Published on Wednesday February 16 2011
THE Australian Labor Party needs to modernize its policy and allow uranium to be exported to India, federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson says.
In frank public comments setting up a landmark debate at the party's national conference due later this year, Mr Ferguson said Labor's current uranium sales policy needed to allow ''flexibility and discretion'' when it came to India.
Mr Ferguson told The Age yesterday he was not proposing Labor dump its blanket ban on uranium exports to countries outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but he urged the party to recognise India's ''very, very good history of nuclear non-proliferation''.
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''No one can suggest India is a rogue state,'' Mr Ferguson said. ''I think this is something the Labor Party has to think about: there should be some flexibility or discretion built into the national policy that enables Australia to handle the delicate situation of India while at the same time forcing full accountability in the use of uranium in civilian power plants.
''I accept [that our refusal to export uranium] is a major concern in an otherwise close strategic relationship between Australia and India.''
Any future uranium sales to India would be accompanied by a bilateral safeguards agreement such as the one Australia negotiated with China in 2007, and Australia would want inspections on the ground.
Mr Ferguson's comments come after The Age last week published a secret diplomatic cable, supplied by WikiLeaks, revealing he had told US embassy officials that despite the current ban, a nuclear fuel deal with India could be sealed in the next three to five years.
His decision to publicly endorse a policy shift comes on the eve of an expected move today by the influential right-wing Australian Workers' Union to pass a resolution supporting an expansion of uranium mining and endorsing a debate about nuclear power.
AWU national secretary Paul Howes has publicly supported nuclear energy. Former New South Wales Labor premier Bob Carr also believes the party needs to debate the issue.
Mr Ferguson's emphatic support for uranium sales to India is deeply contentious in some quarters of the ALP, but his position is also supported in principle by senior members of the Gillard ministry on both sides of the factional divide.
Mr Ferguson endorsed the AWU position yesterday but was cool on the idea of a domestic debate this year about nuclear energy, saying the issue was ''not top of the mind at the moment''.
The US has a safeguards agreement allowing uranium and nuclear technology to be exported to the subcontinent provided India allows some of its power plants to be opened to international inspectors.
The Howard government proposed a change to Australia's foreign policy that would have allowed yellowcake sales to India under a safeguards agreement similar to the American deal. The US strongly supported such a move by Australia both for foreign policy and energy security reasons.
But the Rudd government stopped the process after the election in 2007, despite several senior ministers being privately supportive of uranium sales to India.
Mr Ferguson is not seeking to overturn Labor's current policy to allow the export of uranium only to those countries which observe the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), are committed to non-proliferation policies, have ratified international and bilateral nuclear safeguards agreements and maintain strict safeguards and security controls over their nuclear power industries. Rather, he is seeking the capacity to assess the issue case by case.
His decision to advocate publicly for change will enrage the Greens, who strongly oppose an expansion of the uranium and nuclear industries.
But the opposition has advocated uranium sales to India - making this one of the few current policy issues on which the government could expect bipartisan support.