan and Israel.

Carlson notes that the 'administrative arrangement' which will append the nuclear cooperation agreement may be "even more consequential than the agreement itself" as it sets out the working procedures for the agreement. But the Australian public will never get to see the administrative arrangement. And the Australian public will never be able to find out any information about the separation and stockpiling of weapons-useable plutonium in India; or nuclear accounting discrepancies ('Material Unaccounted For'); or even the quantity of Australian uranium (and its by-products) held in India.

Even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create an intractable problem: uranium exports freeing up India's domestic reserves for weapons production. K. Subrahmanyam, former head of the India's National Security Advisory Board, has said that: "Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our minimum credible nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production."

And even if strict safeguards were in place, uranium sales to India would create another intractable problem: we are setting a poor precedent by selling uranium to a country that is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities, and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Ron Walker, former Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors, wrote in a 2007 paper: "India is a democracy and yes we want to be in their good books, but that is no reason to drop our principles and our interests. To make an exception for them would be crass cronyism. If you make exceptions to your rules for your mates, you weaken your ability to apply them to everyone else. How could we be harder on Japan and South Korea if they acquired nuclear weapons? Could we say Israel is less of a mate than India?"

US-led efforts to open up international nuclear trade with India have already weakened the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime − for example, it has encouraged China to openly and actively support the nuclear program of Pakistan, another nuclear weapons state that has not signed the NPT or the CTBT.

India's Public Accounts Committee said in a report last year that the country's nuclear safety regime is "fraught with grave risks" and that the nuclear regulator is weak and under-resourced. In 2012, India's Auditor-General found that 60 per cent of safety inspections for operating nuclear power plants were either delayed or not undertaken at all.

The pay-off for going down this dangerous path will be negligible. Claims of mega-profits from uranium exports to India ignore readily-available facts. According to the World Nuclear Association, India's uranium demand this year will amount to just 913 tonnes – just 1.4 per cent of world demand. If Australia supplies 20 per cent of that demand, uranium export revenue will increase by 3 per cent.

Likewise, claims that the nuclear cooperation agreement will indirectly boost bilateral trade by fostering trust and goodwill ignore readily-available facts. Bilateral trade grew from $3.3 billion at the turn of the century to more than $20 billion in 2011, despite Australia's ban on uranium exports to India and other countries that have not signed the NPT. Since the uranium policy was overturned in 2011, bilateral trade has gone backwards and now stands at $15 billion.

The nuclear cooperation agreement will be scrutinised by federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. The Committee may rubber-stamp the agreement, but that is not certain. The Committee rejected a similar agreement to sell uranium to Russia when it learnt that IAEA safeguards inspections in Russia are nearly non-existent. The Committee said it is "essential that actual physical inspection by the IAEA occurs at any Russian sites that may handle" Australian uranium and that uranium exports "should be contingent upon such inspections being carried out." That doesn't seem much to ask yet the Labor government − with Coalition support − ignored the Committee's recommendations.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.